“Once upon a time, organizations were made up of people. Today they consist of data.”

So begins a new article from the Harvard Business Review exploring the dehumanising effect of people data on an organisation and calling attention to the risks posed when people are defined by data.

As HBR notes, the widespread use of people data tends to create a one-size-fits-all workforce approach, which effectively ignores personal preferences, generational differences, and hot-button DEI issues. And, as we all know, with employee mobility at an all-time high, people have more options than ever.

In fact, I would argue that the seismic shifts we’re observing in employees’ priorities (e.g. intense focus on mental health, personal life, flexible and remote work, and job satisfaction), as well as their behaviour (the Great Resignation, and the number of people switching industries and careers, or dropping out entirely), are “we’re not going to take it anymore” responses to being treated like objects, not humans.

I’m not suggesting you give up your people data, not for a second, but I would suggest that leaders challenge themselves and the keepers of their organisations’ people data to spend some time considering whether the data strategy in any way reflects the health of the company culture, describes the morale of the team, and helps leaders understand what employees are thinking and feeling. These things all matter, because if you understand how people feel, you will understand why they behave as they do – why they call in sick, why they seem to resist direction, why they resign.

In short, consider whether the firm’s data strategy humanises your workforce, or if it instead reduces your employees – arguably your most valuable asset, the people who find new customers and care for the ones you have, who drive innovation and collect revenue, who plan for business continuity, and on whom your future success depends – to nameless cogs in a machine.

I realise this sounds bleak and many reading this are reasonably confident that their approach to people data isn’t reflected in this description. However, this is truly a moment requiring some introspection.

All is not well in our workplaces

Consider, for example, that a significant study by Gallup has found that employee engagement is in a slump, and not even a third of employees surveyed consider themselves engaged. That means more than 2/3 of employees are not engaged, and the news gets worse: of that sizeable majority, 17% are actively disengaged, meaning they are more likely to be value destroyers than creators.

Non-executive employees are not the only ones struggling. A survey of more than 6,000 people in the UK, Germany, Australia, and the US, including among them 500 chief executives, found that 83% of CEOs and 70% of employees report missing at least one day of work due to stress, burnout, and mental health challenges – and more than half of CEOs and 43% of employees missed a full week for the same reasons. Despite these incredibly sobering findings, in the same survey, 94% of CEOs responding believe they do enough to support workplace mental health.

I would argue that these CEOs are not only looking at the wrong data, they have lost sight of their people, and instead just see production numbers and blips on a chart. 

Make empathetic leadership a core strength 

I was encouraged when I read an article titled “Why is Your Boss Asking About Your Feelings?” in the Wall St. Journal recently, but it missed an important point about why leaders should pay attention to employees’ feelings. Instead of understanding “what makes people tick,” empathetic leaders should concentrate on how work is making people feel.

At its heart, empathy is strategic understanding that can inform better decisions. 

There’s a bright line between how employees feel about work–such as development opportunities, the culture, and their managers–and job performance, morale, and likelihood of staying in the role (or, for that matter, leaving.)

To improve employee retention and performance, leaders must make understanding how employees feel about their work, the workplace, their peers, and their managers a priority. Simply put, if people aren’t feeling good, that’s a sign for leaders that something needs to be done. As a leader, you ignore your employees’ feelings at your peril.

After all, when one understands how employees feel, one will understand the reasons for their behaviours – including job performance and why they quit. It’s for these reasons I’ve long believed that empathic leadership is foundational to success.

I’ve also been long baffled by the fact that empathetic leadership simply isn’t taught in business school. Just to keep myself honest, I just paused writing this to look at the curricula for the graduate business programmes at Harvard and Oxford. Empathetic leadership and frankly any courses of similar ilk are nowhere to be found. (There is plenty of emphasis on data and AI, however!)

How to re-humanise your workplace

Recapturing the human element for your workplace starts from the top and requires leaders to put employee considerations and experiences at the fore.

There are plenty of ways to assess and consider how your employees are at a reasonable degree of scale to be both efficient and effective, however, a change in mindset is often necessary as well.

Assume nothing when it comes to your employees’ thoughts, expectations, and feelings.

Basing decisions about your people upon assumptions isn’t just bad practice – it can be a strategic liability, especially when leaders are so good at missing the mark when it comes to guessing what employees are thinking about, what they expect of their employers, and what they want out of their jobs.

Decisions based on truth are always more likely to stick – especially when related to your employees. Policies and benefits that are aligned with peoples’ needs will be valued. Those that aren’t useful waste resources and worse become a proof point that leaders “don’t get it,” eroding the affinity and trust people have for their leaders.

Over the years I have often heard executives express concerns about the amount of time it takes to process employee feedback. To them, I ask:

  • How much does time does it cost to undo bad decisions?
  • How much time does the organisation lose when leaders and employees are misaligned and programmes fail?
  • How much time is lost when people leave the organisation because the employee experience isn’t in line with what they’re seeking?

Treat your people data as an indicator, not a fact.

When you see a trend in the data, ask why, instead of automatically accepting it and basing decisions upon it.

Here is an example.

Imagine a customer service team suddenly shows a decline in performance metrics. They are answering fewer calls, fewer cases are being closed, and wait times are increasing for customers who are calling in for help. 

An obvious action could be penalising the worst performers, and calling their managers onto the carpet. 

However, instead of accepting the data as a fact rather than an indicator, and asking “why” you create the opportunity to identify and resolve underlying issues, thereby making the organisation stronger and more resilient.

Create an employee feedback loop.

Develop an employee feedback loop and ensure feedback is shared and (when appropriate) acted upon. People are going to have questions and concerns. That is a fact. Whether or not you give your employees an outlet for their feedback and ideas is your decision.

Bear in mind that not having a voice or feeling heard makes people feel that management doesn’t care about them, and is a common driver of disengagement.

The feedback mechanism you provide employees must be, in effect, a safe space for them to share their thoughts, ideas, and opinions. It must be confidential, protecting employees’ anonymity.

I believe in using structured surveys consistently to measure employee engagement, delve into specific topics and invite their feedback. However, ideas and concerns won’t happen on any sort of schedule, which is why a means for employees to submit their feedback at any time is also important.

Leaders need to be coached on accepting employee feedback, and understand that the question to ask is always “Why does this person feel this way?” and never “Who said this?”

If you get it right, you create a conduit for constructive ideas and feedback that delivers huge value for the executive team, enables leaders to truly keep their finger on the pulse of the organsiation, and fosters transparency and trust between leaders and teams.

It is through the act of gathering employee feedback that leaders acquire a new and robust understanding of their people. That understanding, in turn, enables them to be empathetic leaders, understand the employees’ viewpoint, and consider it when they make decisions.

These three acts – setting one’s assumptions aside, committing to using people data as an indicator, not a fact, and prioritising the collection analysis and response to employee feedback – will enable executives to re-humanise the workplaces they lead.