Judging people: External vs. Internal

AngryHappy New Year, everybody! 🙂

AnyaWorkSmart is back online and will continue with discussion of every aspect of Management that can be improved by fighting Biases. I decided that the first post of the year should deal with a situation where the negative influence of Biases is most critical – our attempts to judge others based on their appearances and actions.It’s unnecessary to state once more how crucial judging others correctly is for Managers: accepting a wrong person into the team, misreading the players on the political map, talking about one client with another (who happens to be an acquaintance), being unable to get along with crucial stakeholders, tasking employees with tasks unsuited for them, failing to see who wants to be promoted and who needs to be given a slack because his parent is in hospital – this is just a small fraction of the possible negative implication you can have. What’s to do, then?

Despite the fact that the risk of misjudging other people could never be completely negated (among all, due to deliberate efforts of people to hide their true self from others), there are several basic misconceptions that could be easily corrected if we learn to alternate our attention between the external and the internal parameters of human behavior according to situation.

For example,

People who skip social niceties are not necessarily unpleasant to be around

The desire to mostly be around nice people is natural – we have enough stress from other things in our lives to spend the precious social energy on the douchebags around us. The question is: can we spot a douchebag or do we sometimes tend to shun people who may actually make a nice interaction?

Our most basic parameter would usually be to prefer people who follow the same social conventions as we do and to stay away from the blatantly anti-social types who just do what they want. There is nothing wrong with it, but there are several caveats.

First of all, there are people who do not follow the social conventions not because they are actively against them, but because they just focus on different things, such as being good at what they do or not saying something that can offend others. People who did not get a chance to learn how to socialize (similarly to many of my ex-co-eds in Technion), may be just shy to initiate interaction by themselves, but become very engaged when embraced by the group. Some people abstain from talking to strangers due to previous negative experience or again – shyness, but at the very moment that the stranger becomes an acquaintance, you can actually see a different person, open, funny and talkative. It’s also important to know that shyness is not a telltale sign of lack of confidence: not being sure how to proceed due to lack of information is not the same as being unable to proceed when the road is clear.

We should also remember that many people who are not actually nice, may have a perfect mastery of socially acceptable niceties, breaking them at their will when it suits them. They will make every possible effort and play every role you’ll want them to in order to drag you into a deal, and only then will show their real face.

People who talk about work in common language instead of professional jargon could be better experts than those who do the opposite

I’ve already written about counting too much on professional jargon as a sign of expertise, but it’s important to bring it up once more in this context.

People tend to judge others by the tools they use and not by the results they achieve with those tools. For example, my Martial Arts instructor was frequently referred to as being “too unconventional” by the same people he just wiped the floor with, trying to suggest that using uncommon tools somehow detracts from the victory. It’s the same with professional language – people expect expressed knowledge to be formally codified into terms and acronyms, unwisely refusing to listen to those who speak “normally”. Of course, in some cases, such as when Managers are talking to Engineers, the problem is exacerbated because each party demands that its own language should be used, further impairing communication.

Have you seen the movie “Catch me if you can”? Its main character successfully impersonates members of different professions, including pilots, lawyers and doctors just by learning to talk how they talk – by copying their professional jargon. Without stressing too much the fact that the movie was based on a real story, let’s just say that talking in terms in acronym is a very good way to pose as experts for those who want to do so, so – better keep it in mind 🙂

On the other hand, talking about complicated subjects in common language may mean their deep and real understanding that translates into an ability to explain things to almost anyone. Wouldn’t you prefer to talk to an expert who wouldn’t get angry people are unappreciative of his arcane knowledge and is able to walk them through the process according to their needs? Think about it!  🙂

Age is not such a good parameter for inventiveness and creativity

For the last decades we were living in a market that was frequently unfair to older employees, – younger people were seen as more energetic, more flexible and more open to innovation. The market was bristling with youthful energy, investments were easy to come by, no one listened to conservatives, and now here we are – not quite where we thought we would be by this time…

So now, as “baby-boomers” start approaching the end of their careers, and Generation X is soon to find itself in the unfamiliar role of tribe elders, we may have to rethink our understanding of connection between age and workplace creativity.

I’m not going to make my point by running down the creative potential of Generation Y, as seems to be the fashion lately, neither would I say that today’s market needs rebalancing creativity with other important employee traits such as integrity (though I would neither say the opposite). Instead, I would like to remind you that today’s older people are not what we were used to seeing previously – they are actually the first generation that grew up cherishing inventiveness as a value. They are basically the reason why we appreciate inventiveness and creativity in our employees – the Jobbs, the Wozniaks, the Gates’es who created the market as we know it today. People who came before them were the last generation who grew in a world where old meant good, but this paradigm is not going to return for some time.

So, basically, today’s and tomorrow’s older employees are some of the most creative people who happened to sit behind a desk. Think about it.

Categorizing people is OK as long as you don’t label them

We are constantly (and justifiably) being warned against labeling people for their inborn traits, be it their ethnicity, their gender, their disability etc. But what about their other, more work-related traits: can we call people “winners” or “losers”, “achievers” or “quitters”? Can we say: “I’m not hiring this specific person because he or she belongs to some specific social group or category?”

Actually, we can, as long as we remember the difference between categories and labels.

There are several categories that are pretty useful for Managers who know how to assign people into them after learning a few things about them. Would you like to hire a “troublemaker”? Is it OK for your boss to be a “narcissist”? Are there many people who would prefer working in a “wasp’s nest”?

All of those, and many others, are useful and meaningful categories we can use to navigate the social minefield where one mistake may mean certain doom, and there is nothing wrong in using them, because people fall into them not for “who they are”, but for “what they do”. It’s interesting that common sense tells us to look deeper inside a person to uncover the well-hidden internal traits and perks, while experience suggests that people’s external behavior is much more important for us at the workplace. That a colleague answers your e-mails on time and smiles when you meet in the elevator is actually much more important for you than the fact that he is playing Galaga when no one is watching. From your point of view, he belongs to the “OK” category, and it’s totally not labeling, because you base your judgment on what you actually know about the person.

This is actually whole meaning in this post: you can and you should judge people, as long you do it based on actual data. It’s just another type of decision that we Managers make, and we should do it with the same quality as everything else.

Happy New Year, everybody! 🙂

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