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Can You Lead People Without Understanding People?

What do these things have in common? The new technology is ready to launch and there is push back from the staff. The CEO has been explicit with the executive team about creating a more inclusive culture and the message falls on deaf ears. The marketing team has presented the new branding approach and the CEO tears it up. The operations team receives the lowest customer satisfaction ratings yet insists that everything is going great. The CTO complains that his terrible 360 feedback is simply sour grapes. The employee engagement survey highlights a lack of confidence in the senior team and the executives gloss right over it.

Wrong strategy? Wrong implementation plan? Wrong communication process? Maybe a little of all those things but the common thread is: people. We are funny creatures, we human beings. We will go to great lengths to ignore any input that differs from our own sense of just how fantastic we are. We will dig our heels in when asked to change because we do love our comfort zones. We will outright reject criticism to fortify our fragile egos. At the heart of organizational and leadership effectiveness is skill and insight about what makes people tick.

Sadly, most of us only get on-the-job training about human behavior. And by on-the-job I mean living life. As we move through school, friendships, families, jobs and communities we encounter lots of people. We have experiences that shape how we see ourselves and those around us. In the best case scenario, we have a propensity towards self reflection, listening to others and seeing people in all their nuance and complexity. The norm, however, is to lock into an image of ourselves as we wish to be seen and to simplistically categorize others. This is a unique challenge in the workplace. Whereas we might work hard to create a great relationship with our spouse, we don’t have that same commitment with our colleagues. When a spouse says, “You aren’t listening to me” we will dig deep to focus better and absorb the message. When a direct report says the same thing we might counter with, “I don’t think you are hearing me!”

So if you don’t have any formal training (courses, therapy, coaching) how can you develop some understanding about human beings including yourself?

  • Do some learning. Read books on human development and behavior. Attend seminars, spend a week at the Center for Creative Leadership, seek out the regular guidance of a professional expert. Watch and study people who excel at human interactions. Commit to a course of disciplined action just like you would if you suddenly decided to learn how to play the piano.
  • Set on a path of self reflection. Developing the habit of taking a step back to review your actions and underlying motives will sound like belly button gazing to many of you. But understanding others begins with understanding ourselves. Quinn, Kouzes and Posner are business writers who do a good job of speaking to business people on this topic. They even have workbooks you can use to ponder their questions. It’s a start.
  • Get help. Okay, this is coming from a former therapist. A good therapist or coach provides a safe and supportive place to say out loud all those things that have been swirling around inside you that block your growth. At the same time you will be getting help understanding other people’s behavior. Having an objective expert in human development and behavior whispering in your ear and listening to you is invaluable.
  • Practice new skills in safe settings. Once armed with some insight and ideas about what new things you want to try, find safe people and places to experiment. A good friend, a trusted colleague, a family member. Ask for feedback and suggestions for improvement. You are trying to develop new muscles so think of it like going to the gym. You need to push yourself a bit without injury to yourself or others.
  • Ask for forgiveness as you take it live. One of my extremely introverted CEO clients preferred staying locked in his office over engaging publicly with the staff. After months of discussion he was ready to come out of his cubby hole. At the all staff meeting he announced, “I have received the feedback about how I am always behind a closed door and that you want me to be more accessible. I am terribly shy and socially awkward but I am committed to trying some new things. So if you see me wondering the halls or cafeteria like a lost puppy, please be kind and help me out.” It was so endearing and the staff couldn’t have been more supportive.
  • Ask, don’t assume or guess. Someone raises his voice with you and it sets off alarms. Is he mad at me? Is he just mad? Is this passion about the task? Is he trying to exert some influence to go in a different direction? And even before you get through your whole list of thoughts you probably return the favor and raise your voice. Remember, we are apes originally and we do imitate. When you hit those panic moments take a breath and ask him what’s going on. “Why are you raising your voice?” This serves two purposes: it alerts the person that he has shifted gears (which he may not be aware of) and you don’t have to read his mind.

When we have overdeveloped technical skills but limited interpersonal skills we are only using half of our capacity and that other half is critical to effective leadership. The probability of using analytic, intellectual, technical thoughts and methods to understand self and others is very high. But it is also wholly insufficient. Good head skills are useful but they need to be paired with good heart skills.

It seems so odd to me that it is not mandatory to take courses on human development and behavior before you enter the work world or take a leadership role. Nutty idea, I know, but if people will always be the engine for accomplishing organizational goals don’t you think we ought to develop some knowledge in this area? Play it in reverse: would you go to a doctor who has amazing interpersonal skills but very limited medical know-how. Seriously?

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