Whipped Cream on a Cow Pie: People Skills Without Love

Teaching “people skills” to leaders who don’t care about people is like putting whipped cream on a cow pie. When you take a bite, it’s not long before you taste the cow pie.

Let me illustrate this with a story.


Maria (not her real name) came to me because complaints from her direct reports had bubbled up to leadership. She was a successful senior executive and had delivered impressive results. But she had run over people along the way. As a result, some had quit, and several were less engaged and productive. The way she had treated them left a bad taste in their mouths.

Like the taste of cow pie.

She knew she needed to change her approach if she hoped to regain the confidence and trust of her bosses and her team. Her HR director suggested working with an executive coach as a way to help her build her people skills and adjust her style.

One of the first questions I asked her as her coach was, “Would people say you care about them?”

She quickly answered, “Yes.” But as we discussed and considered this further, she admitted that in certain situations (e.g., under pressure when people were underperforming, when she was at risk of looking bad)…she treated people like crap.

And – surprise, surprise – treating people like crap didn’t necessarily help them step up their performance. In fact, it usually made the situation worse. After I interviewed her team as part of a 360 degree leadership assessment, she saw clearly how she came across to people. And she committed to improve her “leadership wake.”

Improving People Skills is Important but not Sufficient

We worked on her leadership and people skills: seeking first to understand, active listening, giving undivided attention, collaborative problem-solving, etc. We helped her better understand her style and others’ styles.  And we helped her vary her approach depending on the person and the situation.

Attitude is (almost) Everything

Perhaps most importantly, though, Maria came to realize that she often viewed people as objects to control, vehicles she could use or obstacles that got in her way. She began to remind herself of individuals’ value. Instead of blaming others when things weren’t going well, she began to take more responsibility for what she could do differently to help people achieve better outcomes.

She didn’t lose her results orientation. But she did incorporate a focus on relationships and an intentional effort to demonstrate empathy and genuine concern for others.

People began to notice. She improved her relationship effectiveness and emotional intelligence. But it was the shift in her attitude and perspective that strengthened her skill improvements and gave them staying power. She grew her regard for people.

The Organizational Moral of Maria’s Story

Too often, we minimize the importance of people’s attitude and motivation in our organizational learning and development programs and performance management. Be sure, whether organizationally or individually, you don’t spend all your money and effort on whipped cream.

Image Credit

Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. In his work as a leadership consultant and executive coach, he helps leaders and organizations build strong leaders that focus on both results and relationships. You can reach him at jbaker@www.people-results.com or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.