How to work like a human

| September 11, 2014
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When I was 23 years old, I found myself in a job for which I was vastly under-qualified — associate managing editor of Ms. magazine. I’d walk around with a clipboard, creating and enforcing deadlines for the rest of the editorial staff, including the magazine’s beloved copy editor, Joan. She was a wise and patient woman, more than twice my age, who had been at Ms. for as long as anyone could remember. One night, in the frenzy of putting the latest issue to bed, the ever-meticulous Joan became a workflow bottleneck. So, I approached her, clipboard in hand, and impatiently explained that she needed to pick up the pace.

“I’m tired,” she said. “I’d really prefer to finish in the morning when I’m fresh.”

“I understand,” I said, not understanding in the least. “But we need to finish tonight. I’m sorry, but you’ll just have to keep going.”

Joan dutifully stayed late and miraculously caught typos at 2 a.m. And even more miraculously, she continued to treat me with far more graciousness and respect than I had earned.

I think about that exchange whenever I feel my humanity receding at work — which still happens far more often than I’d like, despite having accumulated two more decades of professional experience.

The sad truth is that working life can often make us put on an armor that hides our own humanity and distances us from that of our colleagues. And when we lose touch with our humanity — when we replace empathy with efficiency, when we get curt instead of curious — it’s a surefire way to get stuck. We stop recognizing the value of human connection, and it makes our working hours less joyful, our working relationships less stable, and our work product less meaningful.

Sometimes it’s obvious when the armor is up. But other times, it’s more subtle. Here are a few of the signs I’ve noticed in myself and others over the years:

1. You give one-word responses when colleagues talk about life outside of work. “Cool,” you say when they tell you about upcoming vacation plans. “Ugh,” you say when they mention being up late with a sick child. You don’t ask about it. You’re just eager to register the comment, move the conversation along, and get to the “important” stuff.

2. You become impatient when people need time to learn or adjust to something new. Whether it’s the new guy on the team who doesn’t have all the information or a colleague trying to master new skills, you expect them to go from 0 to 60 immediately.

3. You treat physical and psychic nourishment as a luxury. Maybe you schedule a meeting from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and expect everyone to make do without lunch. Or you harbor a grudge against a colleague when he leaves work a little early to go to yoga. Or you fail to understand why a creative colleague is stymied when she doesn’t have time to play and explore a little.

4. You go days (or weeks) without asking people how they’re doing. It doesn’t occur to you to check in with people — you’re doing fine, so they must be too. Or maybe you just don’t want to know: You’re so fixated on the ends that you’re willfully blind to how the means may be affecting people.

5. You shut people down. Maybe you deliver criticism without the constructive part, with phrases like “I thought you would have” or “If you had done what we agreed to.” Or you block opposing points of view with phrases like, “I get it, but…”

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So, how do you shed the armor — or prevent it from forming in the first place? First, recognize that your humanity is not a weakness. Actually, it can be your greatest source of strength at work: the starting point for building relationships, the spark for your most productive conversations, the escape hatch when you’ve backed yourself into a corner. And the more humanity you show, the stronger it becomes.

Here are five humanity-affirming habits that have helped me:

1. Treat every relationship as one that matters. Express a genuine interest in what people care about. Give them your energy and time without hesitation. Taking people for granted or seeing some work relationships as less important can be a big mistake. For one thing, the person whom you ignore or mistreat is inevitably someone you’ll need to rely on down the road. But more important, so many opportunities open up when you treat every relationship with care and attention. You learn things from and about people. You build the kind of trust and camaraderie that makes you able to watch each other’s backs, promote each other’s interests, and seek each other’s advice.

2. Express gratitude liberally and regularly. Whenever you have a positive thought about something someone did, tell the person. It makes you both feel good instantly. On our Teamworks team, we always spend at least a few minutes a week to share appreciations about each other — it’s amazing how many examples you can come up with when you take a minute to think about why you’re grateful for other people. And it never fails to restore our connections with one another and reset our empathy levels.

3. Be counterintuitive about when you take breaks. Make time to walk around the block with a colleague when you are at your busiest. When you’re on deadline, eat lunch with someone, instead of at your desk. On your way out the door, stop to have a conversation with someone you haven’t seen in a while.

4. Name your fears and uncertainties. Robot-you pretends to be invulnerable; human-you tells people when you’re confused or afraid. So, the next time you’re in a conversation and you find yourself starting to get frustrated, angry, or defensive, take a moment to understand why. That night with Joan, I could have said, “I’m worried that if you don’t finish tonight, we won’t get the magazine to bed on time.” That would have opened up a conversation where we could have jointly looked at the situation and come up with a plan together.

5. Ask more questions; make fewer assumptions. When people do things contrary to our expectations, it’s very easy to explain — and often judge — the behavior based on our own preconceptions. But when we ask clarifying questions, we often discover that those preconceptions are incomplete or even dead wrong. So, instead of assuming the new guy is slow on the uptake, ask him, “Hey. I noticed you didn’t say much during that meeting. What were you thinking?”

One final thing I’ve learned since my days as the enforcer at Ms.: You sometimes have to sacrifice a deadline in order to preserve something far more important — a relationship, a person’s well-being, the quality of the work. Deadlines can be a wonderful mechanism for structuring work and staying accountable. But when the effort to meet a deadline starts to wall off your compassion and perspective, it’s time to go looking for your better self.

PRINTABLE TIP CARD: 6 ways to stay human on the job

Julie Felner worked at SYPartners, creator of Unstuck, for more than a decade. She served as product lead for Teamworks, which helps managers and their teams work better together so they can achieve great results. Before that, Julie was VP of the SYP Way, where she developed SYP’s one-of-a-kind onboarding program and courses on the art of storytelling and feedback. And she was a director of strategy at SYP, working with leaders at Deloitte, Yahoo, Gap, and Pacific Sunwear. Prior to joining SYP, Julie was a senior content strategist at Sapient. She started her career as an editor and writer — working at or contributing to Ms., Salon, Health, Mother Jones, Vanity Fair, and others.

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