People First

I invest in people. I think: people first, projects second.
Bruno Zheng Wu

People first, everything else second. It is a powerful idea and the first step in loving those you serve. But, what does it really mean to put people first? It is a statement we hear a great deal in leadership, but often find putting into practice or into action on a daily basis much more challenging. The same to-do-list sits on our desk, the same problems are still there to be solved, and the same school accountability requirements are yet to be met. How do you put people first when all of these items are staring at us each day, drawing our attention from what really matters? The people- people matter, when it comes down to the core of what we do, people matter the most. Here are a few ways to measure where people fall as a level of importance in your daily work. If you invest your time here, people are (and will always be) your priority.

Listen to support, not to respond
How many times have you found yourself in a conversation, knowing exactly what you are going to say before the other person even stops sharing their thoughts? If we want to be approachable, we must make sure conversations focus on the other person and what they bring to the table, not on ourselves. Listen fully, stop, think, paraphrase, and then respond. As leaders, the conversation is not about us, it is about being supportive of the person who approached you. Most of the time, the advice you are quick to give is not as good as you think it is anyway. If you take time to be reflective before you answer, the advice you give will usually be more sound and taken with more merit. People have two ears and one mouth for a reason, use them in that proportion.

Ask questions that make it about the people you are talking with and their needs, not about you or your own personal needs. If we want to support others, we need to know where they need supported the most, or what support they even need. If we do not dig a little deeper into conversations, we will only help in superficial ways. Asking questions allows us to figure out where a person is starting, and then support them as they take those critical first steps.

It is always much better to take time while communicating with others. Impulsivity in responding immediately is the enemy of great leadership. While your knee jerk response may be good, it is rarely a well thought out insight into the situation. There are very few situations that need an immediate answer. In all honesty, in the complex world we live in and the complex problems that exist in our schools, rarely is there one answer that will address the heart of the matter. People need our ear and support much more than they need our advice.

When you do respond, do so with empathy and honesty
In the midst of difficult, emotional situations where honest, hard conversations must be had, our honesty can be delivered with empathy or with apathy. We cannot just be warm and fuzzy, we must be real and constructive or no growth can take place. It is this place in our heart and mind where the honesty comes from truly that matters as a leader. Too often we worry about how people will feel if given constructive criticism, so we avoid the conversation all together. While on the surface, this may seem like it comes from a place of concern and love, I want you to think about what that really shows the person. If we know a person is acting in a way that is hindering their growth, and we say nothing, who are we really concerned about in this situation? If we truly cared about that person, wouldn’t we want to help them improve? If we say nothing, we are only concerned with ourselves. We do not want the feedback to upset the individual and have them be angry with us. By avoiding the conversation we feel we are protecting ourselves, which is the opposite of outward, people first, thinking.

The challenge comes in how you respond in these situations. Honesty can be presented in vastly different ways, and can come from very different places as a leader. We must start with empathy and honesty first, then we can worry about results. We must start with individual relationships, and then we can focus on outcomes. If you put results and outcomes before caring, honesty, and individual relationships, your leadership is filtered down to a simple transactional interaction. When outcomes come first, people become objects used to get us the results we want, or need, for our own personal gain.

I want you to think back to a time when you were scolded. Maybe as a child, or maybe by a boss. Do you remember how you felt? Was the feedback given to you during that scolding accurate and needed at the time? Maybe the feedback was good, maybe not, but I am sure what you remember about the situation is the emotion that came along with it, not the feedback that was given at the time. I have messed up situations like this more often than I care to admit; it is not easy to come from a place of caring, and honesty in emotionally-charged situations. It takes investing in people over a long period of time, and concern for the individuals you are working with to get it right.

I also want to reiterate the fact that true love comes from a place of deep care and concern for an individual. We can love someone without always liking their behavior. Anyone who lives with, or works with, teenagers understands this. We love our kids even though we may not always like the decisions they make. You can be exhaustively frustrated with someone, and still want to help them that comes from a place of deep love and concern for them as people. Love means we treat people as they are, which is more than a sum of their actions or mistakes. They are human beings, and every human being deserves our love in action.

The view from where you sit
We tend to respond and listen to others with the general attitude we form over time towards those people. With this being true, I believe it is vital to consider our daily thoughts and emotions and how those impact our interactions with the people we serve. People appear smarter, more skilled, and having a higher work ethic when, things are going well, and we see them  straightforwardly as people who are serving their purpose. As we interact with people, or hear things about them, we need to continually ask ourselves if we are regarding them as having similar hopes and needs as we wish for ourselves. Do we judge their actions in the same way that we judge our own, or do we see people as objects and their behavior as a threat, nuisance, or problem?

When we get frustrated with people, we typically respond in a few different manners. We find ways to inflate others’ faults, we find ways to inflate our own morality in how we would handle similar situations, we inflate the value of an action and its impact on a situation in a negative way, and/or we blame others. When we have a view that we are somehow entitled, or superior, to those we lead, we can easily fall into these traps. This means we are not really seeing people as people at all, but rather as objects that can be used to get the results or outcomes we pursue. This means their wants, their needs, their desires all become secondary to our own. Our desires come first making others needs become less legitimate and inferior. This only leads us to inflate the value of things that justify putting our work and ideas on top and pushing others down. Success as a leader depends on freeing ourselves from these deceptions we see in people. When we see people as hardworking individuals who are giving their best and want to improve, we create an environment of openness,, trust and teamwork, where people work hard for the collective good, not for individual accomplishments.

You must believe
Is the glass half-full or half-empty?… When you run into a challenge, do you believe the people you serve “can” or “can’t” handle the situation?

The answer to this question is key to understanding if you truly put people first. Our role as a leader (who operates out of love) is to help people believe that no matter what has happened in the past, they can accomplish difficult things. If we believe that those we serve can accomplish difficult tasks, and we are willing to struggle through the process with them, our impact can be long lasting. On the other hand, it is not surprising that a relationship based on low expectations, typically yields less than positive results. When we remove trust and belief in a person’s ability to accomplish great things, we create a culture where people do not believe they can accomplish difficult tasks and therefore, ultimately, they do not try. While this negative result is often not intentional on the leader’s part (and is often born out of frustration from behavior or effort) we need to understand the damage created by setting low achievement expectations by claiming that “people can’t, or won’t.” It takes allowing full autonomy in those we serve. It means we trust people to make decisions when we might be the one who holds the responsibility for the results.

Jay Bilas in Toughness states, “Belief can be an incredibly powerful thing, especially when those around you believe in you.  Belief is one of the characteristics that lead to toughness. How can you be truly tough unless you believe in yourself?  How can you believe in yourself if those around you do not?”

Do not be the parent that swoops in and fixes every problem for your child. Let them struggle; let them learn. Those who jump in quickly to solve difficult problems for people (in any capacity of life) show you what they believe about that person’s ability to solve the problem in the first place. If we remove the struggle, we remove the learning. If we remove the learning and solve problems for people who could solve the problem if given time, we ensure that our buildings will never be any better than the solutions we can come up with as an individual. Leadership is about turning over control and believing that people can accomplish the task at hand.

In summary, the ideas that come from putting people first apply to many aspects of our lives: teaching, parenting, being a great spouse or a great friend, and ultimately leadership. When people feel valued and appreciated they always seem to do more than what is expected. If we start by valuing people first in our conversations and actions, we will become stronger as a leader.  Spouting off advice, fixing problems for people, or belittling those around us is how people who put products before people operate. If we truly want to put those we serve first, we must be open to, and grateful for, every opportunity we have to work with people — the good and the bad. Each opportunity is a way to build a better relationship with the students, teachers, staff members, or whoever else it is you are aiming to serve.

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