How Well Do You Know Your People? Here are 7 Things You SHOULD Know

By Linda Hill and Kent Lineback

How well do you know your people?

If you don’t know your people, you cannot make intelligent decisions about assignments for them, and you cannot capture their commitment or decide how much to trust and delegate to them.

Nor can you fairly assess and weigh their interests as you make difficult choices that involve them. Use the following questions as rough guides to assess what you know or need to find out.

  • What is this person’s generation and what does that say about her approach to life and work? Knowing her generation — pre boomer, boomer, Gen X, Gen Y/Millennial — can provide clues about her attitudes toward life and work. Try to understand how her generation differs from yours. The Web makes this information easy to find.

  • What are this person’s career aspirations? What does he hope to accomplish, and where does he want to be in five or ten years? How can his current work help him achieve these goals?
  • What is this person’s life stage, and what does that tell you about his needs and concerns? Single, single with children, married with no children, raising a young family, empty nester, putting children through college? Life stage and generation were once related, but the stage of life when people marry and bring up families now varies so much, it’s sometimes hard to correlate the two.
  • In what culture was this person raised? The national or ethnic cultures in which she grew up can have an enormous impact on the attitudes, values, and assumptions she brings to work and to life in general.
  • What are this person’s outside interests? Does he devote time and effort to activities outside work? Church? Community? Education? Such interests can be revealing. We know someone who does clerical work in the office, but outside she organized and ran a successful $200,000 building campaign for her local community center. People’s real talents aren’t always recognized or utilized at work.
  • What is this person’s unique life history? Where did she grow up? Under what circumstances? What key life experiences made her the person she is?
  • What are this person’s strengths as a person and as a team member? Most managers have no trouble identifying someone’s weaknesses. They interpret their role as evaluators to mean they must focus there and devote far less attention to people’s strengths. Yet people’s strengths are what will take your team where it needs to go. If you cannot immediately identify each team member’s strengths, perhaps you’re too focused on weaknesses.

Do you know your people well enough to empathize with them?

You need empathy, the ability to see the world as others see it without being captured by their point of view. This is the only way to understand truly why people think and feel as they do.

Unless you can put yourself in their place, you won’t be able to manage them well. Develop the mental habit, when dealing with someone, of pausing three seconds and trying to step into their shoes.

Empathy is possible only if you realize that others are fundamentally different from you.

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Yes, you know others look, dress, act, and talk differently. But do you understand that they think and feel differently too? They have different goals, fears, needs, sources of satisfaction, and ways of looking at the world. You cannot put yourself in their place unless you appreciate how profound these differences are.

Understand what real empathy is. It’s not simply understanding how you would feel in someone else’s position but how that person feels, given who they are. It often requires that we accept and understand feelings quite different from our own. This is why you need to know each of your people as unique individuals.

Ultimate empathy, of course, is the ability to see not just the world, but yourself, as others do.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader. Copyright 2011 Linda A. Hill and Lowell Kent Lineback. All rights reserved.

Linda A. Hill is the Walter Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. She also chairs the HBS Leadership Initiative and is the author of "Becoming a Manager." Kent Lineback is a writer who spent 30 years as a manager in business and government. He is co-author of "The Monk and the Riddle."