Feeling misunderstood is a universal human experience. Being misunderstood is bad when it happens in our personal life, but it can be career threatening when it happens in a professional setting. The impact of misunderstandings can be huge for individuals, teams, and the organization as a whole.

When an individual feels misunderstood, immediate defensive reactions occur. Hurt, anger, and frustration manifest in a variety of ways - all of them nonproductive. Moreover, employees often shut down, resulting in disengagement, disenfranchisement, distress, and destabilization. Productivity is negatively affected, but all is not lost. It is possible to train leaders to understand their employees' unique abilities, maximize their effectiveness, and manage them more effectively.

No matter how much energy is spent acknowledging and understanding diversity among individuals, it is difficult for leaders to move beyond their own biases. Why do employees so often lack common sense? For one reason, a leader's common sense is seldom the follower's common sense. The truth is that "common sense" is not common at all. Unconsciously, leaders encourage, coach, and attempt to motivate others based on what works for them - their common sense.

The result can be a mixed bag of some successes and some failures, and because the leader is the leader, the leader's failures often go unacknowledged. Too often, the employees are blamed for being unmotivated, not stepping up, and not measuring up. Leaders are perplexed because they have been trying their best, consciously and unconsciously, to apply the golden rule and treat their employees how they, themselves, would like to be treated. Many times, it doesn't work.

To understand employees' unique abilities, leaders must understand themselves. What makes them tick? Why do they do what they do? What are their intrinsic reward systems? What are their personal trust requirements? By knowing the answers to these questions, leaders can become aware of their own biases and filters in judging others.

Understanding people

People are a messy, complicated mix of emotions, socialized programming, logic, and self-protective mechanisms. This combination of attributes determines an individual's willingness to do a job. The ability requirements of a job - education, skills, experience, intelligence, character, and values - further compound the task of managing people. While traditional rsums, references, and interviews provide ways to understand someone's capabilities to do a particular job, determining a person's unique abilities is more challenging.

Unique abilities are composed of both natural gifts and acquired talents. Natural gifts include innate survival instincts, self-motivation, decision making, learning styles, and trust requirements. Acquired talents include early socialization - learned cooperation of how to get along with others - as well roles and activities that are enjoyable, stimulating, and exciting. Having a personality map of each employee's unique abilities enables leaders to understand what those abilities truly are and is a prerequisite for maximizing organizational effectiveness.

When following a personality map for an individual, the leader knows the correct approach for enlisting cooperation, sounding respectful, and meeting expectations. Using this information empowers the leader to create a positive working relationship from the very beginning. Onboarding becomes a customized, precise, and prosperous process. Communication turns into a true, mutual understanding, and difficult conversations, such as feedback and performance reviews, are less stressful for everyone. Furthermore, because the employee appreciates the leader's approach, mutual respect is established. By understanding an individual's expectations, the leader no longer has to learn what works via the school of hard knocks or by hit-or-miss actions, which can result in a negative experience that is hard to overcome.

By following these simple tips, leaders can maximize the effectiveness of employees and reduce start-up time with new employees by an average of six to nine months. Since employees have their own specialized styles of learning, one teaching method definitely does not fit all. Customizing the learning process for each employee - the job function and requirements, team member interdependencies, organizational norms, leader's expectations, and corporate culture - expedites the time required to get the employees "up to speed." The stress of the learning is minimized, and employees quickly move to operating with a sense of self-mastery and at peak performance. Thus, the productivity of the entire team is accelerated.

Performance feedback

Although a standard job requirement, performance feedback and corrective interventions can present a high-risk dilemma for leaders. When engaging in these conversations, fear is usually present for both the leader and the employee. There is a lot of uncertainty about how it will go, if there will be repercussions, if it will cause damage to the relationship, if it will leave the employee disengaged, or if it will make a bad situation worse. While there is accumulating evidence that performance reviews do more harm than good, some difficult conversations are necessary in the job of managing human beings.

While most leaders dread such conversations, skills such as listening actively, asking open questions, remaining nondefensive, and creating rapport can be developed to ensure some degree of competency. However, when difficult conversations are necessary, understanding the unique personality of the person is critical to successful outcomes. Tailoring the approach to the conversation secures the listening for open communication, and presenting information to address the individual's motivation guarantees that the information is actually received and can be acted upon. This streamlined communication process facilitates understanding and being understood, both of which are necessary for effective management.

Stellar leaders intuitively flex, adapt, and accommodate to create effectiveness with each employee. For the not-so-stellar, applying insightful tools, sound interpersonal skills, and processes maximize both the efficiency and effectiveness in managing people, with the end result being increased productivity. If those are not reasons enough, the most compelling reason for leaders to develop new skills comes down to the leader. By understanding their employees' unique abilities, maximizing effectiveness, and managing more powerfully, the leader's job is made easier. Much interpersonal misery is alleviated when a leader replaces misunderstanding with understanding and uses it effectively to everyone's benefit.


Deborah Dorsett, vice president and executive consultant of Personalysis Corporation, has expertise in process change utilizing the Personalysis Management System to increase skill development, design organizational strategies, and stimulate cultural change. She is a proven expert in creating systems, developing organizational redesign and stimulating improvement through coaching. Proficient in leadership development, Deborah has been active as a change agent in labor-management partnerships and group problem solving.