DG Consulting

People Skills for a Leader

Leaders need people skills, and building a team is a complex process. Many assume that it is a natural talent, but it is actually a science.

Talking of pilots, J. R. D. Tata said: “There are two types of pilots, the engineering type, probably the best, who knows all about flying; and the natural pilot, who flies by the seat of his pants. This probably holds good for managers too. Some have assiduously acquired skills and religiously practice them too; there are others who let themselves be guided by instinct – an instinct for people, their attitudes and motivations.

Whatever be it, every effective manager believes in the dictum: ‘None of us is as good as all of us. This unswerving faith in the difference people make to an organization redefines the role and importance of managers. A manager with appropriate people-sense is not just a manager, he is a developer – developer of a vision that gives meaning and inspiration to work, developer of a shared responsibility within a team and a developer of people; he is a leader with whom people grow.

If you aspire to be one, pay more attention to ensure people-management as part of your job. You may be expected to bring in profits or maintain a certain level of productivity, but you will not be able to do any of these if you do not have good working relationship with your colleagues. Look to the human element of the business as a long-term investment. In short, human resources management has become a crucial ‘corporate trend’.

The writing on the wall is clear: “Cultivate listening skills.” Of the four types of listening – discriminative, evaluative, appreciative and empathic, the only one we engage in solely to accommodate another person is, empathic listening. We listen empathetically when someone needs to talk, to get something out in the open, wants to be given advice or reassurance.

Objective or Indifferent?

Daniel was a happy person as well as a good worker. Lately, however, he was acting out of character. His grooming had deteriorated. He was listless and withdrawn and showed little interest in work. Damodar, his manager, was concerned. As Daniel always liked tackling new work, he assigned him to a new project, expecting it to perk him up. But a week later, when Damodar asked him about the job, Daniel sat glum and quietly admitted that he had not even started the work. Damodar began to wonder: ‘Should I talk to Daniel? After all, a manager is not a counselor or a therapist’.

He ultimately decided to steer clear of what he perceived as ‘role-switching’. But Daniel came to him in good faith. He poured out everything. He was on the verge of divorce. He shared his pain and sense of rejection. Damodar listened. Quietly. Passively. Twiddling his thumbs. Looking up at the ceiling. Making a few phone calls in-between. In the end, he told Daniel to go and meet a counselor. Daniel came out bitter and disappointed.

When you want to build a team, you must realize that every member has various facets to his/her personality. You cannot choose to see your team members in parts and expect total commitment. You must give each of them, as you give for your project, time to unfold.

  • Listen to the employee
  • Be patient and sincere, and non-judgmental.
  • Be convinced that this relief-seeking conversation is as important to the team as any ‘purposeful talk’.
  • Being neutral and being passive are entirely different.

Develop the sensitivity to draw the line between objectivity and indifference and recognize where one unobtrusively blends into the other. Exercise authority only when all alternatives fail. You undoubtedly ‘can’ pull rank to get things done. If you usually take this approach, you may be demonstrating a lack of personal assertiveness. It is better to keep your authority as a ‘backup position’. Instead, come across as positive and confident in communicating your ideas, opinions and directions. That, most likely, will get you the results.

Aggressive or Assertive?

When Henry took over the reins of the Production Unit, he envisaged several procedural changes. At the first meeting with the employees, he spelled out his decisions. The senior-most supervisors Gopal and Charan, tried in vain to make him consider alternatives. Henry refused to have any discussion whatsoever. Subsequently absenteeism, irregularities and internal wrangles raised their heads.
When Robert took over, he found Henry’s plans perfectly sound. He held a meeting. He spelled out the objectives and discussed the existing procedures. He pointed out that they had no alternative but to think of changes whatever the
inconvenience. Suggestions came up. An action plan was drawn up. Later, everyone realized that the plans they had so eagerly made by consensus were very similar to the once resented dictates of Henry!

Winning the cooperation of others is leadership. To achieve this, emphasize on the following:

  • When you are ‘assertive, you are standing up for what is in principle, correct.
  • When you are aggressive, you are violating the rights of the others.
  • It is not necessary to have a dominating and forceful manner in order to be assertive unless you have always been that and that has worked for you.
  • Quiet, soft-spoken people do/can have their way, sell ideas and get the co-operation they need.
  • Do not be assertive all the time.
  • What goals do you want to achieve by being assertive? Ask this question to yourself. The answer will guide you when to be assertive and how far to be
  • Recognize the fine line between assertiveness and aggressiveness. This line often becomes blurred. 

Indecisive or Thoughtful?

Thoughtfulness is a virtue, but if taken too far it can be seen as a weakness. If you respond ineffectively to what people say, it could tell them that you are not listening, or that you do not grasp the situation. You are setting up a barrier to both task and process dynamics. It is very important that your team members perceive you as a person open to suggestion. They should know that you will consider every recommendation that will work. When anyone comes out with a proposal, and if you dillydally the discussion because you are weighing within yourself the pros-and-cons, you sound inadequate and indecisive. Share. Question. Probe. Think aloud. Be willing to find a solution. The interaction itself will satisfy the employee as much as the implementation probably would.

Whenever Smith took some urgent work to the general typing pool, they turned him down with their first-come-first-served policy. They refused to compromise even when emergencies cropped up. He had some suggestions to get work done on a priority basis. Smith went to his boss Pritam with a plan of action. With a cryptic assurance to look into the matter, Pritam dismissed him. Later Pritam began deliberating. He realized that the typing section would need to sort out the jobs as per the scheduled dates of mailing and they would resent this additional burden. When Smith did not get any feedback, he once again broached the topic. Pritam only said, “There will be resistance from the typing department”. Smith had even thought of a viable solution. But Pritam’s attitude was not encouraging. Smith was frustrated.

To create an open environment in your team, remember the following:

  • Every suggestion need not be implemented, but should definitely be considered.
  • Discuss the possible fallouts with the employee
  • Verbalizing helps people to put issues into perspective
  • Develop a game plan to respond to any need to change
  • Learn what feelings to express and when to express them
  • Not expressing feelings make you seem cold and aloof

 You have to make sure that your thoughtfulness is not misconstrued as indecision. If you want to enhance your leadership, you should send the right signals.

Resist or Resolve?

Conflict management is very vital to team building. Conflict is inevitable. Whenever someone makes a proposal, very often resentment raises its lead. When a proposal is made, irrespective of whoever conceived it, it may be you yourself, consider its effectiveness, feasibility and acceptability. Look for any weaknesses and how important or negligible they are in the scheme of things. Make a list of everyone who might feel threatened by your proposal and why each one would feel so.

Think how you could not only counter the threat but, identify ways for the proposal to be beneficial to others.Then at a meeting, systematically elucidate the advantages of acting on the proposal. Never avoid arguments by not responding to disagreements. Disagreement does not necessarily mean hostility. It may just mean requests for more information or more clarifications. Encourage your team members to express these. The answers may eliminate further disagreements.

Kamlesh Mehta has a bright young staff of nine reporting to him. His current headache is Purnima Sharma. She is a very good worker. She is intelligent, hardworking and committed. There was no complaint with her output. It was her effect on the team that bothered him. She cut down everyone at meetings. No one could make a suggestion without her jumping in with some blistering remark as to why it won’ work, why it was not worth trying, or that it had been tried earlier. As a result, no one spoke up at the meetings. The team morale was badly hurt. Kamlesh Mehta decided to act. He talked to her about her interests and goals and linked his feedback to her goals. He showed her that her present behavior stood between her and her goal and she would rise in the organization only if she listened more and found the strong points in other’s proposals.

Remember there are four basic approaches to conflict resolution:

  • Win-lose approach  :  You achieve your goals at the expense of others. This approach is to be adopted when long-term interests will be protected or when you feel strongly about the proposal.
  • Lose-win approach :  You can go in for this when you need the support of others and when harmony is more important than winning
  • Lose-lose approach :  This involves concessions, arbitration and tradeoffs. There is no gain for anyone in this approach
  • Win-win approach :  All the sides feel they have won because they are able to treat the proposal as their own. This involves consensus negotiation and achieves commitment from all parties. Win-win approach is the most effective, but the other approaches may be useful at times. Resolve conflicts. Never resist them.

Live With Change or Adopting Change?

Developing a team culture is as important as setting up a task force, choosing the members, outlining goals, setting guidelines and arranging meetings. The team’s values may be and ought to be, the same as the company’s. That still does not mean that corporate culture is enough. For the long-term goals, yes. But for day-to-day operations, a sense of cohesion is required. This will come from your managerial style.

Reena, an Operations Manager, allowed some of her senior employees to sign certain documents related to their work. This she did, to train her officers to accept responsibilities for their work. One day when Reena was out, John, a senior billing processor refused to OK a shipment ordered by a client whose account was in arrears. When Reena returned, she realized that they cannot afford to lose this client. She wondered about her earlier decision. When Allan, a new employee .joined, all his colleagues told him that Reena believed in an open culture. But Allan’s experience was different. Several times a day, Reena interrupted him to give him instructions or to see how he was progressing in matters which were quite mundane. Everyone in the team smelled a rat and people became extra-cautious. The team lost its sense of identity.
The key-point is that the team needs a culture to define itself and provide a sense of direction. If the team-culture is open, there will be free flow of ideas. This can also mean disharmony, confusion and competition. The group can become deadlocked or side-tracked. Remember that there is no universal and eternal approach that can fit all team dynamics:
An authoritarian approach creates rigidity. The team may move towards its stated goals and stick to business but it may have no bonding. Members may feel stifled. A happy medium has to be struck. While fine tuning according to the need of the hour is desirable, shifting back from one culture to another should be avoided at all costs.

The work scenario today is in a flux. Embracing change gracefully is an art as well as science. It is not enough if you learn to live with it, but you have to advocate it and adopt it in your organization.