Relationships, Success

Understanding People at Work


Understanding people at work is fundamental to success. In fact success at work is less to do with competence and more to do with understanding and interacting with other people. After all, most people have the skills to do the job to which they’ve been appointed, so there must be something that makes certain people stand out.

What Makes a Person Truly Successful is the Way they Get on with Others.

Even a person who works alone has, in some fashion, to interact with people they are selling to or who needs their services. At an everyday level effective communication comes down to forging and maintaining good working relationships with colleagues. With a superior it’s about showing your current and potential worth and with a subordinate it’s about consistency, fairness and support – but in all these examples it comes down to how well we understand other people.

Communication is a two-way process and one that we are driven to use. We adapt our style according to the situation we’re in and the people we’re with. To work out what is appropriate we make regular and on-going assessments about the values, abilities, influence, power and intentions of other people. The more the person we are with is likely to affect us the greater our need becomes to interpret their motives. It’s a process called person perception. This ability to understand people, to read and respond accurately, regularly tops the lists of essential management skills drawn up by business executives in both the US and the UK.

For face-to-face skills to be effective they need to achieve two basic things:

1. Only accurate interpretation of others will lead to your own abilities to respond appropriately and effectively.

2. Presenting yourself well can only be achieved if you understand how other people are responding to you.

Understanding others is another way of saying assessing others. Anyone who runs a business knows how essential this is. During interviews there may only be a few minutes to make a decision about whether a candidate will be good for the business. If you’re the candidate these few moments are all you have to make the right impression. It’s a big ask. How do you convey your abilities to cooperate with others? How will opinions be formed about your conscientiousness, honesty, integrity, motivation and so on? And yet somehow they are. The ability to accurately get the measure of someone is viewed as a core professional skill.

It isn’t a dark art. It can be taught and refined over time.


Effective teams typically support effective leaders and the leader often has a hand in appointing them. An outsider looking in may find it difficult to understand why some people are in the leadership team but an effective leader will have pinned this down. The most effective leaders appear to have the ability to identify and sometimes contain specific qualities in people and make best use of these. A person may be highly effective at two or three specific things and their energies will be focused in those directions. They may not, for example, be a good team player, but the leader understands this and knows how to harness their abilities in directions that won’t irritate others. Less successful leaders tend to view people in terms of their general abilities (a good talker, a good worker, good with numbers). In a niche area or less competitive environment this may be fine, but we’ve only got to look at leading companies or football teams to see how long vague or unfocused leadership is tolerated.

As humans we can’t pretend we aren’t influenced by our own internal states. The sights, sounds, smells or general atmosphere of our surroundings is highly influential. We are also more receptive to things that relate to our current needs. Someone who is new in town and is trying to develop a friendship circle will be more receptive to the way others interact with them. A person who is hungry will only get hungrier until that need is satisfied and so on. We also have a cluster of beliefs, attitudes and values about others that will invariably influence our view of them and this can lead us down some interesting and not altogether helpful paths.

Common Understanding Errors

We’ve all been caught out in our interpretation of others. Sometimes we’re let down in our initial assessments and sometimes we find qualities in people we originally overlooked or misinterpreted. Errors can occur for any number of reasons but two are well known:

First so-called halo effects are the assumptions we make based on limited knowledge. For example, a tall smartly dressed candidate at interview may be viewed as more capable than the shorter overweight candidate, despite all other things being equal. Because a person is extremely good at doing one thing it is assumed they will be just as capable at another. Conversely, because a person is especially bad at something it is assumed they will perform badly at everything else. It’s a bias that’s hard to shake off and is something we need to be aware of in ourselves.

Secondly, so-called expectation effects strongly influence the way we interpret the behaviour of others. Teachers are frequently cited in this regard. Pupils who typically achieve low grades but who improve slightly may continue to receive low grades because of the teachers’ beliefs about their pupils’ abilities. Negative expectations thus become self-fulfilling prophecies. The same can be seen with those who typically achieve high grades. Not all their work may be of the same high standard but because of expectations they continue to achieve high scores. We can see expectation effects all the time. We can hear the ‘I’d have expected better of them’ comments when they may not be justified. In part these things occur because it’s convenient, less time consuming and less effort to categorise people. The upshot of expectation effects are that we sometimes blame others for standards or abilities they never actually had. Our expectations are sometimes dashed and sometimes exceeded yet the accuracy of our expectations may leave a lot to be desired.

First Steps in Trying to Understand Someone

Let’s begin with you entering a room and seeing a stranger. Your senses provide the first clues. Maybe they have a severe facial expression. Maybe they smell of scent, or alcohol. Maybe they are smart or casual, stylish or not. Maybe they have a local or cultivated accent. First, we process these clues quite rapidly and secondly we apply our own rules to them.


Look at this person. What does their appearance say about them?



There isn’t a right or wrong answer but I think you’ll agree we are all capable of making certain assumptions about this person by the way he dresses, the length of his hair, his watch, spectacles, shoes and even his choice of laptop.

We quickly combine these clues with our own identification rules. These aren’t particularly rigid but they help us make inferences about the person we’re looking at. For example, many people associate the wearing of spectacles with intelligence. A tweed jacket wearer is stuffy and conservative. Tattoos are a sign of immaturity or aggression, and so on. Of course these ‘rules’ are highly flawed and often acquired by things we’ve been told or read about, but we are all aware of them and we also use them to convey the image we want to portray. I don’t know anything about the person in the picture but the messages he’s sending out suggests he’s casual, approachable, internet savvy, and so on.

Identification rules are handy because it means we can categorize people in ways other people understand. If you were told that person A was crafty and dishonest, person A has effectively been summed up in just two words. Unless you have the capacity to form your own judgments it stands to reason that in just those two words your opinion has been influenced to a greater or lesser extent, more so if you value the opinion of the person who told you.

One of the interesting things about personal rules is the way people apply them. We can learn a lot about the qualities other people value just by listening to the way they speak. Here’s an example:

I can’t understand what they see in one another. Jack is utterly stupid and Jill is highly intelligent.

For our purposes the accuracy or otherwise of this statement isn’t important, but it tells us that the person making it probably values intelligence very highly. How do we know? Well people frequently use extreme statements in relation to the qualities they value (in this case intelligent/stupid) rather than something in the middle.

Them and Us


What’s causing this behaviour?

We often give little thought to whether the actions of other people are due to their circumstances or their personality. It’s an important distinction because it shapes the way we respond to others – and them to us. Here’s what we know.

We have a strong tendency to view our own behaviour as due to the situation we’re in. But we have an equally strong tendency to view the behavior of other people as due to their personality. Now this could simply be due to the fact that we’re more aware of our own behavior in various circumstances, but let’s take an example. If we are reversing our car from a tight parking spot and we scrape the car next to us we may tend to blame the way the owner has parked next to us. If we watch someone else doing it the tendency is to say they weren’t concentrating properly. When we do it the situation is to blame but when they do it there’s some issue with them as a person.

Naturally there are times when we can easily put ourselves in the shoes of other people and sympathize with them. ‘Don’t worry, we’ve all done it.’ But there are certain circumstances when the chances of pointing the finger to personality over situations is much higher, for example:

  • When behaviour is viewed as inappropriate.
  • The more their behaviour is seen as affecting us.
  • We may blame personality issues for failures and situations/chance for success.
  • The higher status a person holds the more likely we are to view both their successes and their failures as personality related.

A final observation with regard to them and us relates to emotions. The more emotionally involved we are with an issue (right/wrong, good/bad, moral/immoral, kind/unkind) the easier it becomes to pass judgment. As much as we are inclined to do this to others, so are they to us. It follows that the more self-aware we are the less likely we become to pass quick judgments before we’ve established all the facts – and we hope others will do the same for us.

More Slip-ups

There are three very well known errors that we are all capable of making:

The first of these is our tendency to assume groups of people are identical. Think of doctors, the police, soldiers, but also businessmen, men who wear big gold necklaces and so on. You know the sort of thing:

You’ve only got to look how he dresses / the car he drives / the way he sits/stands to know what he’s like.


What Sort of Person Drives This Sort of Car?

It’s a pretty poor measure but we are all prone to it and it’s a process called stereotyping. When we stereotype we ignore differences between people. Here are some more examples. Fill in the missing words:

Bankers are all . . .
People who play golf probably vote . . .
Rock stars are all . . .
Overweight people are all . . .

It’s also a reason why we try to stack the odds in our favour when it comes to how others perceive us. If we wish to fit in we send an initial message by our clothing and body language. After that it comes down to other forms of communication, some of which we have control over and others not (e.g. height, baldness). Interestingly only those at the very top of their game seem able to buck the trend. They’ve proved themselves so nobody will stop the CEO of a global company from wearing a floppy hat filled with fishing hooks. But try getting away with that as a middle manager. A private soldier always calls a superior sir, but a superior may be inclined to call a private ‘son’, and so on. In saying this I’ve drifted a little from stereotyping, but it’s a useful observation in terms of our own and other people’s behaviour.

A second common error is the assumption of similarity. A highly ambitious and cutthroat businessman may assume that everyone around him is exactly the same. They assume everyone is looking to climb the greasy pole and is perhaps after their job. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and so on. Those who clearly don’t fit into that category might be dismissed as losers.
A third common error is what is known as an assumption of intention. We generally assume that other people’s behaviour is under their own control. It follows that we assume they have much more control over their situation than may actually be the case.

Inside Other People’s Heads

It’s not always easy to look at someone and know what they are thinking. Sure, some signals are hard to avoid and they send a very clear message about what the other person is thinking. Watch someone recoil in disgust and you’re well on the way to knowing exactly what their feelings are. Most of the time the signals are less clear so what we’re left with are clues against which we begin to form a picture.

Facial Expressions

There’s a belief that you can find out all you need about a person by looking at their expression. In reality it’s much harder. Some people look kind and others look unapproachable simply because of the bone structure of their face, their skin tone or even the shape of their eyebrows. We can’t help what we were born with yet it still surprises people that others turn out very differently to the way they anticipated.

You can easily test this yourself by showing someone else a photograph of a person they don’t know. You simply ask them to describe what they see.

If we were as sensible and logical and we sometimes like to believe the answer should come back in terms like, ‘he has blue eyes, a broad nose, small ears, high cheekbones,’ and so on. But what may also happen is they will start making assumptions about their character. One example previously mentioned is that the wearing of spectacles often infers intelligence. Of course the wearing of spectacles actually means there is a problem with eyesight. Many people will forge ahead with their locked in assumptions based simply on facial expressions. ‘He’s reserved, perhaps aloof and a bit introverted. He’s probably a teacher, or maybe a bank manager’ and on it goes. What a simple exercise like this shows is just how little information we use to draw conclusions about other people.


Compared to faces our clothing actually says much more about us. This is because clothing is a means of telling others how we see ourselves, and just as importantly, how we want others to see us. The information we gain may be limited but we can sometimes get a quick grasp of aspirations, social class and the way the person expects to be perceived and this can all be useful.



What can we learn from a voice?

It stands to reason that we learn much more about another person once we hear them speak and even more once we interact, but even then we have to take certain things into consideration. A speech, for example, is usually a carefully constructed and pitched as piece of theatre. We can’t really learn much from this because the intention is usually to provide the audience with inspiration or entertainment. Far more insightful is conversation but even then we have to take certain things into account.

In a two-way conversation the first few minutes are often quite misleading. Levels of personal control are quite high during the first few minutes, which means the content of a conversation is open to distortion in a way that will convey the desired impression. The longer the conversation the more likely it is that both parties will lower their guard over what they say. These are the times when verbal leakage can often convey true beliefs, attitudes and values.

Stress is believed to lower people’s guard more quickly. Certain interview techniques deliberately use stress in order to get passed the gloss we like to present to the world; think of police interviews for example.

So, what can we learn from someone’s voice. Immediate insights may be drawn regarding regional accents, social class and even age. This can be valuable if we work blind – as in telephone conversations with a stranger. Beyond this it gets trickier. No research has yet pinned down a relationship between voice and personality but we can more reliably learn something from tone.

The way someone truly feels about an issue is often revealed by the tone of the voice. Tone of voice sometimes reinforces the content of conversation but sometimes it doesn’t. Take the phrase ‘how nice to see you again,’ which can be expressed in a variety of ways conveying genuine warmth or entirely the opposite.

Body Language

Academics have written weighty tomes on the issue of body language but we’ll confine ourselves to a few of the more commonly understood aspects and the value they have for us in understanding people.

People look at one another for all sorts of reasons and not much can be read into a person who is gazing. Good interaction skills can make use of gaze patterns however. For example, when people come to the end of what they have to say they typically look up. This is probably the time to gesture that you agree or have something to contribute and it avoids those awkward verbal clashes.

Eye contact

Eye contact is different to gaze. Eye contact is about looking directly into another person’s eyes and there are all sorts of motives and rules behind this simple action. As adults we become more skilled at interpreting the meanings behind eye contact. We can tell the difference between, say, flirtation and hostility, partly by the duration of contact and partly the accompanying cues of blinking and the shape of eyebrows and furrows around the eyes. Eye contact can be intimidating via a stare or it can be encouraging as when it is accompanied by smiles or nods, which convey interest. Eye contact is usually much lower when one person dislikes another or if the topic of conversation is awkward or embarrassing.

Although I’ve mentioned eyebrows, frowns and smiles it’s perhaps worth noting that the full range of facial expressions isn’t generally found at work. We are all perfectly able to control facial expressions and it’s only in certain circumstances, like fear, shock or laughter that these differ. As with conversation our facial expressions do tend to become less controlled over time. You only have to take a look at facial expressions after a long meeting to get a pretty good idea of emotions.


We have a natural empathy with others, which frequently reveals itself by copying their postures. Most of us know what it’s like if someone yawns. Yawning is a powerful cue and even writing about yawning makes me want to. It’s also just one example of behaviour contagion. It’s very easy to test this yourself. Next time you’re with another person try a few postures to see what happens. For example, if we’re next to another person who crosses their legs, the chances are we will do the same. It’s the same with a number of other behaviours such as arm crossing, leaning on a table, interlocking fingers, playing with a coffee cup, whatever. Psychologists also call this kind of activity mirroring. We do it at a sub-conscious level in order to convey that we are in tune with our companion. Of course we can do this at a conscious level even though we may dislike everything the person is saying. Body posture is often a clear signal of compatibility or otherwise. We are far more likely to adopt distant or defensive postures with things we don’t agree with.

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