Creating More Empathetic, Human-Focused Companies

The following post is an answer to a question recently asked in my Quora Session: “How can we create more empathetic, human-focused tech companies?” To read all of my answers, visit the session here.

This is not an overnight process but it can be done. Leaders like Satya Nadella at Microsoft have demonstrated that not only is it possible, it actually is good for business.

It starts with the mission, vision, and values tech companies claim. Tellingly, none of the tech companies I know (public or private) explicitly use the word “human” or “humanity” in their mission. While admittedly it would be more symbolic than practical, it would also be a constant reminder that, ultimately, they aspire to work for the benefit of humanity.

Beyond this there are practical steps mainly focused on people and processes.

On the people side, the CEOs have a huge role to play. The tech world, probably more than any other industry, has developed deep veneration, bordering on cult-like worship, for founders and CEOs, often seen as visionary prophets guiding humanity toward a future that few can see. As a result, we can begin with a top-down approach and start with CEOs and other leaders to build more empathetic, human-centric companies. Here are a few things that CEOs can do:

  • Believe that they actually need to be more empathetic. Without this conviction, trying to make their companies more empathetic is a fruitless exercise in navel gazing.
  • Hire an executive coach focused on helping them develop their empathy skills.
  • Make it a personal goal to build a critical mass of empathetic people, starting with their immediate teams.
  • Ensure that performance is measured both on achieved results and behavior. CEOs should ensure that top achievers who don’t exhibit empathy despite repeated feedback and coaching, are ultimately let go.
  • Build empathy into core processes.
  • Stop delegating empathy to other people and be on the frontline of difficult debates about trade-offs that the company inevitably needs to make and how they affect employees, customers, communities and other stakeholders.
  • Empathy starts with not just listening, but actually hearing other people’s opinions and responding to them. One of the best ways to do that, is for CEOs to answer all tough “people questions” during All Hands meetings rather than assign them to HR.

I talk in my book, Trampled by Unicorns, about what other parts of the organization (HR, employees) can do.

On the process side, it starts with systematically reviewing how decisions are being made at all levels of the organization; from how you hire people, to how you decide the allocation of resources (time, teams, money), how you treat your partners/suppliers and what tests a new feature needs to successfully pass before being released. Right now most processes at most tech companies are focused (and measured) on short-term financial and web/app performance targets (think “conversion rate”, “frequency”, “AOV”, etc…) rather than long-term value-based human-centered metrics.

To be clear: I’m not advocating for tech businesses to become NGO. I just believe that if you want to create a long-term sustainable healthy business (tech or not) that positively impacts society or at least limits its negative impact on society, you need to think exhaustively about everything you do and measure progress accordingly. If tech companies don’t do this sooner rather than later, regulation will follow.

We Don’t Need Less Tech, We Need More #EmpatheticTech

A tech executive’s revealing and in-depth examination of Big Tech’s failure to keep its foundational promises and the steps the industry can take to course-correct in order to make a positive impact on the world. Available Now.

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