Why is Understanding People So Hard

Understanding PeopleUnderstanding people isn't just a HR skill for managers.

This has to be one of the oldest clichés in management and HR. I came across this gem via a post from Harold Jarche who wrote about a presentation by Danah Boyd titled Networked Norms. Whilst the major focus for Jarche and Boyd is around increasing internal and external connections for employees and businesses, I think the message about understanding people is as interesting.

From the presentation:

Understanding people isn't just an HR skill for managers. For better or worse, in a risk economy with an increasingly interdependent global workforce, these are skills that everyday people need. Building lifelong learners means instilling curiosity, but it also means helping people recognize how important it is that they continuously surround themselves by people that they can learn from. And what this means is that people need to learn how to connect to new people on a regular basis.

Understanding People

If understanding people is difficult, it's also going to be difficult to connect to new people on a regular basis, at least in terms of creating a meaningful and engaging relationship. The question that remains though is how do we help people better understand each other. Jarche makes the excellent point that moving to a perspective in which people are seen as unique individuals, rather that as replaceable workers is one approach.

One of the barriers to connecting people is the nature of the JOB, seen as something to be filled by replaceable workers. Shifting our perspective to treating workers as unique individuals, each of whom have different abilities and connections with others, is a start in thinking with a network perspective.

Building on this, it's important to ask why understanding people is so difficult, not least given the choice and history of psychometric tests and related tools. Most popular psychometric tools have been available for 20 or 30 years and related management theories such as Situational Leadership and Stages of Team Development are almost 50 years old.

Prediction and Decision Making

Whilst one might speculate as to the creation and continued existence of this cliché, I'd propose two major contributing factors. The first evolves around prediction and decision making. Despite the near limitless number of models, tools and techniques that try to help us better understand people, how many offer clear predictions about the people in question and by extension, help aid our decision making?

While some psychometrics are used for recruitment, they typically require expert interpretation and don't easily lend themselves to everyday business communication. Some of the images here illustrate this very well. Aside from selection orientated psychometrics however, it's hard to think of other tools and approaches that go beyond self-awareness.

If a tool can't make valuable and easily implemented predictions about our understanding of people and by extension, it can't help improve our decision making, it's ability to contribute to a business is going to be somewhat limited.


The second factor that contributes to the understanding people cliché evolves around reliability. Reliability is really an off-shoot of predictability. It's one thing to make a prediction, but it's another to make successful predictions that can be relied upon. While there are methods that do a good job of predicting manufacturing defects, traffic flows, project costs, company cash flows and even the flu, it's very hard to find anything similarly reliable when it comes to understanding people.


The lack of well recognised tools and techniques that help us better understand people through reliable predictions undoubtedly contributes to the fact that understanding people is hard. Taking this conclusion at face value, it's then easy to see how some managers don't want to get involved in 'people' issues and instead they prefer to pass the problem to HR. Time will tell how long this situation endures but given the 50 year time frames above, it's difficult to see this cliché being consigned to history any time soon.

Image credit: jayofboy

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