In years forward, I don’t know when exactly, our ancestors will look upon our common classifications of people as archaic and barbaric. They will wonder at our stereotypes and labeling of each other. We classify the characteristics of our fellow social beings as male, female, young, old, white, black, Asian, Hispanic, LGBTQ, IQ, EQ level, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, introvert, extrovert and an infinite number of other sets and subsets. The rise of big data and data analytics has strengthened our ability to see and focus on these classifications.
If I recall my college classes in Philosophy properly, I think this practice is at the core of Western logic. Place things in classes and then distinguish them from other items in the class, Aristotle taught us. Plato said we should imagine the perfect form of a chair and then each chair can be defined in terms of how it is different from the perfect form of a chair. This reasoning may have its place in some contexts and is certainly important for monitoring and avoiding discrimination, but when we leaders and managers deal with those for whom we are responsible in the workplace, its a dangerous and flawed approach that holds back performance.
We will not bring out the best in others until we approach them and work with them as the unique humans they are.
Every Human Is Unique
Like a snowflake, every human in the workplace is unique. Every time I use my iPhone and open an app with my fingerprint, I am reminded that while there are nearly 7.5 billion people alive today, no two have the same fingerprints. We know this fact about the uniqueness of each other, but we ignore it and forget it, in part because it is easy. Focusing on someone as a member of a class is a lazy way to assess, lead and manage people. Working to understand the uniqueness of others takes much more work than classifying:
“I am a Baby Boomer, so I like to work hard.”
“Joe is a Millennial, so he likes to job hop.”
How sad to dismiss away our uniqueness.
Defining Soft Skills
Each of us is a “bundle” of many different soft skills, and those unique bundles exhibit our uniqueness in the workplace. This is where you will find the differences. Some employees are good talkers and some are good listeners. Some employees have a quick, conceptual style and others may be slower and more methodical. Some like to work head down, others like to interact while they work. Some folks are creative while others prefer checklists. Some like to lead and some like to follow. Those who would lead and manage well need to be observant of these differences.
Great leaders and managers naturally align team members with projects that utilize their unique traits. Leaders and managers at the same time work to soften those traits that are perhaps too extraordinary and unique when they get in the way of getting things done.
It has historically been said that 85% of whether you get ahead in an organization is based on your soft skills, not your technical skills. Whether exactly accurate or not, since it is through people that work is accomplished, your soft skills matter. How you as a leader and manager handle these bundles of soft skills determines how far you as a leader and manager move up in the organization.
Do you find the top technician leading the pack? Not often in my experience.
Unique Traits in All Humans
We often talk in terms of strengths and weaknesses when it comes to leading and managing employees. So, here is a simple beginner’s task to help you better lead and manage.
First, ask yourself what is the greatest strength of one of your team members. I will use a simple example of someone who is highly communicative and social. What I like to do is to then consider the flip side of that record, because everyone’s greatest strength is always also their greatest weakness. How could that be a weakness? Well, one can be overly communicative and social, and impede the accomplishment of task by distracting the environment. You as a leader and manager need to understand both the good and bad of the unique traits we all have. If you ponder on your own life, consider that we often see a trait, but view it very differently depending upon whether we are a friend or not with the person. If we like someone, we enjoy their sociability. If we don’t, we label them as talkative and a gossip.
As a leader and manager, you need to maintain both perspectives. How can you use their strengths to team advantage? How can you be sensitive to when the trait inhibits team performance? This is the beginning of soft skills management for leaders and managers. But, it starts with the original task: find the unique traits by putting aside stereotypes and external and visible classifications.
Once you have found a unique trait, examine the ends of the spectrum: how is it a strength and how could it be a weakness? As you lead and manage others you will become an expert at spotting and learning the uniqueness, and avoiding superficial classifications. You will work to understand and uncover the bundles of traits people have. As Shrek said, “Ogres are like onions, they have layers…” You learn more as you peel away each layer. Maybe humans are like onions also.
Challenge yourself with your direct reports to observe and learn what makes them one of the unique 7.5 billion human beings on the planet and toss aside whether their hair is dark or grey.
If you need a reminder, glance at the fingers of people instead of their hair color and remember this: out of 7.5 billion people, no two share the same fingerprints.
P.S., I focus on hair color as an example because I recently had the grey taken out of mine for my daughter’s wedding. Ever since, I am being treated very differently, appearing apparently 15 years younger. Implicit bias with respect to age apparently is alive and well.
copyright Cash Nickerson
This essay is part of a collection to be published in a book called Managing Snowflakes, how to tap human potential and bring out the best in others by learning, respecting and managing the unique bundle of soft skills we each have.
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