What do you mean, be human?

Robot at work

My first role after studying for an MBA was at a large company. About two years in, I had the opportunity to lead a team. This was exciting for me – I have always enjoyed leading, and working with teams. This team consisted of me, plus two junior associates in their first years out of college. One of my opening moves as team leader was to bring the small group together for a kickoff, and to tell them how much I looked forward to working together, and talk a little about my leadership style.

The first part of the conversation went as expected. I started the second part by saying, ‘to start with, I want us to be human together’. This was met with a long, awkward pause, and both of them looking at me like maybe I had suggested we hold our next fun event inside a volcano (which would be amazing by the way).

‘Uh….what do you mean, be human together?’ was finally asked.

Backing up, before pursuing my MBA degree, I worked at a start-up consulting firm. Four people when I joined, which doubled to eight over the next two years. Like many small companies, we were deeply engaged in each others’ whole lives.

We worked, went to happy hour, played softball, sang karaoke (badly) and celebrated life events together. We knew details about everyone on the team, and their significant others, and their kids, and their pets, and their parents, and cousins… we knew the big stuff, and the little stuff, the minutiae.

It wasn’t something that we spent a lot of time thinking about or actively working on, it was just our way of being. To me, this was normal. The puzzled looks from my new team reminded me that things were different at a bigger company, and to get to that same level of human-ness would take some work.

I tried a bunch of stuff – some worked, some didn’t.

What’s been effective:

  • Interact like people. Say hello when you get into the office and goodbye when you are leaving. Seriously – that is where I started. Even as a non-morning person, I make an effort to say good morning before diving into my laptop.
  • Use icebreakers that come with a story. Some of my favorites are ‘what was your most prized possession growing up’, ‘what was the last concert you attended’ and ‘what was the best thing delivered to your house in the last month’. People are quick to open up a little, if given the right prompt.
  • Spend time together, scheduled and unscheduled. This can be one on one meetings, down time at the desk, grabbing lunch or coffee, even traveling together.  What’s important is to be present during these moments. That means no laptop. No phone. And often no agenda. Make the most of that carpool to a different office or event.
  • Find out what people care about outside the office. Ask what people do on the weekends, what activities and organizations they enjoy, what they are passionate about. If someone on your team is an avid hiker, forward that cool article on Virginia’s best views to her. Someone loves cats? Guess what….now your emails come with a grumpy cat meme enclosed.
  • Don’t just say it, show that you care. Send a birthday note, buy a housewarming gift, offer condolences and a hug. There is no formula, because everyone will have different life events, but make sure to acknowledge what’s going on in the human part of life. Put the important dates in your calendar, set a reminder to buy a card.

None of these are rocket science, but done consistently, these things help me to build real, human bonds with my team and colleagues.

What is a memorable being-human-at-work moment for you? How do you really get to know your team?


And now for the obligatory powerpoint:

Creating Authentic Team Connections


9 Replies to “What do you mean, be human?”

  1. Jonee Brigham says:

    Great post Kathryn (aka Katie to me)! I find that when I’m really busy and we have a big agenda for a meeting that I have to remind myself to be human and ask how someone’s weekend was. I agree it is worth it, relationships are fundamental. It makes me relax and enjoy work more Being Human too.

    1. Katie Montbriand says:

      Thank you for the note! The ‘being human’ parts of work can sometimes fall to the bottom of the to-do list, especially in the face of deadlines, or hectic schedules. One practice I’ve started recently is to send each member of my team a personal note on Friday (aided by a calendar reminder, of course) in case I’ve been delinquent during the week 🙂

  2. Michael Wisler says:

    Great post Katie!

    1. Katie Montbriand says:

      Thank you for the note! Your blogging has inspired me to do some writing of my own 🙂

  3. Erin Noeldner says:

    Agree with all your comments and I love the concept except I can’t but ask, do we really need to encourage cat people? 😉

    1. There can never be too many cat memes.

    2. Katie Montbriand says:

      Who knows, even you might find a cat you like once in a while! Thanks for the note, Erin!

  4. Bettina Hanna says:

    Nice job Kathryn. I can see you and Alissa have a lot in common, including leadership and power point styles! Oh, and cats too.

    1. Kathryn Montbriand says:

      Thanks for the note, Bettina! It’s funny – the older we get the more alike we seem to become. I can’t take credit for the powerpoint though, that was A. My contribution would probably look more like a mindmap drawn in sharpie! Maybe next time I will do that ?

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