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Mighty minds: becoming more people-intelligent

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Posted by Kirsten on 27th Feb 2018

People change the fate of complex projects. When they are inspired, motivated and engaged, they can overcome just about anything. Remember your dream team? I bet you’re smiling…
And if you’re like most project people I meet, you’re also puzzled. Because surprisingly few projects feel like that in practice. Too often they are places where people struggle to survive. But what if we made projects places where people could thrive?

New truths
Now, I’m not saying that all the neuro or social science stuff that is flooding our inboxes is good. There are a lot of neurobaubles masquerading as gems. But that isn’t a reason to avoid facing the new truths that are emerging – particularly as they are often so different from what we thought. Take a look at the diagram on the right. It talks about ‘being trustworthy’, ‘creating excitement’ and ‘energy focused on what’s important’. These all lie at the heart of being ‘people-intelligent’.

So imagine if our project leaders committed to becoming ‘peoplei ntelligent’. United they could influence their organisation to support the new focus, whatever it happens to be. They would be brilliant role models who create efficient, effective and fun teams. And all of the project management essentials would be constantly updated to support this people-based approach.

I had begun to think this approach was fanciful. But there’s a lot of interest now in creating ‘positive people’ environments and it has started to happen. Just look at how many organisations are introducing the concept of mindfulness, for example.
Mindfulness means paying attention to the present in a particular way. New movements usually reach a tipping point. This is a point where instead of being the preserve of a few nutty pioneers, people more widely start talking about them. The ideas spread. A few early adopters turn into champions. The new ideas work. The early adopters spread the word. The idea becomes socialised. Soon the new becomes the norm. And everyone wonders what the fuss was about. Oh, I do hope so…

Five ways to become more 'people-intelligent'

I’m not just being ‘nice’ or ‘soft’ when I write this. There is a lot of evidence that happy people are significantly more productive, which means that the bottom line gets a boost, too. If you’re one of the growing number who want to make our project worlds more ‘people-intelligent’, why not try out some of the following suggestions?

  1. Ask a trusted observer to help you ‘see’ what you’re doing, not what you think you’re doing
    They’re not the same thing. The leaders I work with are committed to achieving success. They do what they do because they honestly believe it’s right. The problem is that accurate self-perception is rare.

    How many times have you heard a manager say, “I have an open-door policy. I encourage people to tell me the facts”, only to see the next poor soul who believes it being chewed up and spat out? While the intention is good, the outcome
    is poor and frustrating for all involved. I am increasingly suggesting to leaders that I observe them as they carry out their work. The disparity between their perception and reality provides a great number of opportunities. How about pairing up with a colleague and doing this for each other?
  2. Say thanks more often
    Financial rewards aren’t all that rewarding. Specific and immediate thanks can mean so much more. Why? Because people need good relationships to flourish and thanks means that you have been seen and appreciated. And if you are thanked, don’t shrug it off. It devalues both the gift and the courage of the giver.
  3. Don’t assume what is important to you is equally important to everyone else. It isn’t!
    Listen and you will soon find out what is important. Aligning interests is the best way to create motivation in others. For anyone particularly interested in this, try investigating Nudge theory, which argues that positive reinforcement can influence decision-making at least as effectively – if not more so – than direct enforcement.

    One of the best ways to encourage other people to commit to doing something is to involve them. Get them to shape the details, create the plan and propose the method or deliverables. Autonomy plus ownership encourages engagement.
  4. Communicate by listening more than telling
    Interestingly, most of us ‘get’ the need to communicate. Unfortunately, it’s too easy for us to optimistically believe that a successfully completed presentation is communication. It isn’t. It’s just telling.

    Since people’s attention span is directly proportional to how interesting the presentation is, the challenge is obvious. As an alternative, why not say less and ask more? Ask what they’ve understood? Get them to imagine how they could incorporate it into their world. Find out what might stop them. What are their fears? We’ve been given one mouth and two ears and my advice to everyone is to use them in that proportion.
  5. Learn how to make better decisions
    Watch a team undertake a SWOT analysis.They bias the input to the outcome they want. Think you can overcome that with brainstorming? You can’t. Group think stifles creativity. With the best of intentions, I used to use both techniques. Now that I’ve learned more, I don’t.

    Psychologist Daniel Kahneman has highlighted our “pervasive optimistic bias”, which means that we see “the goals we adopt as more achievable than they are likely to be”. We are highly biased when it comes to risk and our own abilities. How come so many dread flights, but happily get into the much more dangerous car?

    The implications for projects are too many for this article. But I wonder if this tendency could explain what appears to be the project world’s insistent search for the next ‘silver bullet’ project process? Self-awareness of your own biases will significantly enhance your own decision making, and give you the opportunity to help others with theirs. So make self awareness your first and ongoing goal.

I truly hope that more of us can join together to create more ‘people-intelligent’ leaders, teams and organisations. Because that’s how we’ll make our projects both more fun and more successful.

Oh, and before I get an avalanche of emails about the importance of processes, I do agree that they’re vital. I just think the ‘people-intelligent’ teams that drive the processes matter as much as the processes themselves. It’s time to equal up the balance.

Food for thought

Even when we are at work, our brain’s top priority is to keep us safe. Humans are about five times more alert to threats than to opportunities. As little as a look can stimulate threat. Our response is usually anger or avoidance. We move towards what feels safe and away from what we perceive as dangerous. Brainpower diverts from work to survival. Efficiency drops. Since performance reviews are very threatening, how sure are you that they are worth doing?

Feelings, a product of our emotional system, and not thinking, rule our behaviours and decision-making. We all make biased decisions, cunningly disguised as rational ones. Our brains operate efficiently by making our own patterns and maps. Even if we see the benefit of others’ maps, we strongly prefer to follow our own. Link this with the first brain rule of safety, and it’s obvious why so many of us resist change. Our experience shows that we stay safe when we stick to what’s worked so far.

Why take the huge risk of change? Don’t confuse the easy part of getting intellectual agreement to change as meaning it will happen. Emotions must concur before action follows.

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