The Importance of Knowing Your People as Individuals

The following is an excerpt from One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership (CLICK HERE to get your copy). This post focuses on the importance of knowing and treating the members of your team as individuals.

The better you understand your people, the better you will relate to them. First you must treat them like individuals. No one wants to be a nameless cog in a big machine. All too often we inadvertently make people feel that way. You disagree, you say? Have you ever heard or said things like the following?

“She’s my analyst.”

“Talk to my project manager.”

“My VP thinks we should do this.”

Where are the faces that go with those statements? How different would the culture of our organizations be if “she,” “project manager,” and “VP” were replaced with “Terri,” “Jack,” or “Kim?” People lose their identities when we refer to them by title alone. They begin to feel interchangeable, one-dimensional, and replaceable. If you do not agree with this assessment, go home and refer to your spouse as “husband” or “wife” or your significant other as “fiancée,” “boyfriend,” or “girlfriend.” That would not go over too well, would it?

Referring to someone by position or title alone dehumanizes them. Harkening back to the “manage things, lead people” mantra, I would like to call your attention to the word “people” – not “positions.” Leading people requires you to treat and understand them as the unique beings they are. The personal foundation of the relationship between leader and led creates the common ground of trust and respect necessary for a good leadership environment. Leadership without personal understanding is superficial, impersonal, and ineffective.

It can be difficult getting to know people as individuals. Even if we try to learn more about them, the world conspires to limit our opportunities for meaningful conversations. Schedules are crazy and there is little to no time for conversation of a personal nature. People change roles often. By the time you start to know them they are moving on to their next role so why even bother? Excuses, excuses. I would argue that spending personal time with your people is much more important than a staff meeting or some other routine work. Go grab lunch. Have coffee together. Talk. I am not telling you to become best friends with your people. I am simply encouraging you to know them as more than “my project manager” or “my analyst.” When they know you care about them as individuals they are much more interested in giving you everything they’ve got because they begin caring about you too. They want to see you succeed because they genuinely like and understand you as a person. Caring inspires them to give you their best effort.

We all want to be recognized for who we are, not for the role we fill. There is no “I” in team but there is a “ME” in there. People want to be part of something greater than they are but they want to retain their identity and individuality in the process. Here is a little experiment I would like you to conduct: the next time you see a waitress, a bellman or anyone else in the service industry who wears a name tag, call them by name as you speak with them. Watch their reaction. In the instant you say their name, you have humanized them. I will bet they are much more interested in fulfilling your request simply because you called them by name. The same dynamic applies to members of your team. If you recognize them as individuals, they will be happier and contribute more to the organization.

I have a maxim that consistently reminds me to treat my team members as individuals and to get to know them as people as much as I can. It is a gentle behavioral reminder that keeps me focused on learning about others.

The maxim I use to remind me to treat my team members as individuals is “You have two ears and one mouth for a reason.”

As with all my maxims, this one has a personal story behind it. It was taught to me by the partner in charge of a consulting project I was assigned to. He was my boss’ boss. We were at dinner with the senior leadership team from a new and important client. This was one of my first consulting projects and I wanted to make a good impression. I was still a little insecure in my role and my abilities as a consultant.

I felt a strong need to impress the client executives. As we ate, the clients asked me about my background. When I started telling army stories they expressed a genuine interest. The more interested they got, the more stories I told. By the time we finished eating they had heard about all my military exploits.

After dinner, the consulting partner running the project asked me how I thought dinner went. I said it was a wonderful meal and the clients seemed like fantastic people. Of course I would think that – they politely sat there and listened to my life’s story.

The partner then asked me what I learned about the client over the course of the meal. I paused and thought hard but I was unable to come up with anything meaningful as a reply.

“Mike, I’m glad you had a good time at dinner. Here’s a little feedback for you along with something you might find helpful going forward – you have two ears and one mouth for a reason.” My problem was painfully clear after he said this. “We’re here to help the client get better. The only way we can do that is if we understand them and what’s on their minds. If you listen twice as much as you talk, you have a much better chance of understanding them than if you do twice the talking and half the listening.”

Ouch. The truth can sting but learning from it helps the pain go away.

From that day forward that statement was one of my maxims. I adopted it as a reminder that to understand people you have to listen to them. The maxim reminds me to ask more questions than I answer.

When I find I am suffering from a case of motor-mouth I try to use this maxim to get myself to shut up and listen. I will admit I am not always successful. I am a pretty loquacious guy and there is a reason I am a speaker for a living. Given those biases, this maxim is even more important to me than it would be to someone who is naturally introverted.

When I remember to apply this maxim I find I learn a great deal about people and what is important to them. When they are listened to they feel valued. The act of listening tells them I am interested in their stories, backgrounds, problems, and perspectives. In short, they feel like they matter.

How do you remind yourself to know and treat your team members as individuals?  Share your suggestions in the comments below.

One Piece of Paper by Mike Figliuolo– If you’re serious about strengthening the connection between you and your team, grab yourself a copy of One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership. There are plenty of suggestions in there for how you can strengthen your relationship with your team members. CLICK HERE to get your copy.

Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC

Did you enjoy this post? If so, I highly encourage you to take about 30 seconds to become a regular subscriber to this blog. It’s free, fun, practical, and only a few emails a week (I promise!). SIGN UP HERE to get the thoughtLEADERS blog conveniently delivered right to your inbox!

3 Responses to “The Importance of Knowing Your People as Individuals”

  1. Good article. The only way we learn about clients needs or about our teams is to listen to them. Thanks.

  2. Brian Ahearn says:

    Excellent advice Mike! Various studies from social science show it’s easier for people to say “Yes” to you if they know and like you. In business that translates into getting more accomplished. As you rightly point out, getting to know people doesn’t mean becoming everybody’s best friend but it sure is nicer when you can honestly say. “I like the people I work with.”


  3. […] Knowing and treating your team members as individuals will strengthen relationships and trust. Those bonds are what get teams to become high performing.  […]

Leave a Reply

  • ©Copyright thoughtLEADERS, LLC. All rights reserved. All materials contained on this site are protected by United States copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast in whole or in part without the EXPRESS WRITTEN CONSENT OF thoughtLEADERS, LLC. Content may not be republished, reproduced or distributed in whole or in part without the proper attribution of the work and disclosure of its source including a direct link back to the original content. You may not alter or remove any trademark, copyright or other notice from copies of the content nor can you modify the content in any way. However, you may download material from this website for your personal, noncommercial use only. Links to websites other than those owned by thoughtLEADERS, LLC are offered as a service to readers. thoughtLEADERS, LLC was not involved in their production and is not responsible for their content.

    thoughtLEADERS, LLC has worked to ensure the accuracy of the information included herein. thoughtLEADERS, LLC is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional services beyond training, coaching, and consulting. Its reports or articles should not be construed as professional advice on any particular set of facts or circumstances. thoughtLEADERS, LLC is not responsible for any claims or losses that may arise from any errors or omissions in our reports or reliance upon any recommendation or advice provided by thoughtLEADERS, LLC.

    thoughtLEADERS, LLC is committed to protecting your privacy. You can read our privacy policy by clicking here.