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Passion, People and Principles

What If You’re Not That Interested in People?

post # 256 — December 7, 2006 — a Managing post

In yesterday’s blogpost on leadership the central points, which all the subsequent commenters seemed to endorse vigorously, were that the key to being an effective manager was to be interested in people, and… and… and… (drumroll, please) you can’t fake that stuff! It’s either genuine or you’re not going to be an effective manager.

In my experience, there’s too little reflection and examination on the consequences of those points, and too much glib advice (including by me) that you “should” get interested in people.

I think that misses the whole point about not being able to fake it. People array along a continuous spectrum of how genuinely interested they are in other people, and how comfortable they are in relating to other people on an intimate one-to-one (“drop the mask, be human”) basis. Given different underlying characters and personality tyupes, maybe we need to stop pretending that everyone CAN become ‘interested in other people.’ If you really can’t fake it, then what use is the advice that you should “get interested?”

Very frequently when I am doing a seminar or consulting about effective management, people look at the list of what effective managers do and they say things like “That’s not too hard – why doesn’t everyone do that?” And the answer is that it’s not too hard if you are genuinely interested in other people. But it is my experience that, in real life, only a minority really are. That’s not a moral failing, or a lack of skills – it’s about relatively fixed personality traits, in my view.

For example, some people have high social needs – they revel in being part of a lively, active circle. Others, just aren’t wired that way. They’d prefer to cuddle up with a good book rather than go to the bar or the pub with the ‘gang.’ Some people REALLY enjoy listening to the details of other people’s lives. Others, meaning no disrespect, just don’t want or need to know.

So, here’s the point for discussion. If you can’t fake a sincere interest in people, what’s the point of advising people to do it? Should we shut down all the management training programs or restrict them only for people who first pass an attitude test?


Rick Turoczy said:

David, I can definitely see your position, as easily as I can see the holes in my reckless optimism about the desire to change. And the potential for an underlying respect for individuals, no matter their calling.

There are any number of leaders out there “succeeding despite themselves.” Based on their own definition of success, they don’t have to change to achieve their goals. These people will be good enough without the desire to become great. And that will leave them perfectly happy.

I would hope that if someone truly wanted to emulate a great leader that they would have the desire to embrace some of these qualitities. But that naive position may be my undoing.

That said, I’m starting to fall into the-chicken-or-the-egg argument here, aren’t I? Do the people who have the desire to become leaders change to become leaders or do the people who have the innate ability capitalize on that ability and become great leaders?

Thanks for getting me thinking.

posted on December 7, 2006

Rick Turoczy said:

So… faking it or already having it are the only two options?

Don’t you think the people who “have it” had to learn how to “have it” at some point?

My somewhat snarky point is that this “interest in others” shouldn’t be viewed as some mystical innate endowment. This is something that can be developed.

posted on December 7, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Rick, that’s the question, and I hear your conclusion loud and clear. I’m merely (but seriously) saing there’s a lot of room for debate about the conclusion. Skills can be developed, behaviours learned – but underlying attitudes? They may be more immutable than we like to think.

I think everyone can learn to treat others with respect and to behave in appropriate ways. But can you develop the *attitude* of being truly interested in others? Personally, I think that’s a diffferent question, and my conclusion is different than yours, at least so far – I haven’t seen too many people develop different attitides.

I don’t say it’s impossible. A lot of what i do for a living (and the challenging, outrageous style with which i do it when I’m live and in person) is an attempt to influence people at an emotional, attitudinal level. It’s darn hard work with a low success rate. Helping people understand things intellectually is one thing, but turning them into people who WANT to do it is another whole kettle of fish.

My hypothesis is that people’s basic character and built-in preferences on interactive styles (introvert v extrovert, exuberant v melancholy, analytical v emotional) are certainly formed by the time they hit the workplace, and that we need to do a much better job of selecting for managerial attitudes (and removing people who don’t have them!)

posted on December 7, 2006

Ian Welsh said:

Interest in others is often confused with being warm and fuzzy and extroverted and so on. But that doesn’t have to be the case – one of the best bosses I ever had was definitely somewhat introverted. She was, in fact, a bit of a hardcase and felt distant, it took months for new team mebers to warm to her. But she looked after her people. I dare she liked a good book more than going out to a party – she wasn’t extroverted. But she was interested in her people, she made sure to give them opportunities, she held people to high standards and she protected her people from other managers and msicellaneous officious twits.

When she left her entire team was devestated. People cried.

Was she a people person?

Let me suggest that it’s walking the walk that matters in the end, not talking the talk.

posted on December 7, 2006

Eric Brown said:

Everyone can learn to have an interest in others…it is easy…all you have to do is genuinly care about the interest of others. That isn’t a difficult thing to learn. Empathy is something that can be easily understood by most people and easily employed within a person’s life. I don’t believe that because a person doesn’t naturally have an aptitude for caring for others that that person can’t learn the importance of empathy.

You do make a good point though….how does an organization train people in the art of empathetic leadership? Some people just aren’t wired for this ‘touchy feely’ sort of thing and can’t/won’t embrace it. I know quite a few good technical/engineering managers that would laugh at me if I were to bring up this topic with them…however, these same managers do have a way of connecting with their team in a manner that builds trust within the team.

Perhaps the thing that needs to be ‘taught’ to all managers/leaders is that earning trust is one of the most important aspects of being a leader. How that trust is earned will be different for each person…some people do go for the ‘touchy-feely’ management styles while others use much more subtle but just as effective styles to lead their teams.

posted on December 7, 2006

Erik Mazzone said:

Interesting question, David. I would reframe the debate somewhat (no surprise there, I’m a former lawyer): perhaps it is not so much a question of the attitude of being interested in others that some managers lack, but rather the ability to communicate that interest to those others. If so, the communication skills are absolutely learnable.

posted on December 7, 2006

breakingranks said:

I would like to second Ian’s point that introversion should not be equated with being uninterested in people. For instance, if a person spends a lot of time reading, it may be a sign that they’re so interested in people that they’re seeking a high level understanding of human relationships.

As an extremely introverted person myself, I’m somewhat frustrated at being penalized for my natural outlook on life. Why do rabid networkers get more acknowledgement and rewards out of life than people who have carved out more time to actually do work? Why is society forcing people like me to change to be more like the extroverts? Even if there is a spectrum, I’m inclined to agree that a lot of people are being forced to fake it – which makes their entire lives seem fraudulent (and it makes the rest of the world seem all facade as well, if we assume others are doing what we’re doing).

The only way to avoid punishing people like me (for what may be our gifts and talents) is to conscientiously make a place in the economy and corporate organizations for the excellent introvert. Extroverts need to adapt to the idea that just because a person isn’t like them, it doesn’t mean they have bad character or a bad attitude. They are the ones thinking outside the box, and an agile, innovative business needs them.

posted on December 7, 2006

breakingranks said:

Ps. It would help a lot if HR consultants stopped talking about “social skills”, as if people who aren’t out there with a fake smile and meaningless handshake were somehow lacking skills. Maybe the supposed lack of skill is actually insight into what would be vapid to learn.

posted on December 7, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Some reactions, not in order: Yes, Erik, if you reframe the issue of one of actually being interested but not able to communicate it, then its learnable and “developable.” But that assumes away the very issue we’re trying to anayze here, doesn’t it?

All of you who have commented so far are vigorously trying to make the case that everyone (or most people) can develop this.

What’s so hard about acknowledging that some people are just not that interested in other people, don’t want to be, and don’t see why they should be?

I’m truly not trying to be provocative for the sake of being so here. I’m honestly trying to report that a MAJORITY (not a few, a majority) of the lawyers, accountants, IT consultants, actuaries, etc aren’t that into “other people.” They love their work, but spent working with and through others is not the high point of their day.

Let me confess – I’m probably one of those people (which may be why I’m arguing this one so vigorously.) One of the reasons I stayed solo was not that a couldn’t learn managerial skills, but that I just didn’t WANT to have to have to work with and through other people. I try to do it well (and honorably) when I have to, but it’s not my preferred way of working.

As I joke in my speeches “I love audiences – it’s individual people I find so difficult!”

posted on December 7, 2006

Wally Bock said:

I’ve been training first line supervisors and new managers in supervisory skills for more than two decades. In that time I’ve had folks go through the program that had a sincere interest in people and folks whose sole interest was the mission. In the after-training follow-ups I’ve found plenty of both groups doing a good job at “being interested in people.” I’ve also found some with a genuine interest who couldn’t seem to get that interest across to the people who work for them. Ultimately it’s not about whether you have some un-fakable warm feeling about others. It IS about whether you understand that if you’re the boss you’ve got two jobs: accomplishing the mission and caring for the people. It’s your job to say and do the things make it possible to do that. It’s your job to show concern for the people who work for you.

Some people do this naturally and easily. Others need reminder files and conscious planning to make it work. But both types can show concern for their people. Both types can create working environments and relationships that others find friendly, supportive and productive.

posted on December 7, 2006

peter vajda said:

David offers: “Skills can be developed, behaviours learned – but underlying attitudes? They may be more immutable than we like to think.”

Attitudes stem from thoughts and beliefs. There are benefits and consequences of actions, regardless of the underlying beliefs/attitudes.

So, for me, a conscious exploration of the underlying beliefs around “taking an interst in people” may be in order. And, I’d use four questions that can be explored/asked/answered by all stakeholders involved:

1. What will happen if a manager takes an interest in people?

2. What won’t happen if a manager takes an interest in people?

3. What will happen if a manager doesn’t take an interest in people?

4. What won’t happen if a manager doesn’t take an interst in people?

…and being curious about the nature of the effect of the various stakeholders’ responses contribution to the energy of the workplace environment and culture, morale, the team, relationships, trust, transparency, motivation, stress, etc.

posted on December 7, 2006

David (Maister) said:

I hope I don’t annoy people by keeping this discussion going and seeing if I can sustain the opposing point of view.

I accept Wally’s point that to be a manager you need to know how to (as Pete Friedes calls it) both relate and require. I’m just a little bit more skeptical about the percentage that can do this well, even with coaching, education, training, etc. A lot of people who are managers shouldn’t be, because they can’t do what Wally describes (and they can’t because they fundamentally don’t want to.)y affecting their

Peter ‘s questions are FABULOUS, but there’s still a challenge there. He’s offering us a logical, rational process to take people through to help them “get” the importance of taking an interest. But does “getting it” get people to change?

We’re wrestling here (or at least I am) with an age-old dilemma: what’s the inter-relationship between understanding, behavior and attitude? Do you get people to change their behavior by changing their attitude, or do you get people to change their attitudes by changing their behavior? Or is it all about improving understanding? What’s the chain of causality here?

These are not theoretical questions. For the many of us trying to help people bring about change in the real world, pushing on the right things, getting things in the right order, is crucial to our effectiveness.

posted on December 7, 2006

Wally Bock said:

I will post more on this tomorrow, but here are two quick thoughts

I love “relate and require.” That’s far better than any wording I’ve come up with.

David said A lot of people who are managers shouldn’t be, because they can’t do what Wally describes (and they can’t because they fundamentally don’t want to.)

I absolutely agree. It is a shame and a sham that the only way to more pay and prestige in many organizations is to become responsible for group performance. The work of the boss is specific work. Not everyone will be good at it. Fewer still will like doing it.

That said, they don’t have to do it well. They just have to do it well enough. Peter Drucker advised us to build on strength and to make weakness irrelevant. Doing “good enough” on something that is diffucult for you meets that standard.

David, I would frame the issue as understanding-behavior. I see attitude as an emergent characteristic.

posted on December 7, 2006

Toby Lucich said:

I don’t know that I’ve ever worked with or for that contributed to the fulfillment of my professional purpose that didn’t first take an interest in people.

The absence of that interest means that one sees the world populated with expendable personnel: if you can’t do it how I want it when I want, I’ll get rid of you. They can exercise position power (authority), but this is only the most base of skills – a hollow title when this behavior carries on.

This is also the idea of leader versus manager. Making it explicit helps people understand how they will choose to approach the work. It helps to be born charismatic, approachable, and interested, but I would argue that “best effort” can do much to move initiatives forward when silo managers are pressed to step up.

Keep the training rolling – awareness of ourselves is so much a part of the growing process.

posted on December 7, 2006

Michael McKinney said:

You wrote: If you can’t fake a sincere interest in people, what’s the point of advising people to do it?

Because we all should.

A genuine interest comes from the heart. As has been said it is an attitude — an outlook on life. In other words it is not an intellectual thing. There are no ten points to genuine interest in others. That said, as you mentioned David, changing an attitude is not so easy. Attitudes are developed over time and can only be changed over time.

Usually a lack of interest in others stems from ones own personal problems — insecurity, selfishness (hard to hide as whiskey breath). Those things need to be dealt first I believe. It is impossible to see others differently until you can see yourself differently and in a proper context with the rest of the world.

I think, as has been said, modeling the appropriate behaviors of genuine interest is very important to the change process. It will, I believe, begin to develop the necessary attitudes behind those behaviors. One thing plays on another — eventually there is a rewiring of the brain.

You wrote: Let me confess – I’m probably one of those people (which may be why I’m arguing this one so vigorously.) One of the reasons I stayed solo was not that a couldn’t learn managerial skills, but that I just didn’t WANT to have to have to work with and through other people. I try to do it well (and honorably) when I have to, but it’s not my preferred way of working.

Outgoing doesn’t necessarily mean you have outgoing concern. How many times have you seen “extroverts” that have a way with people, are energized by people, but in the end don’t really care about those people? An “introvert” can be very interested in others, genuinely concerned but need some space when all is said and done. This is a big subject, but there are a few thoughts.

posted on December 7, 2006

Eric Brown said:

David Wrote: We’re wrestling here (or at least I am) with an age-old dilemma: what’s the inter-relationship between understanding, behavior and attitude? Do you get people to change their behavior by changing their attitude, or do you get people to change their attitudes by changing their behavior? Or is it all about improving understanding? What’s the chain of causality here?

Personally, I think the best answer is to address understanding….if people understand what their strengths and weaknesses are then they can work to improve their strengths, improve their weaknesses and/or weaken their weaknesses (i.e., make their weaknesses irrelevant).

Once a person has an understanding of their situation and themselves, the next step would be the act of changing attitudes in order to change behavior. If a person is able to change their attitude and they understand themselves then they can then begin to change their behavior if they wish.

Of course, these are only my opinions and a well-reasoned argument my sway them :)

posted on December 7, 2006

peter vajda said:

David wrote: “…questions are FABULOUS, but there’s still a challenge there. He’s offering us a logical, rational process to take people through to help them “get” the importance of taking an interest. But does “getting it” get people to change?”

Awareness is a first step to change…awareness in and of itself is not change, never can be. Action is required. But one must see “value” in that action to begin to move forward.

Since no one is born having an interst in, or not having an interest in, people, for example, we know it’s a learned behavior…often unconscious…modeled by parents, family, teachers, clergy, other role models, experiences in life…that then bring one to form “structures”, i.e., ways of being and doing in the world, which we bring into adulthood. We operate via these structures because as children they kept us safe, protected us from harm, hurt and trauma or brought us love, acknowldegement, approval, recognition, etc. They worked for us as children; often they do not, as adults, even thought we try to justify our behaviors, more often with “excuses”, rather than “reasons”…need to focus on my work, I’m not a “people person”, etc….

When one is made aware of structures that interfere with one’s sense of overall well being (mental, emnotional, social, physical, psychological…), then perhaps one might consider changing their behavior. But, it’s a process…everyone has structures that inform how they are, what they do…but most of these structrures are blind spots…e.g., many folks are unhappy and haven’t a clue as to why… and not knowing it’s an “inside” thing, being unaware, they tend to blame everyone and everything “out there” for their unhappiness.

So, at work, answering these four questions can bring “consciousness”, light, to bear and some folks might see that not being interested in others is really not all that great, or is a psychological defense of some kind, or fear-making or another type of reactivity, or…. and would like to be different but don’t know how or are afraid of what that might be like…this is the fertile ground where change can begin to take place with the appropriate support.

It all starts with the individual, looking within, to see what’s really operating…and to discern if what is operating is really, really, really supporting one’s sense of healthy well-being…

posted on December 7, 2006

Duncan Bucknell said:

Maybe some people should stop being so …. selfish and take a look around at the people they deal with everyday. If you look to who they really are, deep down, and stop thinking about yourself for 5 seconds, you might just enjoy life a little more and you will learn from the experience (and you will learn from that other person).

In any organisation, some of the most amazing people, the most driven, and in context, successful, are those who are fogotten, at the back of the room at the Christmas party (or not even invited). Take the migrant who left his recognised trade and standing back home to clean toilets so that he could give his children a shot at the ‘land of plenty’ (ie wherever you are reading this from). Most people wouldn’t even know his name. I don’t have a background like that, but I have sure learnt a lot about making the most of life from people I have met along the way who have.

posted on December 7, 2006

Dean Fuhrman said:

Perhaps our relationship to others starts at home, and the compassion we can generate for ourselves is the source and fount of that which we can reach out to others. And by doing so we begin to realize that we are all in work/life together and the degree of separation between ourselves and others is wafer thin if that at all. By doing so we can gain a better perspective on our relationships and both give what we have to others and receive what we need as well, and do it with humanity.

For some this is easier than for others, but if we do the best with what we have and do it with compassion maybe that gets us there. I have seen some hard core people who cared for people deeply in the only way they could but their underlying intent came through very clearly. On the other hand I have seen people who had a gift with people that were so glib and superficial without any more than surface care that it was apalling. I think that intent may count for a lot in this arena because it shows through in all actions.

posted on December 7, 2006

Matt Moore said:

I think we are going down a blind alley here:

– It does not matter whether my boss has exceptional social skills or not.

– Nor does it matter if they are an introvert or an extrovert.

– Their compassion is a moot point.

What matters is that:

1. They give me clear feedback on whether I am performing or not – and work with me on improvement if the latter is the case.

2. They listen when I speak to them.

3. I can trust them not to screw me over at the first opportunity for their own gain.

People probably fall into 3 categories:

– Those who are natural managers. I suspect this is a small % of the population. They probably do fit in with David’s description of “people-focused” individuals.

– Those who have some managerial skills that can be developed through training – they can be “good enough” managers.

– Those that should never be let near managerial roles under any circumstances.

If you are an exec, how do you know if your reports are good managers?

1. Do you see their teams much? Are their underlings praised and brought into the limelight? Do they seem happy? What are the levels of attrition like compared to your company average?

2. Does your direct report seem to spend all their time with you and none with their own team?

posted on December 7, 2006

Alexander Kjerulf said:

There is no doubt that some people can’t learn to care about others – those are the people with psycopathic traits that we

Fortunately these people are relatively rare, even though studies show that they do seem to crop up more often in management positions than elsewhere, probably because there is some overlap between mild psycopathic traits and those businesses look for in traditional, tough managers.

But leaving psycopaths aside, the vast majority of people DO care about others. They may have unlearned this attitude at some point in their career but can easily re-learn it.

Here’s a thought: What if we could demonstrate, that caring about people works. That it creates more motivation, higher productivity and better communication?

If we could give these managers the experience that “Hey, my job gets easier when I care” then that would accelerate their learning, no?

posted on December 8, 2006

James Bullock said:

“Interested in people” is ambiguous. “Interested in people” as in all extrovert-y, and perhaps even fluffy Clintonesque care-ing? Not required. One way to do it, if you like

To lead people successfully you have to be “interested in people” as in “interested in their success, and how to help that along.” That means you have to be interested as in “interested in how people operate, and what floats their boats.” You have to seek to understand or you can’t be of use. Whether that comes from empathy or simply utility doesn’t matter so much. Indeed, I’ve seen a lot of would-be leaders too entangled with “their people” to see the situation they are in or to make choices that needed making. I happen to like puzzles, so this keeps me intrigued – always seeking to figure out people a bit more, as individuals and as a category. I also like to succeed at what I do, so if my agenda requires “leading others” I need to be about doing whatever will help them succeed. I don’t have to like them (although I do, sometimes). I don’t have to seek to support them because of empathy or sympathy or so on. I certainly don’t have to “feel their pain” as one former US president would sometimes say.

posted on December 8, 2006

Jennifer said:

I am a person who has learned to be interested in people – I’m a natural introvert, but as I’ve got older, I’ve genuinely got more interested in people. So I think it can be learned, but it’s not necessarily learned by people realising that that’s what they need to do to get ahead in business (that’s not what changed me – it was just growing up, and realising that I wasn’t the centre of the universe).

posted on December 8, 2006

Gautam said:

Was reminded of Waldroop and Butler’s research on the Eight Life Interests as well as Gallup’s Strengths concepts

There are some parts of us that would take a huge effort to change as well as make us unhappy if they changed :-)

posted on December 9, 2006

Ashutosh Wakankar said:

David, My struggle with this debate is about establishing whether a certain basic wiring exists in human beings or everything in life can be actually developed if you want to, at any point in life. By saying that basic attitudes cannot change, aren’t we denying that possibility and doesn’t our own experience suggest that our attitudes to many things do change as life progresses and we get in touch with fresh contexts to look at the same likes/dislikes from. As a child I may have been very interested in people (like most children are) and some experiences put me off being interested and I become a recluse…can it happen that another set of experiences in life generate that interest in me..it could simply be an enlightened self interest of establishing the connection between my destiny with others. So my personal hypothesis would be that anything in life can be developed at any stage provided it is importnat enough for you..and it is not a motivational point but a survival principal…

Secondly, does an extrovert people friendly person make for an excellent manager — a lot has been written but I have my doubts. In my manager, i would look for two things, (besides a basic ability to interact with other humans) – One, a consistency of bahavior over a period of time which helps me match my work style with his. Secondly, an ability to inspire the people who work for him/her. If only through the way he conducts him/herself in the course of his/her work I can see a certain commitment to excellence and values, I see no reason why the people below will not emulate such a person and over a period of time work around any limitations of this manager being a bit of a recluse.

Anyone can become a good manager provided he/she wants it that desparately and just like your fat smoker example, if there is no choice, they will find the way around losing shyness or building the requisite skills…

I am from India and one of the seniormost industrialists out of India is a gentleman called Ratan Tata (Tatas recently acquired Corus, UK). He is a complete recluse and was written off by everyone till age 55. He was thrown into the hot seat (as the only Tata family member) of running this complex conglomerate (96 companies) in the early nineties when the group was in shambles. In the last 12 years the turnaround of the Tata Group has been so dramatic that i can write 10 pages on the numerous fine lines this man had to walk and qualitative as well as quantitative aspects of his achivements—-today he is being hailed all over… If he could become such an impactful manager, why should anybody else be stopped…

posted on February 21, 2007

Hermes said:

In my opinion it’s the thing we can get used to do – to make it as an exercise – to train good attitude to people. The more you do the more you are success in it.

posted on May 29, 2007

Scott M said:

I know I’m late to this discussion, but I wanted to tell everyone how much I enjoyed it. I agree with David that there are just some people who aren’t interested in others.

You can impress upon them the importance of empathy. You can give them tools on how to show empathy. You can describe the actions that empathic people take. But in the end, they are just faking it.

If faking it, makes them a better manager, or a better networker, then that’s OK.

But don’t delude yourself into thinking that everyone (or even most people) can actually FEEl that empathy.

Someone above basically implied, that if you can’t feel this empathy, then there’s personal issue you need to deal with. Maybe then we all need some therapy. But I think that’s wrong. I think there is just a natural range of empathy in society. Most of us have enough to be civil to others, but not enough to go out of our way very far.

I stumbled into this discussion through looking for posts about networking. Networking frustrates me. Everyone tells me it’s about creating genuine relationships. I don’t WANT to create relationships, but to network I HAVE to. So I fake it. But I’m told i CAN’T fake it, it has to be genuine. But I CAN’T be genuine, because I don’t want to create the relationships in the first place.

See what a vicious circle this is? I think most people are like this to some extent, which is why netowrking has such a negative image. Everyone is trying to be genuine, but they’re all faking it, and hating being so fake all the while.

Being un-interested in other people is normal. You can show me how to fake it, but at least admit that’s what I have to do.

posted on November 13, 2007