Why you need to learn people

Many of you got to your position as a leader by being an expert in your field and getting things done. You’ve worked hard at learning a lot about the things your organization produces and your knowledge has served you well with accolades, rewards, and promotions.

You hire, fire, teach, and lead people. You also need to learn them.

Just as you learned and became smart about things, you’ve now reached the point that where you need to learn and become smart about people. This makes sense because people are the force behind the products and services that get created.

Start heavily investing your time in learning people if you haven’t already. This will help you on the path to success the minute you have leadership responsibilities. Reach out, find out about what makes people human and what’s important to them. Listen to them, and ask questions that deepen your understanding of people.

Why is this important? Because you need to:

Influence others, an important skill that becomes easier when you learn what makes people tick. That learning, when used carefully and ethically, will help you to understand how others can be persuaded about your ideas.

Resolve conflict and misunderstandings. There will be times that disagreements come up. When you learn people before that happens, you discover things you have in common that create bonds that allow you to get through the toughest conflicts and misunderstandings.

Develop people in a way that works best for them (instead of what works for you). When you learn how others learn, you can be in the best position to help them discover ways to develop and to be at their best at work.

Serve others, making sure their needs are met. People are more willing to reach out and help you when you need it when you learn to serve their needs first.

Ask for help. You don’t want to be a leader who doesn’t know who to turn to when the going gets rough. If you’ve invested in learning people, you’ll also get to know who to call on when you need help.

Trust others. How can you possibly lead people when you don’t know who to trust? When you learn people, you get a two-fer – you figure out who you can trust and they learn more about you, creating unquestioning bonds.

Care about them. It’s true that “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”. When you learn people, you’ll also discover that you care about them. The relationship bonds get stronger in caring relationships.

Motivate others to do the work that needs to be done. Asking what the important motivators are for others is a great way to help them engage in meaningful work. When that happens, you can lead with impact and influence.

Like gaining “book smarts”, learning people takes an investment on your part. As a leader, this investment pays dividends in an organization that becomes engaged and engaging!


I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

2 comments on “Why you need to learn people

  1. Thanks for your post, Mary Jo. I agree with all that you have said here, but it only scratches the surface, especially when your team may extend internationally across multiple cultures.
    Of course it’s important to “Learn people”, but so few leaders have the ability to combine emotional intelligence with cultural intelligence and business smarts to make it produce results, because they just don’t have the sensitivity . You can only ‘learn’ so much (which is why I’ll never be a great golfer! ). If you have no ‘ear’ for music you might still learn to produce music but probably not with the same passion and effect as someone with perfect pitch who creates from the heart.
    People are smart. They are wary and take time to convince and ultimately trust. This is particularly true in Asia, where relationships and reputation in business are still key.
    In my experience with multicultural teams, I’d say you need to:

    1. Be Genuine. Walk the talk and other similar cliches, but be aware that people are smart and they are watching and testing you all the time.
    2. Trust before you expect trust. Talk is cheap – so this must be demonstrated with practical examples.
    3. Be true to your values and principles, especially when the going gets tough. Let them feel your support and respect.

    It’s possible to have success without teams and people, but it’s not possible to achieve excellence and sustained success without them.

  2. Thanks for your great addition to the post, Jeremy. Multicultural teams take an extra dose of learning people, but there is also an element of “being” in the leader that can break through barriers, as you indicate.

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