Be human to human beings

Whether it’s Black Lives Matter, COVID-19, mass shootings, massive firings in some industries, the war in Ukraine, or the war in the Middle East… it is reasonable to expect that any, some, or all of these events -and others- have impacted and still impact the minds and hearts of the people in your charge at work.

I invite you (and keep in mind that I am not beyond imploring or begging) that you do not turn a blind eye to how your people are affected, and that how they are affected impacts their ability to perform. I’m inviting you to be human. Being human to another human being is not a sign of weakness nor does it entail a loss of power.

And why should you?

Well, because they are human. They’re not things.

Call me a master of the obvious and I will say that there is enough evidence to show that managers and business owners often override this with the doctrine of some dead economist to the effect that “everyone is looking for their self-interest” or “employees have contractual obligations”.

That, by the way, is eons away from the other discourse they hold for the gallery: “We’re a family”, “people are our most important asset”, and -wait for it- “We’re all in this together”.

Again, why should you?

Well, because you are human too. As managers and business owners, we work with people, not through people.

We work with what’s there – now. And that changes from day to day as people have successes, are tired, have children, are worried, navigate grief, move from one city to another, go back to school, etc. It also changes based on what is going on in their environments, close and remote.

Over the years I found that the best teachers and the best managers and business owners all work from the same premise: you teach/manage the people in front of you. Not the ones you wish you had, but the ones you have, the ones that are there.

And not only are they different from one another in abilities and readiness, but they are also different from one day to the next. That is who you work with. Every day.

People are struggling.

There is a lot going on and they carry quite a bit from the recent past.

On the odd chance that you feel this might be too touchy-feely for you, I will say this: Emotions exist. They affect what we think about and how we think. The reasonable thing to do is to acknowledge emotions and work with them. To dismiss them altogether is, well, irrational.

So the invitation is this: be human to your fellow human beings, in difficult times and always.

I know you can. I trust you will.


I originally published this text in the October 2023 issue of my monthly newsletter.

Reading notes (2021, week 23): On pluralities of people, mindsets of a leader, and why it pays to notice emotions in the workplace

Pluralities of people come in three kinds

I read this on Alan Jacobs’ blog:

One of the most fundamental ideas that Auden held in the 1950s — the period of his career that I’m working on right now — was that “pluralities” of people come in three kinds. From an essay called “Nature, History, and Poetry” (published in Thought in 1950), with bold type added by me:

  1. “A crowd consists of n members where n > 1, whose sole characteristic in common is togetherness. A crowd loves neither itself nor anything other than itself. It can only be counted; its existence is chimerical.”

  2. “A society consists of x members, i.e. a certain finite number, united in a specific manner into a whole with a characteristic mode of behavior which is different from the behavior of its several members in isolation (e.g. a molecule of water or a string quartet). A society has a definite size, a specific structure and an actual existence.”

  3. “A community consists of n members, all of them rational beings united by a common love for something other than themselves.”

The tragedy of social media is this: Each given social-media platform consists of a crowd pretending to be either a society or a community.

To which I add – The tragedy of the modern corporation is this:  Each given company consists of a society pretending to be a community (“here at ABC Inc., we’re a family“).

source: Alan Jacobs, pluralities (accessed 210601)

Six mindsets of a leader

  1. Transcender: Seeks benefits for the whole ecosystem
  2. Builder: Zeroes in on building the organization
  3. Dynamo: Focuses on clear strategy or set of goals
  4. Chameleon: Adapts to surroundings and will serve anyone
  5. Egoist: Tries to maximize benefit to himself or herself
  6. Sociopath: Serves no one and believes the rules don’t apply

Questions: Which one are you? Which one is your manager?

source: Modesto A. Maidique and Nathan J. Hiller, “The Mindsets of a Leader” in MIT Sloan Management Review (accessed 210601)

Why it pays to notice emotions in the workplace

Emotional acknowledgment is the simple act of noticing a nonverbal emotional cue — like a frown or grin — and mentioning it. This mention can be a question or a statement such as “You look upset,” or “You seem excited.” (…) this small act can have a powerful effect because it is read as a sign of genuine intentions.

in a work environment, a supervisor who shows concern for others’ emotional state is signaling a willingness to get involved in a potentially messy situation. “A leader could very easily see someone in distress and choose to ignore it,” Yu says. “But only a leader who truly is benevolent and cares about employees would risk getting involved by voluntarily acknowledging the distressed employee. Thus, employees might take this as a signal that this leader is someone who can be trusted with their well-being.”

in  research across six studies, (…) participants reported higher levels of trust in people who engaged in emotional acknowledgment than those who did not.

This result aligned with the theory

Asking someone who seems unhappy about their emotional state engenders higher levels of trust because it is riskier and involves a greater investment of attention, time, and effort than asking someone who seems happy.

There was, in addition, an unexpected finding:

acknowledging an employee’s emotional state is more powerful than only acknowledging the situation that produced the emotions. “It turns out that saying something like, ‘You looked upset after that meeting. How are you feeling about it?’ lands better than saying something like, ‘It looked like the meeting went poorly. How are you thinking about it?’ Yu explains.
“People trust the person who acknowledges the emotion directly more than the person who acknowledges the situation. There’s just something special and unique about emotions — they are really core to a person’s inner experience and sense of self. So when we acknowledge emotions, we humanize and validate the person being acknowledged.”

And another unexpected finding: you don’t even have to get it right

the trust-building effect of emotional acknowledgment is not always dependent on correctly interpreting emotions, particularly when positive feelings are misread.

But emotional support is not part of my formal job expectations as a manager!

If leaders want to signal care and build trust, they need to meet people where they are. The worst thing leaders can do when employees are feeling badly is to do nothing. Our research suggests one way to do that is by proactively engaging in emotional acknowledgment because it grants employees the space and license to share their emotions.

The paper: Alisa Yu, Justin M. Berg, Julian J. Zlatev, “Emotional acknowledgment: How verbalizing others’ emotions fosters interpersonal trust”, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Volume 164, 2021, Pages 116-135. The report:  Theodore Kinni, “All the Feels: Why It Pays to Notice Emotions in the Workplace”, Insights, Stanford Business, May 13, 2021.