How to See the Humanity in Your Employees

This is the final part of a three-part series on setting the tone in your work culture.

“Sometimes people are jerks. They are rude, abrasive, and selfish. They may say the right things, but the way they behave makes my guard go up and it’s hard to see anything good about them.”

Do you feel this way about an employee, co-worker or boss? You have to work with this person every day. Is it difficult to see past his/her behavior and collaborate on projects?

In the last blog series, Setting the Tone in Your Work Culture, I addressed how to see the humanity in employees whose behavior is unbecoming. In other words, how their behavior interferes with their ability to work effectively with others.

To review previous blogs on this topic, part one addressed how to stay in control when facing conflict and part two addressed how to create a connection with employees who are difficult to like.

“She awoken to an intruder standing over her bed with a club…”

In his book Hostage At the Table: How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict, Influence Others, and Raise Performance, George Kohlrieser tells the story of robber who entered the home of an elderly woman and her granddaughter. When she woke to an intruder standing over her bed with a club in his hand, instead of reacting out of fear, she offered him something to eat and place to sleep in her home. She assured her granddaughter he wasn’t going to hurt them and she could go back to sleep. The robber never harmed her or her granddaughter and left early the next morning.

Later that day, she learned that same man killed a family next door before coming to her home.

Sounds pretty extreme, right? How did this woman have the presence of mind to treat the intruder with kindness rather than react out of fear? How can you, as a leader, apply the grandmother’s example to the “intruders” in your office who disrupt a collaborative work culture?

See your employees humanity – Immediately the elderly woman saw the intruder as a human being and appealed to his need for food and rest. At our core, all humans have basic needs, physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. She focused on appealing to his needs that are part of humanity, instead of reacting to the intruder’s behavior.

  • Leadership Application: In what ways can you appeal to the basic needs of employees who are difficult to get along with? What needs might they be indirectly asking for? Needs such as belonging, control, and contribution? Form a bond by separating the person from the behavior and meet the needs of your employees as people.

Create a dialogue – Despite the grandmother’s internal alarms that there was an intruder in her house, she never showed it on the outside. She was in charge of her emotions. Most likely she had negative judgments of the intruder, but she kept her focus by instead talking to him and learning how she could help him.

  • Leadership application: Avoid labeling people in a derogatory manner. When people are labeled, it depersonalizes them and limits personal connection. Instead, intentionally get to know the employee as a person. What are their interests? What’s important to them? What are their talents? Who are their role models? Where could you identify strengths that you are currently overlooking?

As a leader, your example sets the tone for your work culture. What you model, others follow. Even when people are adversarial and blatantly ignore your direction, they are sending a message in code, “tell me that I matter”.

Avoid a negative reaction when dealing with difficult employee behavior. Instead, build a bond and create a dialogue with your employees so, you stay in charge and keep your work culture alive and thriving.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can set the tone for your work culture, let’s talk.

Bonnie Artman Fox is a Work Culture Speaker and Coach. She works with senior leaders to strengthen organizational health through work cultures that optimize performance, productivity, and results. She brings over 25 years of expertise as a psychiatric nurse and marriage & family therapist to help organizations build work cultures where people function at their best. To learn more or bring Bonnie to your company, visit