9 counterintuitive tips for dealing with people

Common wisdom doesn’t always cut it when it comes to dealing with people. Leaders who’ve honed their people skills for years share surprising strategies that work
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“I have people skills!” 

Unfortunately, this infamous quote didn’t help the character in Office Space make a case for his role. But in the real world of work, organizations need leaders with standout people skills.

Leaders with strong people skills build beneficial relationships and trust with their team and effectively communicate and collaborate with colleagues, partners, and customers. Soft skills like these translate into hard-hitting results for the business.

Continually improving people skills is a must-do for leaders, and there’s no shortage of advice out there to help you learn. But even time-worn advice should be challenged from time to time.

[ Does your vocabulary reflect your people skills? Read our related article, 8 powerful phrases of emotionally intelligent leaders. ]

We asked leaders who’ve honed their own people skills for years to share something surprising or counterintuitive that they’ve learned along the way. Read their advice, and consider how these tips might help you forge stronger relationships in your own career.

1. Compromise isnt always best

Christian Lanng, CEO, Tradeshift: “Throughout the course of my career, I’ve learned that – unlike what you’re taught in grade school – compromise is not always the best strategy. Instead, commit to your opinions, disagree boldly, and be your biggest advocate. Speak your mind and stick to your guns even if it leads to tension in the short term. Big change often comes from the conflict of ideas. This applies even when you’re talking to a CEO. You don’t have to be stubborn or hot-headed, but be frank and honest. Others will take you more seriously, and eventually, they’ll learn to be just as bold. You’ll get to the truth faster and the best ideas will win.”

2. Theres always time to think before you reply

Eric Bowen, COO, Babel Street: “The speed of modern business understandably often dictates quick communications focused on action, not tone. At times, though, the recipients of such short communications can infer a negative tone that was never intended and put the onus on the transmitter to clarify or even repair some hurt feelings, both of which may take time. It may seem counterintuitive, but putting in a little more time to optimize a message for the recipient can establish a positive rapport that may ease future communications.”

3. Avoiding confrontation doesnt reduce tension 

Sanjay Malhotra, CTO, Clearbridge Mobile: “People instinctively try to avoid confrontation with others as much as possible, whether that be at work or in their daily lives. This is probably due to the fact that humans don’t enjoy anything that makes us feel uncomfortable or experience negative emotions. However, avoiding confrontation with someone doesn’t reduce tension; it does the complete opposite. Overtime resentment towards others will grow and slowly, people will become disengaged and uninterested. I argue that leaders and employees should go against their intuition to avoid the awkwardness of confrontation, and instead embrace and encourage it.

“I’ve learned throughout my career that issues that arise often times could have been avoided had they just been dealt with sooner. Instead of being afraid, express your opinions and be heard. This allows for everyone to hear your ideas and the ideas and opinions of others. In fact, I’ve learned to use conflict as a way to get my team to collaborate and work together to validate ideas and achieve a common goal.”

4. Ask “why” more

Robert Reeves, CTO, Datical: “I’ve learned to ask ‘Why?’ more often and to follow up that ‘Why?’ with four more. Too often IT leaders rely on surface analysis and are satisfied with narrative fallacies that tell a good story but do not provide solutions. Toyotas 5 Why’s is a phenomenal tool to get to the root cause of issues to understand underlying causes. Once that is found, the solution becomes self-evident.”

5. Sometimes passion beats experience 

Craig Williams, CIO, Ciena: “Some classic wisdom everyone hears at some point in their career is ‘experience is everything.’ But while experience is important, it shouldn’t be the ultimate qualifier for staffing. This is prevalent in the hiring process, as leaders often focus too heavily on a candidate’s potential on paper and their experience in a particular field. Passion, heart, and drive (PHD) are the non-technical factors I look for when considering who I want in my organization. In a field where talent is the number-one operating priority, leaders need to invest in the technical basics but also seek out, develop, and celebrate individuals who are driven, positive go-getters because they’re the ones who inspire and uplift an organization.”

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.