Sharing or selling? Creating a business culture of kindness

Do unto othersLast Friday, I overcame my objections and sent a group email to my contacts. I had a situation that I needed help with. In a few weeks we are going to host the 3-day international workshop on culture, leadership and change.

The first step in organizing such an international event is making reservations at the venue and next, doing marketing and promotion to find participants.
Lots of enthusiastic people signed up.

We sent them an invoice - and one third of the subscribers opted out. Some sent me an email explaining that their boss had planned an important meeting on the workshop dates, others never responded anymore to any email. I think we hit our first cultural differences here - because there was a pattern in the countries the payers and non-payers came from. In some regions, subscriptions may be seen as optional, expressing an intent but not a commitment.

The others paid their invoices and we reserved their rooms at the venue, happily continuing to promote and further develop the workshop - with great exercises and cases...
Until the last 8 weeks before the workshop. Unfortunate luck struck some of our participants. Someone was diagnosed with cancer. Another got fired. The third had serious family issues. Someone was denied a visa to access the Netherlands (an incomprehensible decision by our Embassy). It was force majeure and we wished them the best - scratching our heads about where to find new students on such short notice.

We counted on the others to show up - but suddenly, some people started to retreat for other reasons than force majeure. While half of the participants had booked their flights months ago and all of the rooms were reserved, some people simply sent an email telling they had changed their minds and they would like a refund of the workshop fee. “Something came up...” “Terribly sorry but a shift in priorities occurred”.

Wow. We assumed that those who paid would be serious about their commitment and they’d understand that other people were planning for the dates, the flights, the rooms and the right diversity of participants to create a wonderful workshop experience....

I am surprised, to say the least. How come that people act this way? Is it hard to commit to long-standing appointments? Were they too busy and forgot about their enrollment? Is it indifference? Is it a mind-set like: I do as I please...?

Share, don’t sell

So here I was, looking for more participants on a Friday morning. I was looking for help and decided to ask for it. Though I had my objections. I am bombarded myself with unsolicited emails - mostly spam; people trying to sell me something. I don’t like to be a target to sell things to, when I’m privately connecting with acquaintances on Facebook. I don’t like to be a selling target at all - everyone asks me to buy their stuff.

So I decided to share my problem. I didn’t send the usual group email: “Here’s a great offer - buy my stuff” - I did it slightly different. I was honest about how I felt as a human being. I shared that I needed some more workshop participants. I apologized about annoying anyone. I shared that I felt awkward about these kind of emails myself. I offered - and honestly meant it - to give them help in return.

The fun thing was that the next 72 hours, I was swamped with emails. Many people said they would forward the message to friends, others simply said they were sorry for me and wished me luck, some people assured me they were not offended, while others suggested tips how to prevent this situation for next time. Being honest and open, presenting myself as a person with a problem, clearly stirred some reactions.

Even though it did not (yet..:) result in new subscriptions to the workshop, it gave me a feeling of connection and support. It felt great to work together on the problem and I wasn’t sorry that I had bothered them with an email.

Social versus business norms

So here’s the thing. Don’t use this as a marketing trick next time you need to sell something. But if you share who you are and what you need and connect with others, magic might happen. People have a social drive to help others. It is a pleasure for both giver and receiver - who both feel good about it. In this social field, we like to do things for one another and say thank you - not expecting an immediate favor in return. But as soon as money is involved, we enter the business field and other values and norms apply.

Dan Ariely described this in Chapter 4 of his book “Predictably Irrational: the hidden forces that shape our decisions.” In the business field, we want immediate returns and we think business-like and rational: it’s not about kindness or being human, but about exchanging value for money. Period.

Social norms and market norms represent separate worlds. If you would pay your mother-in-law because she cooked such a great dinner, she would be offended and hurt. If you’d expect your consulting client to invite you to a private party - that would be crossing a line.

Research shows that social norms are overruled by market norms. As soon as market norms prevail, social relationships deteriorate. For instance, a day care center struggled with parents fetching their kids too late at the end of the day. If they were late, parents felt guilty toward the caregivers - they had a social contract. When they introduced a money fine for being late - the parents no longer felt quilt because they paid for it. Introducing the fine made things worse... being late was now simply a business transaction - no need to be sorry...

Our relations are intricate and interesting. Brands like to present themselves as our friends -especially on Facebook. Friends try to sell us stuff - because they’ve started a garage shop or another venture as a self-employed small business owner.

However mixed-up and awkward this may be sometimes, I would like to introduce some social norms to our business relations. I think this is the way successful organizations are headed: treating their employees and customers as human beings, not as numbers, production capital (human resources) or wallets to tap into. Caring for people, because you care. Not because it’s the best strategy toward engagement, high performance or happier sales.

Care for people, because they’re human

Care for people, because they’re people. To me this means, for instance: responding to email - even if you decided not to buy my stuff after you requested information. Just let me know your decision, even if it is without a reason. This appreciates me as a person - who is curious about the project. Keep others updated. Say thank you. Understand others’ position - “I’m sorry for you”. Think ahead to prevent problems and anticipate situations. Empathize - think about the others - and cancel your workshop in time.

The customer, your consultant, your colleague, this student, that accountant - is a human being, too! Maybe they have a hard day - try to be mild.

Even though someone pays you, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t treat you with respect. They can’t order you around or bully you, because they paid you. Apply the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Use Otto Scharmer’s third level of listening: empathic listening. Don’t stay autistically inside your own head, don’t be factual, object-focused (treating the other as a thing that you can use), but get out of that individualistic, self-serving, competitive mind-set and step into their shoes and see and feel the world from their viewpoint. Connect. Share and see what you share (instead of emphasizing what’s different). Collaborate, not compete. Etcetera. You get the point (you may also check my earlier blog about inclusive dialogue).

It is so simple, really. I think there’s a growing flow of kindness, already. In great workplaces, among professionals who work together, in networks of people who share ideas and suggestions and in my contact list where so many people responded so kindly when I showed my human side :)

Let’s see more of this! Let’s share and adhere to social norms - while we make some money.

Last but not least - I look forward to your responses... How’s this for you? What I’m curious about: can you be yourself at work? A complete human being?

OCAI Home | contact