If you think you have “people skills”, try to imagine what you mean. Is it an image in your mind’s eye of smiling, engaged, satisfied clients, colleagues and manager?
Or is it an image of just you smiling and satisfied because you got what you wanted from others because of your “people skills”?
Of course, the conventionally required answer is that the outcome of your interaction is that all of you are happy and content, because of your great people management skills. Alas, things aren’t always so simple or complete.
Instead, it is quite possible, and probably commonly the case, that what is possessed are “semi-people skills”—the ability to deal with others in ways in which either we get what we want or they get what they want, but not both, or at best only in the dilute form of “negotiated settlement”, acquiescence, capitulation or some other form of surrender or compromise by one or both parties.
This distinction between “people skills” and “semi-people skills” can be critical in hiring, especially when not only does the job require such skills, but also and especially when the job candidate is misperceived as having the full complement of people skills, i.e., being able to get what (s)he wants and to give others what they want, when in fact the skills are limited to accomplishing only one of these two missions.
The way I came to distinguish people skills from semi-people skills also serves to illustrate the application of the distinction: A friend asked me whether I thought she had good people skills—the kind of question that can easily come up in a job interview, e.g., for positions as shop supervisor, project engineer, physician, loans officer, call center operator or customer service representative.
She was told by another friend that she does not—which seemed at variance with part of my perception of her, yet consistent with other aspects of her interactions.
For a moment, I felt stumped, because I wanted to answer “yes” and “no”. But my philosophy and critical thinking background instantly kicked in, so I followed the hallowed maxim “In the face of a contradiction, make a distinction”. In this case, the distinction was between “supply-side people skills”—i.e., supplying people with what they want to be satisfied with outcomes or opportunities vs. “demand-side people- skills”—i.e., being able to demand and get favorable outcomes or opportunities for oneself.
Applied Supply-Side and Demand-Side People Skills
In terms of this distinction, my friend, whom I shall call “Tanya” (because she is a private person), who is (also) a really thoughtful and kind person, is distinctively capable of giving people what they want, without in the slightest being a wimpy people-pleaser.
She is very accommodating, flexible, adaptable, unassuming, patient, non-confrontational, respectful and “non-judgmental” (i.e., doesn’t prejudge people or judges them gently, but with conviction).
That makes her an adept supply-side people-person with good people- skills; however, she seems, by comparison with that, ineffectual as a demand-side self-pleaser, because of seeming self-effacement, modesty, shyness, insecurity or humility.
Hence, Tanya is, in effect, someone with “semi-people skills”, possessing only half of the full set of people skills required, in her case, to ensure that not only do others get what they want, but that she also gets what she wants.
That conversation with Tanya was about social contexts; however, in a career context, the full set of people skills is necessary not just to ensure getting what one wants, but, instead or also, to ensure that the organization or company gets what it wants from Tanya’s prospective clientele, who are children and their parents she works with as a speech therapist.
Asked in a job interview or performance review about whether she has good people skills, or assessed only on the basis of whether she strives to make clients or customers happy, someone like Tanya may be misassessed as having the complete set of people skills, if her affirmative reply or proof of “supply-side people skills” are the only evidence elicited or sought. She may, in fact, have difficulty in eliciting what she needs for the organization or for herself, despite any evident “customer satisfaction”, if her social semi-people skills profile is replicated or dominant professionally.
It may be fair and ironic to speculate that the kind of person who may be susceptible to having just half the people-skills package is precisely the kind of person Tanya is: kind and not manipulative.
Manipulative people are far likelier to ensure that their people skills include the demand-side, get-what-I-and-the-organization want sorts. Of course, they also run a greater risk of lacking the supply-side, give-what-makes-the-client-happy skills, in virtue of being more focused on the demand-side skills.
Prioritizing and Identifying People-Skill Sets
Consider a hypothetical high-pressure stock broker or sales rep whose sales numbers are excellent. Suppose his success is largely attributable to his “never take ‘no’ for an answer”, predatory tactics and manipulativeness. Are those numbers clear evidence of great people skills—given that his sales are of discretionary investments, not sales of essentials?
His company may think so, if such skills are measured in dollar-denominated terms and units; but if there is an ethical or compassionate dimension to evaluations of his practices and performance, he may be seen as lacking or being deficient in the supply-side people-skills.
As suggested above, ideally a professional will have both the supply- and demand-side skills, so that, in the end, everybody is happy or at least comfortable with the outcomes. But when interviewing and hiring on a basis that requires candidates to have people skills when, in fact, any given candidate may have only half the skill set, it will be advisable, if not critical, to do two things: determine which half-set has priority for your organization and the applicant, and discover which people skills (s)he actually has.
While you’re at it, do the same for yourself and your people skills.