Today’s successful, respected managers understand that developing relationships at work is critically important to their individual and team’s success. Unfortunately, one of the attributes we see in poor performing managers is a lack of caring about their peers and direct reports and, more importantly, a streak of unconscious arrogance regarding their own abilities to “read” people. This whole context—the notion of reading people—is out of place in today’s business world, as we now know that working with people is a continuous process of understanding them, not just some kind of gut-check assessment upon the first meeting or review session.
And understanding your people at work—your colleagues, direct reports, and your own managers—is, as we discussed in a recent blog post, one of the core foundations of building high performance teams at companies, along with trust and openness. High performance has a direct correlation with employees’ ability, no matter their role, to develop relationships and earn credibility, whether that credibility lies with their supervisors, colleagues, or the people who report to them.
If managers and employees are seeking to improve their performance through strengthening relationships at work, then they need to ditch the reading people mindset and get down to the harder work of really understanding them. And in order to gain this understanding, they must focus on the journey, not certain events along the way, like a certain project, recent mishap, windfall, or performance reviews.
Understanding people is a process, and the process is defined by multiple interactions and perceptions on the part of the people involved. To begin our process for understanding others, we must first understand ourselves. As people, we tend to understand ourselves in terms of the things we value, our own strengths, skills, and positive attributes, as well as what we see as our own shortcomings, flaws, or liabilities. For example, you may see yourself as gregarious, creative, and driven—all fantastic traits. But you may also recognize that you are a procrastinator, lack confidence in high pressure settings, and tend to be defensive when others don’t immediately warm to an idea you think is your most brilliant yet. Thus, you’ve distilled yourself down to these three positives, along with corresponding negatives.
Once we understand ourselves, it’s much easier to see how we can understand others and develop relationships accordingly. A natural law of attraction—speaking purely in the professional context here—is that we will gravitate toward people, more specifically toward characteristics or behaviors that mirror or complement our own. This is what separates the good managers from the arrogant ones, the ones who assume they are great at reading and influencing people. Good managers are willing to engage themselves in the introspection required to have a baseline understanding of themselves—in both relaxed times and high pressure situations, as well as individual work and collaboration with teams—to have that same understanding of others.
What it boils down to, ultimately, is that managers must seek to understand their own greatest strengths and weaknesses, and then seek representative qualities in their employees that provide either amplification of the things they like about themselves or provide a nice counterpoint to the manager’s own weaknesses. For those arrogant managers, even admitting they have a weakness is a huge first step to better understanding.
So, if you’re an extrovert that tends to be very expressive, but lacks an analytical perspective, you may uncover, through listening and observing, a team member at work who mirrors your extroversion, chooses fewer words, and leans heavily on information-gathering and analysis to make decisions. In the end, to defeat the unconscious arrogance that’s so rife in management in many companies, managers must be challenged to have humility about their own abilities, re-contextualizing reading people into understanding them, knowing themselves first, and then listening to others to gain perspective on their value to the team and organization at large.