When business ‘efficiency’ costs us our human compassion – Oscar Foulkes

CAPE TOWN — Businesses that take care of their staff and customers in all their complex emotional glory, tend to thrive. It’s taken since the Industrial Revolution for us to realise that keeping shareholders happy involves more than output, mark-ups and ensuring everyone clocks in on time. Global tech companies have added playrooms to provide some vital enjoyment and human connection for their staff. In South Africa soft skills development that include empathic listening, care and consideration is a growing market. Life skills coaches are doing a roaring business and every second budding executive is adding one to their gym and golfing club memberships. Here Oscar Foulkes reminds us of just how essential this approach is – and how much more needs to be done before it becomes the norm. In the medical field, it’s been clinically proven that doctors with high empathic scores heal their patients quicker. Chairperson of the Mindfulness Institute of South Africa and medical psychotherapist, Dr Simon Whitesman, has made it his life’s work to help people integrate their work and personal selves. Just ask our ailing “Arch” (Bishop Tutu) about Ubuntu and crossing the bridge to hear the so-called “other.” Healing our artificial separateness makes sense all round. – Chris Bateman

By Oscar Foulkes*

A couple of years ago I was subjected to a six-week course of radiotherapy for laryngeal cancer (I’m fine, thanks, I just don’t sound so good). Treatment, if you can call it that, involved daily visits to have my throat area blasted with toxic levels of radiation while a custom-made mask held me immobile on a hard surface. The nurses’ choice of music was like Russian roulette; on one particularly bad day I was subjected to half an hour of Celine Dion. I haven’t yet made up my mind which was worse, the radiation or the theoretically palliative music.

I also had weekly appointments with a medical officer, mainly to check that I wasn’t losing too much weight. When I reached the end of the six weeks, with a raw throat, scabbed neck, and unable to consume anything other than morphine or soup (preferably in that order), they effectively said: “Cheers, we’ll see you again in six weeks.”

Well, I carried on losing weight, I felt terrible, and most importantly, my emotional state was similar to my physical condition.

Technically, the job had been done. However, the human dimension had been neglected. Similarly, pink Elastoplast satisfies all technical requirements, except for the important human consideration that it matches just one skin tone.

The world of healthcare seems like low-hanging fruit for this kind of thing, but to a greater or lesser degree the same lack of consideration for humanness is prevalent in pretty much every industry one can think of.

Macro themes demonstrate a major shift in the degree of activism that people are willing to deploy, as they demand to be heard, and to be seen.

Whether it’s the plastic straw campaign, or #metoo, or Trump or Brexit, people want their issues to be taken seriously – and they have a variety of media to broadcast their messages.

Viewed differently, humanness is expressed through the principle of Ubuntu, or simple practices such as kindness and compassion.

It is my view that the human experience delivered by businesses represents as great a risk as the obvious ones (i.e. finance or health & safety). And, in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the human dimension may be as important to employees – whether current or prospective – as remuneration.

To a much greater degree than ever before, businesses are being judged on quality of product or service, as well as perceived value, environmental sustainability, and supply chain ethics as well as ‘soft’ issues that may seem intangible. In a post-truth world,
feelings are more important than facts.

For all the apparent refinement of high-level numbers on which investment professionals make their decisions, there is a large degree of “messiness” in business.

This reality plays out in behavioural economics, which we now know has greater practical application than classical economic theory.

I can understand why the human dimension might not get the attention it deserves. Binary answers to the questions are rare (assuming one even has the questions), and successful interventions may involve randomised trials. This is not necessarily a linear route.

Practically, considerations of humanness play out in product development, communication, point of sale experience, marketing, events and more. Barely noticeable, often intangible factors can have a major impact.

It’s time we set a higher bar for ourselves than simply satisfying the obvious benchmarks.

  • In “joining the dots backwards”, through 30-odd years of working in various industries, Oscar Foulkes has identified a personal pattern of customer experience being a constant feature. A pivot at 50-something has seen him expand this into Hx, a service that assists businesses in shaping human experience. Twitter: @oscarfoulkes.
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