People First, Professionals Second

Unless we can join forces and recognize each other’s humanity, how can we do business together, let alone make progress?
– Daniel Lubetzky

Take a moment to think about a time when a manager or colleague took a deep interest in your goals, your ambitions, and your life outside of work. Sure, you were collaborating in a professional environment, but she knew your personal story, how you got to the company, and what led up to your current role. In effect, she treated you like a human being rather than a resource. How did you feel? Were you motivated to go the extra mile?

In contrast, now think about a time when a manager or colleague knew you simply by name and function. You’re “John,” the guy in operations. You’re often introduced to others by your role, with a quick compliment filled with words like “great” or “awesome.” But that’s about it. Surface level and empty observations from a disconnected superior. In other words, you were treated like a expendable professional who could get something done for that person. How did that make you feel? How did your motivation suffer in this case?

I find this contrast to describe an incredibly difficult problem. As a company grows, expediency is hard to avoid. We are in a fast paced, global market where competition is at an all time high. We all have a lot on our plates, and every minute not spent being “productive” seems like wasted time. Getting things done is incredibly hard both within teams and cross-functionally. While trapped in this mindset, I find that some people, myself included, can start to treat people as vehicles to accomplish tasks. We can treat others as dispensable resources, rather than as people who share in the same human experience I believe in so deeply. As Fred Kofman speaks to here, we are focused on the “It” at the expense of the “We.”

I notice this damaging phenomenon playing out consistently in two distinct ways: one being in a Manager-Direct Report relationship, and the other is in collaborating with cross-functional colleagues. The following breaks down my understanding of each relationship:

Managers: David DeSteno points out in The Truth About Trust, “As a person’s power increases, their perceived trustworthiness goes down.” Managers have difficult jobs, facing pressures from above and below. Some managers have die-hard team members who are willing to go above and beyond for them and the company. Others have teams who operate on a baseline of bare minimum effort – just enough that they are not totally free riding. And most managers have teams that fall somewhere in the middle. With those three groups in mind, the pressure faced by every manager can cause genuine interest and care to drop, replaced by operational duties and efforts to manage up and grow their own career. Should a manager be expected to spend an extra five minutes learning about each team member? Or should they take care of that pressing email, or that request from their manager? Often, with no mal intent, the latter wins out.

However, Google’s Project Oxygen, a study in building better managers, states, “What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-one-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.”

Cross-functional collaboration: Companies often prosper or die depending on collaboration. Here at LinkedIn, Collaboration is one of our core cultural tenets. Often, like in most companies, groups of cross-functional people are tasked with something important that needs to get done under a tight deadline. Let’s say most of the team doesn’t know each other past function. They will most likely go into the first meeting introducing themselves in the following way; “Hi, my name is Sarah, I work in biz ops…” BOOM! Right there, we have already started a cross-functional relationship treating each other as no more than business assets, instead of people who are all interested in a common objective. We are reduced to objects that are simply present for the purpose of moving a project forward.

When a company focused on improving collaboration fails in this regard, it leads me to believe it is a deep, underlying problem that affects the sustainable well-being of both individuals and companies.

  • At an individual level, I bet every person reading this has at one point felt more like a cog in a wheel than a person who has friends, family, a dog…a life!! How sustainable is that feeling? And when you feel this way, how willing are you to put in extra effort?
  • At an enterprise level, a level no more complex than the sum of all individual human beings in a private or public company, we are all pressured to perform. Doing so requires people to collaborate effectively. And at its core, collaborating effectively is a function of trust. Who do you trust more – people who genuinelycare to know what makes you tick and to work towards solutions that benefit both of your needs? Or people who are pushing to get something done with no regard to your unique value? As an enterprise seeking to build trust within the company, belief in the former setting is critical. This bedrock of trust lies at the intersection of employee engagement and improved business performance.

There is plenty of wonderful research, including this study done by Interaction Associates, that shows higher trust = higher performance. There is also a number of practical recommendations on building trust, such as creating consistent communication, a common language, and demonstrating behavior expected of teams.

That said, the following reference from an HBR article sums it up in my mind: “If people trust each other and their leaders, they’ll be able to work through disagreements. They’ll take smarter risks. They’ll work harder, stay with the company longer, contribute better ideas, and dig deeper than anyone has a right to ask.”

Treating others as people first, professionals second is critical to trust-building, leading to individual and company success. However, it is important to note the difference between genuine interest in one another and niceties in which you ask someone how they’re doing and continue to look at your phone while they respond. I know I struggle with it myself. As a collective, though, if we can consciously work towards actively engaging with those around us, rather than with our cell phones and laptop, I genuinely believe that we can create better and more productive workplaces.

In order to start treating our fellow women and men as people first, professionals second, I want to share a few actionable thoughts for Leaders and collaborators both in and outside of your company:

  • If you are a Manager: Find some personal common ground between you and your employee. David DeSteno cites the importance of finding similarity to build trust in this study. Additionally, find out what makes the individuals on your team tick. As Reid HoffmanBen Casnocha, and Chris Yeh speak to in The Alliance, it is critical to performance of a company to find the place where they are helping serve the interests of individual team members while collectively eliciting team members’ commitment to work towards the company’s vision.
  • If you are collaborating: Get to know the stakeholders you are working with. I recognize that you cannot know every person in your company, but before jumping into the work, take time to learn what personally drives or motivates each member of the team. Go around the room to learn about each person and ask openly what an ideal outcome would be as you work together. What is important to them as an individual? We are social creatures and I genuinely believe you will build more trust, collaborate more effectively, and have more fun as you invest in team culture and unity.

To be clear, this process is not meant to be easy or exhaustive. It’s a hard problem comprised of many contributing factors. But I believe if we can fundamentally approach each other as people first, professionals second, we will be more likely to create a set of conditions that lead to happier employees, more productive collaboration, and ultimately, stronger companies.

Written by Prakash Raman    

*Big thanks to Max Hogan for his generous time and help!


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