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Leveraging Your Team's Interpersonal Skills

What does it really mean to be good with people? This Harvard Business Review excerpt examines the "relational" aspect of business.

Most executives assume they know who their "people" people are: They're the team players, the ones who know what's going on in their colleagues' personal lives, the ones who can smooth over interpersonal conflicts. They're usually found in human resources or sales.

The truth, however, is much more nuanced than that. Interpersonal savvy is critical in almost every area of business, not just sales and HR. In fact, it comprises aptitudes that are more varied than a lot of people might think. Recently, we've conducted extensive research on the people side of doing business—what we call the relational factor. After more than eighteen years of studying how the deeply embedded life interests of business professionals develop into career roles, we know that individuals do their best work when it most closely matches their underlying interests. Managers, therefore, can boost productivity by using their employees' relational interests and skills to guide personnel choices, project assignments, and career development.

We've analyzed psychological tests of more than 7,000 business professionals, and our findings challenge the limited traditional notion of who "people" people are. Using factor analysis, a method of statistical analysis, we have identified four distinct dimensions of relational work: influence, interpersonal facilitation, relational creativity, and team leadership. In this article, we'll explain each component and show how knowledge of all four can help managers hire the right employees, make the best work assignments, reward performance, and promote career development (others' and their own). […]

The four dimensions
To maximize the interpersonal capacity of your organization, you must understand all four areas of relational work—because when you match employees' interests and skills to their responsibilities, everybody gains.

Influence. Professionals who earn a high score in this dimension enjoy developing and extending their sphere of interpersonal influence. They take pleasure in persuasion, negotiation, and the power of holding valuable information and ideas. This dimension of relational work is all about changing the point of view or the behavior of others. An old expression, "He could talk a dog off a meat truck," aptly describes high scorers here. Whether to a customer or to a colleague—and whether they're talking about a product, a service, or an idea—these people live to sell. Think of the manager in your firm who is always able to get more resources for his projects than anyone else can. Or picture that former boss of yours who could always get people fired up for the next challenge, regardless of how tired they were from the last one.

While people who score high in influence can be found in any function and any industry, we've discovered that individuals with deal-intensive roles in financial services and sales tend to stand out in this dimension. Jeffrey Manning (all names of people cited as examples in this article are pseudonyms), for instance, the managing partner of a very successful venture capital firm, was running his own fund at age thirty-one. Some would argue that his success was a function of good timing—he entered the world of high-technology investing in the mid-1990s—but those who have done business with him have a different explanation: Jeff is a natural at deal-intensive finance. He's a born networker. Whether he's on the golf course or at the annual dinner for a prominent charitable organization, his talent for meeting people and inspiring their confidence is indisputable. Jeff is not a salesperson, nor is he a team-focused manager. He's an alliance builder and negotiator. He can locate and gather key players to participate in deals that optimize value for all parties involved.

Interpersonal facilitation. This is the dimension many people first think of when they think "people person." Individuals with high scores here are keenly attuned to the interpersonal aspects of a work situation. They intuitively focus on others' experiences and usually work quietly behind the scenes to keep their colleagues committed and engaged so that projects don't get derailed. They naturally ask themselves questions like "What group will work together best to get this job done?" and "Why is Joe being overcritical in meetings and underperforming in general?" and "What sort of assignment does Miriam need to grow and feel more competent?" These types of issues rarely show up in reports, but as every seasoned manager knows, handling them effectively is essential to organizational success.

Consider Alicia DiGiavonni, the internal medicine unit manager at a Boston-area HMO. Alicia has an MBA and is a focused, task-oriented operating manager, but her success comes from her effectiveness as the organization's unofficial psychologist. Alicia has done more in the way of counseling, conflict resolution, coaching, and informal personality assessment than many of the therapists who work in the mental health unit. Staff members frequently confide in her when there is disabling friction within a work team, when they need career advice, or when they're struggling with personal issues. She is an expert at recognizing hidden agendas at meetings and identifying the problems that workers are reluctant to share with senior managers. She knows which combinations of people on a project team would yield great synergy and which would be disastrous. On countless occasions, Alicia has kept projects on track through skillful, behind-the-scenes interventions.

Relational Creativity. At its core, this dimension is about forging connections with groups of people through visual and verbal imagery. This is the relational work being done when an advertising account team conceives of a campaign, when a marketing brand manager develops a strategy to reach a particular consumer segment, when a speechwriter crafts the president's next address, and when a senior manager develops a motivational theme that will focus and inspire her employees.

Although relational creativity in business is most commonly used for persuading customers to buy and investors to invest, it is different from the influence dimension. Professionals skilled in influence convince others on a person-to-person basis, whereas people talented at relational creativity use images and words to arouse emotions and create relationships with groups. This dimension is not a measure of creativity in general—only in the interpersonal realm. Someone who's creative in an analytical area of business work (such as designing new investment instruments) can still have low interest in relational creativity; similarly, an artist (such as a composer or a painter) can lack skill in this domain.

Most of us don't have much occasion to interact with people who stand out in this dimension, although chances are we have coworkers with this strength that we don't know about because it has no outlet in their daily jobs. For an example of someone with outstanding skills in relational creativity, look at Diane Weiss, a senior editor for a major magazine. Whether the question is which illustration to use, how best to express data graphically, what title to give an article, or what image to put on the cover, Diane is the one to ask: She has an unerring sense of what will pull readers in. But she is not known for her easy management style or her ability to "read" people. In fact, even her most ardent fans will agree that she can be exceedingly difficult to work with. For understanding the masses, though, Diane is as good as you can get. She is a bona fide people person—with the emphasis on the plural.

Team leadership. Individuals who score high in this dimension need to see and interact with other people very frequently to feel satisfied. Conversely, the more time they spend in front of a computer screen, the worse they feel—and perform. Professionals with a high level of interest in team leadership love managing high-energy teams in busy service environments and enjoy working both with the team and with the customer. Their ideal job might be overseeing a busy resort or a retail store.

The difference between individuals who score high in team leadership and those who do so in the influence dimension is their interest in managing people. High scorers in team leadership always want to work through a group. They're the embodiment of the player-coach role. People who score high in influence are interested in the outcome of an interaction—the closed deal—whereas those scoring high in team leadership focus more on the interpersonal and managerial processes. Compare the managing director of mergers and acquisitions at an investment bank (excelling in influence) with the sales manager at a large automobile dealership (strong in team leadership). Not all team leaders—even effective ones—have high scores in this dimension, however. It is quite possible for team leaders in areas such as production, research and development, and information technology to show little interest in this particular relational skill. But we consistently see high scores here for leaders of teams that have a strong customer focus. […]

It's important to note that the four relational dimensions are not discrete types. A person can have great interest and skill in two or more of these areas or in none of them. And scoring high in more dimensions isn't necessarily better; some are irrelevant or even detrimental to certain types of work. Above, we've offered examples of people who are stars in one dimension, but some of them score high in other areas as well. […]

Clearly, "people" people are not interchangeable. Put Diane where you should have Alicia, and the results will be disastrous. … That's why it's so important to align your employees' relational talents with their job responsibilities. Keep the four dimensions in mind when you're hiring new employees, assigning tasks, rewarding employees for their contributions, and developing the people in your organization, including yourself.

Excerpted with permission from "Understanding 'People' People," Harvard Business Review, Vol. 82, No. 6, June 2004.

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Timothy Butler (tbutler@hbs.edu) is a research fellow and director of career development programs at Harvard Business School.

James Waldroop (waldroop@careerleader.com) is a founding principal of Peregrine Partners, a consulting firm in Brookline, MA, that specializes in executive development and employee retention.