If We're Not Human at Work, What Are We? by Mary Schaefer

I’ve been receiving a series of emails lately from a highly regarded organization with the subject line “How to Be Human at Work.”

My first thought was, "Funny. Aren’t we being human all the time?"

For most of us it's not that we’re being inhuman at work, but I understand the point.

Bringing more humanity to the workplace is trending. Trends come and go, but this will never change – the core of how things get done at work is through human beings. The great news is that we’re remembering that those people who happen to be employees are human, and there’s power in making the most of what it means to be human at work. In that light the email subject line How to Be Human at Work is perfect. How do we be (more) human at work?

What it doesn't mean.

Some think being human at work involves oversharing. Or awkward team-building activities. Nah. Let’s not go there.

What if it’s about normalizing real human experiences in work-appropriate ways?

How about addressing the real human needs to be seen and to belong? Or the need to make a meaningful contribution? What then could we accomplish?

Humanity at work. This means you.

Let’s revisit that email subject line, “How to Be Human at Work.” That’s about us.

Being human at work is not just about treating others like human beings, but also about behaving like a human being. What does this mean?

People ask me to formulate an organizational development intervention to make their work cultures more human. Fair request. I like to start with what we know we can influence – ourselves.

How to be human at work.

Are you ready to take the challenge of connecting with your own humanity?Let this be about you behaving like a human being in the context of work. It might look like this:

  • Acknowledging behavior that bugs you. (When I was still in my corporate job I asked a co-worker if he was okay that his colleagues teased him publicly about his appearance. He pooh-poohed it. “No big deal,” he said. A year later he showed up in my office ready to address it.)
  • Fostering better interactions with a key co-worker when you notice your dislike for them creates more work for everyone.
  • Making the time to encourage another when you know they’re struggling. It doesn’t have to take long.
  • Asking others you trust what they like about working with you.
  • Investigating your assumptions when you find yourself making up stories about someone’s behavior. (Again during my corporate stint, two women shared some significant negative feedback with me. Despite a rough start, I appreciated they had come straight to me. By the end of the discussion we had grown our working relationships.)

Some of these suggestions produce concerns around vulnerability or conflict. It can feel awkward to admit we feel something personally about another's actions. I find it easier to deal with conflict or discomfort when I’m coming from what’s real for me. Why not come from your humanity and see how that goes?

We already know “how to be human.”

We are already being human at work. It's a choice to be conscious of it. Practice being human at work and sow the seeds of a more human work environment.

Truth, direct communication, and genuine curiosity and encouragement set a positive foundation. Your demonstration is a model for others. Start your own trend.

A version of this post originally ran on Lead Change Group site July 10, 2017.


Mary Schaefer is a coach, trainer, consultant, and speaker whose work is focused on making the most of what human resources can contribute to an organization through their energy and creativity, while at the same time meeting their own specific needs for meaningful work. Mary’s mission is to create work cultures where organizations and human beings can both thrive.

Click here to see Mary’s talk at TEDx Wilmington (DE, USA) titled, “Putting the Human Back Into Human Resources.”

Mary is a former HR manager, holds a Master’s degree in HR and is a certified HR professional.

Mary Schaefer