"Let's be human-centered." "Yes!" "Huh?" "Uh oh." "Oh please." "Well duh!"

When you begin to advocate for a more human-centered workplace, you will probably hear a variety of reactions. Some people will be supportive while others will be confused, worried, or skeptical. A supportive reaction certainly feels better. But the other reactions are just as legitimate. And they are important, especially if we are going to practice what we preach and, you know, respect all the humans we work with. Let’s consider some possible reactions and how to respond in ways that are consistent with our human-centered values.

Some will say, “Yes!” It is so encouraging when people respond with excitement, relief, and a heartfelt, “Yes!” to the idea of making work more human. I’ve heard people say things like, “Finally! We’ve needed this for so long. Of course we should focus on people! I see good things happen when we do and bad impacts when we don’t. I’m so glad we are talking about this at work, especially in government!”

But not everyone reacts this way, and we need to meet those who are uncertain, skeptical, or even hostile by really listening to understand and responding thoughtfully.

Some will say, “Huh?”

Some people may be confused and downright annoyed by the words “human-centered.” They may wonder to themselves, “Now what are these *&%@ leaders of my organization talking about? I hope this isn’t some management gimmick.”

They may ask, “What do you mean? You’ve never used those words before, so I’m not sure what you’re getting at. I’m more of an action kind of person and not too theoretical so help me understand this in practical terms. Help me know what you expect me to do.”

A Human-Centered Response to “Huh?” We need to clarify what we mean by these words and why they were chosen. We should explain the problem we are trying to solve. But most importantly, we should help people know what to do to be a human-centered leader. This doesn't mean giving them a checklist of human-centered behaviors. Instead it means sharing situational examples and then engaging them to consider how they can authentically lead their particular team in a way that deeply regards people. They may need coaching to get started, and ongoing dialogue to reflect and learn along the way as they try new behaviors.  

Some will say, “Uh oh.”

Some people may react with, “This ‘human-centered’ workplace idea is more change, on top of change. That’s frustrating because things are going pretty well on my team. No one's complaining. We are meeting our targets. But now I hear I’m supposed to be ‘human-centered.’ Great. I don’t have time for this.”

A human-centered response to, “Uh oh.”

Ironically, introducing the idea of a human workplace can feel threatening and create fear because it is a change. And when I asked participants in my research interviews about fear at work, one of the four main types of fearful experiences they described was, “I didn’t know how to be successful after a change.” 

So if we are going to introduce this new idea and ask people to be “human-centered” then we need to answer questions, reassure, link it to business value, and help people understand how to be successful.

Still others will say, “Oh please.”

Some people will just not buy it. “What a bunch of fluff. This doesn’t sound like good business. I’ve got work to do, deadlines to meet, and performance issues to deal with.” They may grumble about “too much soft stuff” and “singing Kum-by-ya.”

“Besides,” they may say, “A little fear keeps people on their toes so they don’t slack off.  We have to ride people and hold them accountable.” 

A human-centered response to, “Oh please.”

Folks with this reaction may not know any other way to motivate without fear, but some may be open to learning a new way to lead. If so, fantastic!

But beliefs based on a lifetime of experiences are hard to change. If after coaching, training, and guidance, they can’t make the shift to a human-centered way of leading, then we may have to take other actions. The decision to help someone find a place more aligned with their beliefs is hard, not to be made lightly, and must be done respectfully. But the costs to the organization’s culture and its people are just too high when a leader consistently and persistently betrays its human values.  

And some will say, “Well duh."

Some people will be unimpressed, “Of course we should be human-centered. What else would we be? This is already how I lead. I don’t understand why this is such a big deal.” It will be a surprise to some people that this needs to be championed.  

A human-centered response to, “Well duh.”

These naturally human-centered leaders can be recruited as advocates and positive examples. And, as the conversation grows, they may be inspired to up their game, learning to create an even safer, more caring and high-performance team.  

What it is to be human

A fundamental value of a human workplace is respect defined as, “holding precious what it is to be human.”  Being human means we are sometimes confused, unsure, skeptical, and wary when faced with something new that we don’t understand. As advocates for this way of working, our human-centered response when people react should be to listen, to understand their perspective, and to work with them through their questions, concerns, and skepticism when possible. That’s a great place to begin to show what we mean by being human-centered.