#509  from Innovative Leader Volume 10, Number 1          January 2001

Developing a People-Smart Organization
by Mel Silberman, Ph.D.

Dr. Silberman is Professor of Adult and Organizational Development at Temple University and President of Active Training,  609-924-8157 (www.activetraining.com).  He is author of 101 Ways to Make Training Active, Active Training, and 101 Ways to Make Meetings Active (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1995, 1998, 1999). This article is adapted from his latest book, PeopleSmart: Developing Your Interpersonal Intelligence (Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 2000).   

All your employees need to be people smart.  No matter what someone’s function is, everyone in today’s workforce is in the people business!  It used to be said that some people were in the business of working with people and some of us were in the business of working with facts, figures, and machinery.   But the people business is no longer the domain of the few.  It now includes everyone.

What Does It Mean to Be People Smart?

Ask the person on the street what it means to be people smart, and you are bound to hear many who have this picture: “Oh, that’s a person who is really a smooth operator… a person who knows how to get others to join his side.” A different picture you might get is someone who is  “personable…friendly… fun to be with.” 

While few people would complain about having those two attributes, they represent a very limited view of what it means to be gifted with people. Being people smart is a multifaceted competence.  It is not limited to our political skills or our social graces but includes a wide range of abilities.  They are:

  Understanding People

People-smart individuals listen actively, empathize with someone’s feelings, and acknowledge his or her viewpoint.  That not only helps them to be appreciated but also works to draw out information they need to figure out what makes the other person tick.  They ask questions to clarify what someone is saying when he is confusing. They also realize that understanding others goes beyond the words they speak.   They know how to interpret the unspoken.  Finally, they are expert at reading other people’s style and motives.

  Expressing Yourself Clearly

People-smart individuals know how to get their message across so it’s understood. When people go on and on to make a point, they simply have no effect on other people. Those who are people smart get to the point when brevity is required, yet give just enough detail so that other people are not confused.   They can also sense when the other person has not understood them and can quickly rephrase what they are saying.

  Asserting Your Needs

People-smart individuals know that you’ve got to be your own person.  You have to have limits and you have to establish those limits.  If you try to be all things to all people, you’ll wind up disappointing them.  They also are straightforward with your wishes.  Hinting at what you need from others only leads to disappointment and frustration.  Once that happens, you often become angry with others and lose the calm and confidence you need to be at your best.   Those who are people smart are able to remain calm and confident even when others try to provoke them and push their emotional buttons.

  Seeking and Giving Feedback

People-smart individuals are open about their reactions to others.  They are able to give feedback easily and do it in such a way that the other people don’t get defensive.  They also know that it is smart to get in the habit of asking for feedback themselves. If feedback is withheld, it’s as though the person has blinders on. Without feedback, you’re always left wondering what the other person is thinking about you.

  Influencing Others

High interpersonal intelligence is evidence of someone’s  ability to motivate others to action. People smart individuals are also the people others come to for advice. They are able to connect with others, unearth their needs, reduce their resistance to new ideas and persuade effectively.

  Resolving Conflict

People-smart individuals are exceptional conflict resolvers.  They get the subject right out on the table.  They figure out what’s bothering the other person.   They are especially adept at negotiating differences and working out creative resolutions to problems.

  Being a Team Player

People-smart individuals are team players.   They work more to advance the group’s goals rather than their own.   They also know how to complement the styles of others, coordinate the efforts of team members without bossing them around, and build consensus.

  Shifting Gears When Relationships Are Stuck        

Finally, people-smart individuals are flexible and resilient.  While they have an inner core and a predominant style of dealing with people, they also understand that there are different strokes for different folks.  They realize that one of the ways you can get a stuck relationship to change is to change the way you behave in it.  They know how to get out of old patterns and unfreeze situations that have previously been frozen shut.  

The Four Steps to a People-Smart Organization

As you undertake the task of developing a people-smart organization, consider these four steps.  Don’t pass over any of them.

Get them to “WANT  IT.”  From the start, your people must be honest with themselves and determine if they want to develop their people smarts.  The first thing to do is to have them take stock of their strengths and weaknesses with each of the people smart skills.   To assist them with this process, provide a short survey that assesses their current ability level in each skill area.  Urge them to rely not just on their own perceptions.  Push them to find the courage to ask others how they see them as well.  Taking a candid look at themselves is a critical step along the road to self-improvement.

2.         Get them to “LEARN IT.”  People-smart individuals do certain things very well. Invite your people to become familiar with the core skills possessed by people who exemplify each of the eight people-smart abilities.  While they don’t need a whole course in each area to make some changes, it is important to acquire a few basics.  Of course, some people may already be familiar with this material.  If that describes anyone you know, you should still urge them to review it just the same to refresh themselves before taking any action.   

3          Get them to “TRY IT .”  Most people make the mistake of going for broke and then fizzle out when results don’t come quickly. With each aspect of interpersonal intelligence, encourage your employees to conduct an “experiment in change.”   You want them to try on a small change in behavior “for size” and see if they like what happens.   Don’t kid yourself: they won’t persist unless they find that there is something “in it for them.”  By offering them some “experiments in change ” for their consideration, they will able to test their wings and find the initial successes to sustain themselves for further practice.

4.         Get them to “LIVE IT.”  One of the reasons that changes don’t last is that after people get pumped up about doing something, they try to make it on sheer inspiration and will power.  They may have some initial success but then quickly relapse.  Real change only comes by overcoming obstacles that are in the way in daily life.... not by jumping over buildings in leaping bounds.  Help your employees to confront their difficulties with each people-smart skill.   The skill may be difficult for them for reasons that are different than for someone else.  If they face the reasons why the skill is difficult for them, they will have a greater chance for incorporating the skill into their life.

Before they go forth, one piece of advice. Tell them not to rush the process. Urge them to be patient and don’t skip any of the steps in the process.  Remember, they have to: Want it, learn it, try it, and live it.

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