Commentary: Humanizing data inspires connection and change

By S. Renee Smith

As a result of the pandemic, undeniable racial disparities and the economic downturn, 2020 has created a greater appetite for data. Many business leaders are focusing on making data-driven decisions that create a more inclusive and equitable workforce. As an expert in developing leaders, numbers don’t mean much to me unless there is a clear connection to the people they represent.

S. Renee Smith

In my role as RALIANCE’s chief corporate responsibility officer, humanizing data helps me to understand problems such as inequity, power dynamics and workplace cultures that oppress and traumatize individuals and groups of people, as well as how these issues disrupt families, communities and business growth. Helping business leaders understand, find and implement solutions to these challenges is central to my work.

According to research by PricewaterhouseCoopers, there is a major disconnect between consumers and business leaders in terms of whether they believe companies seek to serve the greater good. While 68% of business leaders believe companies do this, only 15% of consumers are convinced. Why do you think business leaders see themselves so differently than consumers do? Could it be that business leaders have failed to accurately measure their business impact and perception in the real world, rather than just looking at their internal stats? In other words, have they failed to humanize the data they take in?

I’m not an expert in data collection or interpretation, but what I do know for sure is that people matter. When executives leave the comfort of their corner offices and have conversations with real people, those experiences influence and reframe the meaning of data.

I remember the profound impact putting a face and story to the data had on me when I served on the Delaware Commission on Early Education and the Economy (2014-16). As a member of the commission, I was one of more than 20 business leaders advocating for solutions to bring high-quality early-learning programs to the state, especially for at-risk learners. Decades of research confirmed the necessity and positive long-term consequence of early education on these children, yet skeptical individuals continued to deny this reality. At the time, I wondered if their doubt was a result of politics or a profound disconnect with their community.

To counteract this disbelief and to better communicate the need to pass an early-education budget, we took steps to better understand the budget’s potential impact on the community by visiting several early-childhood education centers. It was a game changer. I observed astute businessmen melt as we observed classrooms of wide-eyed, enthusiastic, innocent and diverse children eagerly raise their hands to answer questions or share thoughts about a character in a story.

I recall visiting one center where a little boy played a guitar for us. The instructor told us he was gifted, but his mother could barely afford child care. This meant that getting him what he needed to develop his natural gift was out of the question. What do you think his future would look like without the support he needed to develop and capitalize on his talent?

Our visits to the centers changed our perspectives, conversations and motives. In the end, we championed the successful passage of a $9 million state budget in support of early-childhood education by relaying to legislatures and community leaders what we had seen, heard and experienced at these early-education sites.

This experience taught me that humanizing data can impact us in the following ways:

• Increase empathy: Every person has a story. Listening to those stories increases connection. We’re able to see ourselves in others and build capacity for compassion. Most importantly, it builds credibility because your employees will know that they matter to you.

• Engage listeners: As a leader, it is likely you know that there’s a problem but may have difficulty communicating how the issue impacts a person or group of people. This creates disconnects. By talking with people and gathering stories, you engage on deeper levels and develop an understanding of the issue and how to communicate it from your heart.

• Inspire a mission: When I was asked to serve on the board, the data was convincing, but seeing those children and talking to the instructors transformed the data into clear stories that moved me to speak to the state legislature’s education committees, petition bipartisan political and community leaders and write an editorial for influential media outlets. I knew every child deserved an equal education that would more likely lead to a better quality of life, and I was determined to help them get it.

No matter the social issue for which you are seeking a solution, it’s critical to put a face and story to the data to inspire connection and change.

S. Renee Smith is a self-esteem, communications and branding expert and author. She’s also the chief corporate responsibility officer at RALIANCE, which provides consulting, assessment and development services to help build more equitable workplace cultures.