You don’t have to understand what people do to work with them - here’s how I do it

Ronen Menipaz


It’s safe to say that motivating people without understanding what they do is always a challenge for a leader.

Assuming the goal isn’t to understand what they do but to create the most productive (and fun) work environment, from my experience, there are four things you can do. 

1. Go for loyalty instead of talent

I say this as a rule of thumb: always hire someone who is more trustworthy than talented, especially if you don’t fully understand the industry you’re venturing into.

There are a couple of reasons why you should do so, starting with harmony. Discord within a team, particularly with a co-founder, is a fatal issue for many companies. Things turn bad and ugly real fast. You want to feel comfortable to ask questions and get a clear idea of what’s going on in order to get help and grow both you and your company. 

Having a loyal person instead of a top talent allows you to focus on running your business because there’s less drama and internal politics involved. Going for the best of the best is opportunistic on both sides, and that’s a problem. You can’t know if that person’s interests are and will be aligned with yours, and if the chemistry is going to work. Being confident in one’s abilities isn’t the same as being confident in them as a person. 

If you choose loyalty over talent, you may not go as fast as possible and make as much money as possible but you will sleep better. You will have an opportunity to learn quickly, improve, and excel in that particular field, and then you can hire a more talented person. For any business to succeed, it needs a strong leader who can harness individual contributions to benefit both personal development and the organization’s collective goals. 

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Loyalty has nothing to do with the length of employment. It’s about hard work and commitment to the company’s interest and success, sometimes even ahead of personal concerns and triumphs.

2. Communicate in metaphors

Metaphors are a highly efficient communication trait because they help simplify complex topics and demystify things. As species, we have this intrinsic ability to understand them by making comparisons between two things that are typically unrelated. 

The key is to understand the flow. If you’re working with a Big Data expert, you may not understand the specialized databases it requires or the analytical and operational systems behind it. However, by presenting a metaphor you understand, you may realize the flow behind it: that it’s about uncovering patterns and trends from massive volumes of data to gain insights and make decisions and predictions. 

One of the greatest and weirdest examples is Richard Branson not knowing the difference between net profits (a company’s earnings minus its expenses) and gross profits (a company’s total earnings) until he was 50 years old. At one of the board meetings, one of the executives drew him a diagram of a net in the sea to help him understand the concept. The fish in the net were profits left over. The fish outside the net was the gross. 

The utility of metaphors, whether through speech, gestures, or visual help, can not only increase the power of communication by creating strong images in our mind (thus enhancing key aspects we want to communicate) but also strengthen the bonds between two sides. 

3. Don’t act like you know everything

This is perhaps the biggest trick. As the old adage says, nobody likes a smartass.

Crudely speaking, there are two types of leaders: those that show they’re the boss by pretending to know everything and those who ask for help when needed. For me, it’s the difference between managing through fear and managing through teamwork. If you insist on being Mr. Know-it-all, what you’re really doing is making the communication based on ego. 

Smartass. - Imgflip

There’s no shame in asking for help. Whatsmore, it actually empowers people and creates a sense of approachability between the management and employees. Whoever says they know everything – they better actually know it, otherwise, they’ll look really stupid, people will badmouth them, and there’s going to be a shit-ton of ego in the room. 

Vulnerability doesn’t necessarily mean being weak or submissive as it is generally seen in business. It’s about embracing limitations and trust. Leaders who are willing to come off as vulnerable have an easier time gaining the trust of others. In fact, they are more effective leaders because they show, by sharing their feelings and experiences, that not knowing something doesn’t have to be bad. 

You get to validate the roles of those you work with because let’s face it – they can (and likely do) google whatever it is they don’t understand. There’s no difference in the result they’ll get so create an environment where they can freely ask you instead of a search engine. This way, they get to have an active and meaningful role because people want to feel needed and you draw upon them to achieve success. 

Asking for help openly is what makes you a human being, and that is hugely important when working with a team. On that note:

4. Manage people as human beings

In the end, people are the most important resource. Almost everyone has a certain skill set that makes them valuable and shares the same interests: to succeed, have security, and feel needed. So if you don’t understand what they do, take the responsibility upon yourself. If you manage what they want and need, you’ll receive back the information needed to do it.

In a lot of ways, mediocre management has become the norm because we have profits, growth, and all the other tangible business things to worry about. For some, the power they hold as leaders and managers is far too great and important to “waste” on relationships and whatnot. 

Yet, management is not a long list of tasks you check off – it’s a series of human interactions. It’s a profoundly human activity that requires personal responsibility, openness, and clear communication. Sometimes, you don’t have the obligation of understanding the entire picture but you need to understand the risks and factors people are communicating when making a decision.

not sure if making decisions is a good decision - Futurama Fry ...

That’s why I say that empathy is the best sales pitch you can give at any given moment, whether it’s a partner, client, or employee. If you fail to place yourself in the other person’s shoes to understand why they are feeling the way they are feeling, what makes them tick, what drives them, and so on – then you really aren’t capable of managing. An employee with whom you’re not empathetic about what incentivizes them is an employee who will be impossible to motivate, let alone understand how to work together. 

Final thoughts

Being the type of leader who is comfortable enough with yourself and those working with you takes time. It doesn’t come overnight. You can try to pretend that you understand people and their concerns but it won’t take long for them to detect and dislike you. We’re wired that way as a species. 

Perhaps now more than ever, people need leaders who are empathetic and vulnerable, understanding the interests of others and putting them first. Using these four tips, I hope you get closer to learning how to work with people whether or not you fully understand what they do, because when all is said and done – success isn’t possible without proper communication and collaboration.

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