Being a Decent Human Being…At Work




Being a Decent Human Being…At Work

Rex Huppke writes a regular column for the Chicago Tribune.  When he tackles the political scene or engages in social commentary, his tongue is often planted firmly in his cheek.  He is always witty and occasionally acerbic depending upon where you sit on the political teeter totter.  He also writes a regular business advice column which you can find at  While his business advice often is often directed at those in the corporate world, I find his suggestions equally valuable for those of us in the small business world.

Even his business advice is wrapped in wit.  He began his most recent column with this:  “If my years of reading workplace advice books have taught me anything, it’s that most workplace advice books should be edited down from 300 pages to, at most, a small pamphlet.  It’s apropos of the working world, I suppose, that even the best advice gets buried in blah-blah.  It’s the same reason ‘quick meetings’ wind up talking two hours and ‘short memos’ become 10-page emails.”  As Huppke says, “I like to keep things simple.”

He has written most recently on two related themes, workplace communication and workplace kindness.  I’d like to share some of his “simple” advice in this blog.

Huppke started out a March column titled “Workplace Communication Requires Strategy” by asking readers to consider this hypothetical conversation

”Hey boss.  Check out this cute picture of a panda.  Oh, also, would it be possible to…”

“I HATE PANDAS! GET OUT OF MY OFFICE.”                

“That didn’t go well, in large part because the worker forgot that the boss once fell into an exhibit at the city zoo and was mauled by an unexpectedly violent panda.  What seemed adorable to the worker was traumatizing to the boss, and communication broke down.”

Huppke adds this.   (FUN FACT: Hypothetical conversations involving unexpectedly violent pandas are actually quite common in workplace advice circles.)

Huppke says that the point here is the conversation would have gone a lot better if the worker had taken the time to learn something about the boss and used a bit of strategy.  He says that may be the most overlooked element of workplace communications – the need to think first before speaking.

He goes on to say, “Some might recoil at the idea of communicating in a strategic manner, viewing it as sneaky or inauthentic.  I disagree, in large part because all you’re really doing is listening to people and engaging with them in a way that makes them comfortable.”  He says, further, “It’s not sneaky to want to connect with people in a way that will make communication easier.  It’s smart.”

Huppke references Mattersight, a tech company that creates personality evaluation software to guide interactions with customers and employees.  They have identified 6 personality traits:  adviser, connector, organizer, original, dreamer and doer.  For each trait there are explanations of what drives the individual and suggestions on the best ways to interact.

For example, advisers are “driven by deeply-held convictions and have firm opinions about how things should be done.  They care about tradition, loyalty, integrity and credibility.”  The best way to connect with that type person, according to Mattersight is: ”Asking their opinion – ‘What do you believe the right approach to X is?’ – or validating their judgments or actions – ‘You bring up a really great point.’  This will help you establish a values-based common ground, which is the ideal launching pad for a deeper relationship with this style.”

You can check out the chemistry of conversation at the Mattersight website.  When you go, be sure to take a look at the video of various folks talking about their actual experience with, and preferred way of experiencing the dreaded call to a customer service call center.  We have all been there, and shared that frustration.

Huppke says you may not agree with the personality traits that Mattersight compiled, but he believes they provide an excellent guide for the way we should be thinking in the workplace.  You can see the whole list by clicking here.

If social analytics and algorithms don’t lead to improved communications for you, Huppke has a simpler approach that he thinks will lead to more kindness in the workplace.  He opened a recent column with these questions:  “Why don’t we apply more of what we know about human behavior to the workplace?  Every aspect of work culture has been studied 5,000 times over – why isn’t everything perfect?  Why is it so difficult for workplaces to achieve widespread kindness and the efficiency that would logically follow?”

In another column devoted to kindness, “Leaders Are Key to Kindness in the Workplace”, Huppke says, “One of the reasons why kindness (and care in general) is not well integrated into organizational processes and leadership building comes, in part, from the fact that it is difficult to evaluate.  That is, I can measure easily whether you have sold 100, 500 or 1000 boxes of shoes; but assessing how nice you’ve been to people inside or outside the company is a much harder thing to do.”

Huppke says we know what works.  “I didn’t land on my mantra – Be a decent human being – by accident.  It’s the distillation of studies and surveys and books and the opinions of big thinkers and successful managers.   Being nice is the right thing to do, but it also reaps benefits in a work environment.  People will like you.  They’ll work harder for you.   They’ll be more loyal.  They’ll follow your lead and be nicer themselves.”

Huppke says what led him down what he called “this rabbit hole” is the work of Mary Rowe, an adjunct professor of negotiation and conflict management at the MIT Sloan School of Management.  In the early 1970’s, she coined the terms “micro-inequities” and “micro-affirmations.”  In a 2008 paper, Rowe defined micro-inequities as “apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard to prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator.”

Basically, it’s the little things – the little mean or thoughtless or selfish things we do, sometimes without thinking, that can accumulate and create a toxic environment.  In her research, Rowe noticed:  “Little acts of disrespect, and failures in performance feedback, seemed to corrode some professional relationships like bits of sand and ice.”

In a 2013 article in Psychology Today, Berit Brogaard looked at “Micro-Inequities: 40 Years Later.”  She offers up this list of examples of micro-inequities:

  • Checking emails or texting during a face-to-face conversation
  • Consistently mispronouncing a person’s name
  • Interrupting a person mid-sentence
  • Making eye-contact only with males while talking to a group containing both males and females
  • Confusing a person of a certain ethnicity with another person of the same ethnicity
  • Rolling your eyes
  • Raising your voice, even though the other person has no difficulties hearing you
  • Mentioning the achievements of some people at a meeting but not others whose achievements are equally relevant
  • Consistently ignoring a person’s emails for no good reason.

On the other side are “micro-affirmations.”  As Huppke puts it, “If we engage in small acts of jerkitude, it stands to reason that we might also  commit unconscious acts of kindness…or “small acts which are also often ephemeral, and hard to see, events that are public and private, often unconscious but very effective, which occur wherever people wish to help  others.”

Rowe wrote, “Micro-affirmations lie in the practice of generosity, in consistently giving credit to others – in providing comfort and support when others are in distress, when there has been a failure at the bench, or an idea that did not work out, or a public attack.  Micro-affirmations include the myriad details of fair, specific, timely, consistent and clear feedback that help a person build on strength and correct weakness.”

At the top of Rowe’s list of actions people can take to decrease micro-inequities and increase micro-affirmations is this: “Managers can and should pay attention to ‘small things.’” Or as Huppke so simply puts it…”How does one pay attention to small things?   By being a decent human being!”

Bill Gregory

Bill Gregory is a Business Advisor for the NW-ISBDC. He works primarily with businesses and start-ups in Lake County. His responsibilities include assisting clients in business planning and execution, planning, identifying and promoting conferences and workshops that benefit small and start-up businesses, working with businesses to secure financing for start-up and growth, coordinating with Chamber of Commerce and economic development organizations to impact the communities that we serve. Bill has more than 30 years of business experience in a variety of management development and training roles. He most recently was Executive Director of the Center for Management Development at Indiana University Northwest. He has been active on the Economic and Business Development and Education Committees of the Gary Chamber of Commerce. He serves on the board of Tradewinds Rehabilitation Services, and on the town council in Ogden Dunes. Bill earned his bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and master’s degree in Sociology from Miami University.
Bill Gregory can be reached at
Posted in: Management, Small Business Owner's Guides

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