Hyena or Kangaroo? Know your archetype to support struggling employees — and yourself.

In our book, Compassionate Management of Mental Health in the Modern Workplace, we examined how our predispositions and experiences shape how we see the world, including addressing mental health issues at work.

Understanding our patterns and assumptions is essential to not doing more harm than good when engaging with our challenges and those of others.

Below we provide two reflections that can help managers do that:

  1. Use your experience but understand it to surface assumptions you have around mental health; and,
  2. Reflect if you resort to particular behaviors when facing a mental health situation, and what pros and cons this approach might have for you, the individual, and the team, organization, and community.
Cartoon-style Kangaroos, Ostriches, Snakes and Hyenas set in work context
Animal farm, Inc. (photo credit Antonio Sadaric and midjourney)

From denial to panic: the mental health whiplash

Around the world, mental health issues among workers and their kids continue to worsen rapidly. The media reports on them incessantly, using clickbait headlines to spread panic, worsening the situation. There is talk of “mental health contagion” on social media platforms such as Tik Tok.

Concerned about declining productivity, engagement, and loyalty, the corporate world is officially done with “ostriching” about the issue. Leaders email about their commitment to well-being, and human resources reminds us to take time off and practice self-care. People analytics companies and chief people officers are sprouting up everywhere. After the “diversity theater” companies engaged in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) comes the “caring theater.”

In the trenches, managers have had to stop pretending that if they didn't improve their ability to support mental health at work, someone else would or the problem would disappear. They were also convinced that solutions were really out of their hands.

Now, they don't have a choice. After serving as emotional first responders during the pandemic, managers are told to meet employees halfway, make the workplace more human, and be as supportive as possible while still delivering results. The main difference with the DEI efforts is that we have not been educated about our biases about, context for, and the impact of our lived experiences on the mental health crisis. So what can help?

1) Use your experience — but understand it first.

“Our cultural background and own attitudes toward and experience with mental health, combined with our personality types, influence how we respond to mental health issues in our teams. We can learn a lot from our own experiences, but by definition, they are narrow and should be recognized as such.”[1]

According to Mental Health America, nearly 50 million Americans (20% of U.S. adults) in 2022 are experiencing a mental illness; for 5%, it is severe. [Any Mental Illness (AMI) is defined as having a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder, other than a developmental or substance use disorder.] One of these individuals or a friend/partner might be on your team, struggling to balance home and work demands.

Your employee is not you nor your Aunt Sophie.

If you wish to engage, step back to figure out where you might be coming from. It can be hard to remain neutral.

On the one hand, you might have had a grandfather who became violent when intoxicated. You immediately worry about anyone turning to alcohol to relax or find it hard to maintain a caring interaction when addressing an employee’s substance abuse struggles. If you have experienced trauma, it is hard not to be emotionally overwhelmed or project your own experience, or those of friends and family, onto others.

On the other hand, if you found caring for an elder rewarding and menopause or parenting easy, or you have no such experience, you may have difficulty seeing them as the challenges they can be for others.

Don’t assume. Don’t presume.

“As a manager, I should not bring the spillage of my own emotional intensity. We don’t want managers acting as clinicians or making assumptions about what others need.”[2]

Equally important is not assuming what decisions individuals might want to make for themselves. For example, do not arbitrarily withhold a promotion or overseas deployment from an employee who revealed suffering from depression because you think they will not want the additional stress. The new job could be a better fit for them; it may even be their dream job. But be sure to have a frank conversation with your report about the job demands.

We know that not enough attention paid to others, especially at key inflection points (e.g., being promoted, becoming a parent, or losing a loved one to death, distance or divorce), can worsen their ability to remain healthy in periods of stress.

2) Examine your default mode(s)

Most successful managers exhibit a mix of approaches to mental health issues in their teams, depending on their own situations, personalities, and organizational context. Each approach might come from an unaddressed need (to be needed, efficient, or loved). It will trade off the needs of the individual, their colleagues, and the organization (i.e., how providing an accommodation for an employee might impact the team).

Most of us are blends, and different approaches might be better in a particular context at a particular time. Scanning the descriptors below can help you reflect on who you might tend to be, for whom, when, why, how, and to what end. Compassionate Management of Mental Health in the Modern Workplace suggests managerial profiles range from the protective but potentially smothering (“Kangaroo”) to the avoidant (“Ostrich”) or the perhaps nefarious yet potentially very effective (“Hyena”).

shows kangaroo (protects and carries along); a hyena (confronts and eliminates problem); snake (waits to strike after a mistake is made); and ostrich (feign benign ignorance)
Source: Quelch, J.A., Knoop, CI. (2018). Dare to Care: How Are Others Doing, and How Might I Help?. In: Compassionate Management of Mental Health in the Modern Workplace. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-71541-4_5 (https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-71541-4_5), pp. 75–76.

The Ostrich: Practices benign ignorance

Drivers: “If I ignore this issue, it will go away. Not my place to intervene.” Fear of confrontation and conflict. Need for admiration and validation of own worth (due to shared experience). Seeks gratitude from the employee.

Behavior and focus: Avoid the issue. If the employee is a good enough individual contributor, the supervisor decides to overlook the issue — perhaps missing a chance to make a positive difference — and lacks the inner fortitude or ability to intervene. Focuses on the self first.

Pros: Some problems do resolve themselves. Some ostriches might do more harm than good if they engage.

Risks: Problem festers. If the manager gives work to another employee, that employee may resent the manager or the first employee and think the unwell employee is not contributing enough. Seen as cowardly, the manager loses respect.

The Kangaroo: Carries and protects

Drivers: “I can help this person if I try.” Fear, sees him or herself in the employee, afraid of exposing own inadequacy. Wants to feel admired, needed, and loved. Can be co-dependent.

Behavior and focus: Shows empathy and patience. Obsesses about the unwell individual and hesitates about intervening because of shared experience (e.g., a recovered addict managing an employee with substance abuse). Wants to help the unwell, inserting self as defense and support. The focus is on the employee, then the self, and then the company.

Pros: Does not ignore the problem, but takes action. Is compassionate and wants to help. Gives the employee extra time to complete the task or gives the task to another employee. The employee may improve because of feeling cared for and bonded by shared experience.

Risks: Does not get the right personal or professional advice or help (or relies too much on pop psychology) and can do more damage than good. Blurs the lines between professional and personal relationships. Obviates the affected individual to take action because they are protected. Forces the rest of the team to compensate. Others may resent unaddressed issues.

The Snake: Lurks and strikes discreetly

Drivers: “I can solve this problem rapidly and efficiently. Irritated by the individual who isn’t well.” “I am here to get things done; I am not being paid to be a therapist.” Emotional avoidance. Admiration — need to be rewarded for solving a problem. Unwillingness and inability to manage conflict or difficult conversations.

Behavior and focus: Ignores the behavior, but makes the employee feel like they can’t do anything right. The employee is confused because they received leniency. Indirect, rather obtuse. Might over-react.

Pros: Some problems resolve themselves with time. The employee might leave on their own.

Risks: Employee has no support. The person struggles and impacts the entire team. When action is taken, it feels sudden and punitive.

The Hyena: Confronts and eliminates

Drivers: “Employee doesn’t have what it takes to be on my team.” “Only the tough survive.” “I am doing what is best for the broader team and company.” Fear that the unwell employee will drag the team down. Need for control and closure.

Behavior and focus: Might refer the employee to another department; encourages/pushes resignation. Focus on maximizing own well-being in the immediate present. Protects high-performing employees, assigns the already disengaged or unwell tasks that others might not like, excludes them from meetings, or assigns them difficult clients. Focuses on needs of company and self, putting employee last.

Pros: The manager acknowledges the problem. Eliminates the problem from direct concern. Sends a signal to the rest of the team that issues are being handled promptly. High performers may benefit. Signals to other employees that their contributions are valued and that they are to be protected over the well-being of the unwell.

Risks: Hurts impacted individual, appears uncaring to other colleagues and direct reports, and the employee never gets help. The manager’s treatment of the unwell employee could create fear and mistrust in other employees. The employee isn’t given a fair chance to improve. May backfire if the employee’s condition worsens and coworkers are affected.

Get in touch with your inner platypus instead.

Management has never been more complex — bringing our humanity to work means facing ours and engaging with that of others. In doing so, none of us have superpowers, but we can take inspiration from an animal that seems to have a few: the platypus.

This polygamous egg-laying mammal sports a beaver’s paddle-shaped tail, an otter’s sleek furry body, and a duck’s webbed feet. Like this composite of helpful characteristics from others, a flexible manager efficient on many terrains and in different contexts is more likely to find the right approach.

platypus under water — shows claws and webbed feet

In addition, it is inquisitive and even has a sixth sense. For the platypus, a soft leathery snout with electro-receptors (like sharks) enables it to pick up small signals from animals nearby. For managers it is important to remain attuned to others to open communication and engage in difficult conversations. Supporting employees requires reflection and intuition, but also research resources available in the organization — and lobby for those that may be lacking.

Also, thanks to skin flaps on ears and eyes to dive, it can shut its ears and turn a blind eye, like managers sometimes do — sometimes for the best. As such, they don't risk becoming a “helicopter manager” hovering “over their employees in a well-intentioned attempt to provide support or a compulsive need to micro-manage or provide unnecessary guidance.”[i]

Finally, like a good manager who does not flaunt aggression for no reason but can act powerfully when needed, our creature sports sharp and long claws only on its back limbs and produces venom on its back and thigh glands. Such tools are essential in a managerial arsenal to neutralize the impact of workplace bullies and toxic supervisors.

It may be time for managers to use their claws to protect themselves and those in their charge, too.

None of our best intentions, reflections, or superpowers will work if leaders do not take their feet off the gas and stop what Microsoft recently called “productivity mania.” With meetings up 153% since before the pandemic, workers are multitasking more than ever just to keep up. As a result, in an early October 2022 survey, 50% of its workers reported signs of burnout. Managers can only do so much. Time for companies to also revisit their assumptions about workers’ ability to deal with rising stress.

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Compiled by the Human Sustainability Inside Out team. We welcome feedback and ideas. Thank you to David Lane and Antonio Sadaric for their humor and moral support at liminal junctures.


[1] As quoted in Carin-Isabel Knoop and John A Quelch, Compassionate Management of Mental Health in the Modern Workplace (Springer, 2018), p. 73.

[2] As quoted in Carin-Isabel Knoop and John A. Quelch, Compassionate Management of Mental Health in the Modern Workplace (Springer, 2018), p. 73.

[i] Adam Grant, “The Helping Hand Strikes Again,” Pulse | LinkedIn, April 21, 2013, available via https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20130421122648-69244073-helicopter-managers-the-helping-hand-strikes-again, accessed March 2017.



Carin-Isabel Knoop (on Humans in the Digital Era)

Harvard Business School Executive Director, passionate about improving lives at work. Pragmatic optimist devoted to helping those who care for others.