Compassion, Communication and Context: Managing Humans, Not 'Human Capital'


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"Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about." There's truth in this quote, which we've all seen posted on social media, slapped on T-shirts and fashioned into memes. Managing employees can bring this maxim to life, so it calls for compassion, communication and an understanding that everything happens in context. As a manager, the lives of your staff, like it or not, are linked to your own, as your decisions and actions will directly affect those who work for you.

I learned this lesson the hard way in my very first manager role. My team was made up of around 80 individuals, who worked in a large manufacturing environment. While I spent a good amount of time walking around the shop floor asking people to take down their inappropriate pinup calendars, one of my days was soon rocked by a call from security that a woman had been stealing food from the cafeteria. Of course, this was against policy. The woman, who was just a month away from gaining FTE status, had to be terminated. It wasn't until after I processed the paperwork and called her into the office to fire her that I found out the motivation behind her behavior. She didn't deny stealing, but explained the context of her situation: She had two young children, had been homeless and was struggling to feed her family.

Even today, many years later, I employ the learnings from this experience. I wish I would have reserved judgment until I'd heard her side of the story and dug a little deeper on options for her situation. I was too late. As a female manager in a male-dominated department, I felt powerful and important.

After this experience, I felt like an imposter. I realized that it was important to never forget that compassion and understanding has a role in decision-making.

I was able to put this lesson into action in a role I held later in my career when it was discovered that an employee was being overpaid. The company caught the error and alerted me. While many at the company said that he should have noticed on his own and was complicit in the overpayment, I believed that he may not have been aware of the error. When we brought it to his attention, he wrote a check on the spot to pay back the money. He was a great employee who almost lost his position because others automatically assumed the worst. Pause, communicate, and find out the whole story before taking action.

As managers, we have to stop referring to our staff as "human capital." I hate this term. We have to treat our team members like the individuals they are.

Put everything in context.

No behavior or action happens in a bubble. Before jumping to conclusions, find out if there are extenuating circumstances. I guarantee there is a story to uncover in almost any situation. That story may or may not hold weight, but I encourage every manager to find it out before taking action. I learned this the hard way; you may not have to.


My rule of thumb is that you must communicate a message no less than seven times for that message to be retained in any meaningful way. Over-communicating isn't a one-way street. Opening up multiple channels of communication between managers and employees, whether with an open-door policy or creative use of new communications technology platforms, can help you avoid misunderstandings.

Manage with compassion. 

As I mentioned at the start of this article, lives are complicated and aren't always as they seem. You must really press the pause button to find out all aspects of what's going on. I've found that the truth of every matter is someplace in between what you see on the surface and what's going on in the background. It's important to approach sticky management situations with compassion for the humanity and individuality of those who work for you.

As someone who has managed all different kinds of people in almost every industry, I encourage you to take some of the lessons I've learned back to your own desk. Recognize that your staff, no matter how large or small your company and no matter what industry you're in, are all humans. Respect that fact, find out the whole story before taking action, and remember the truth lies somewhere in the middle.