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Managing people
7 Min Read

How to Focus on Managing People (Not Roles)

Alex Genetti
Alex Genetti

‘Servant leadership’ is all the rage. But too many leaders aren’t actually serving their people — they’re managing job descriptions. 

They’re thinking about how best to manage salespeople, engineers, and HR specialists, instead of considering Sandra, Bryan, and Mohinder, the individuals. But managing the actual people, behind the roles, is how you build an all-star cast of top performers instead of a revolving door.

I’m Alex Genetti, Head of People at Enable, and I recently spoke on this topic on the HR Superstars Podcast. Here’s how you can make people the focus of everything you’re doing—and not just their title.

Find out what motivates the person (not the role)

As a manager, there’s a risk of letting someone’s role affect your perception of them. Salespeople are loud extroverts with thick skins, so you can tell it like it is. Writers and designers are more prickly, so you have to deliver feedback carefully if you’re trying to get results. Engineers are more technically minded, so you need to present facts and logic to get them on your side.

But that’s not how people work. You can’t paint them all in such broad strokes and expect your management strategy to work. That’s the core of managing people versus managing roles. Realize that Bryan will react to feedback differently than Aisha, even if they’re both salespeople.

And there’s evidence for this.

In the 5 Love Languages, Gary Chapman describes the five ways people receive love in romantic relationships:

  1. Words of affirmation
  2. Quality time
  3. Receiving gifts
  4. Acts of service
  5. Physical touch

Okay, hold on, bear with me.

On the surface, it may sound odd to use a book on relationships to manage people, but the core concept is broadly applicable. After all, what is work but a network of interconnected relationships?

Everyone is different, and the way you appreciate them as a manager—or an HR professional—needs to be different. With just a little bit of modification, the “love languages” from Chapman’s book can be applied in the workplace as “appreciation languages” (with the language of “Physical Touch” removed for obvious reasons):

  1. Words of affirmation: For some folks on your team, a simple “good job” at the end of a big project can make their day.
  2. Quality time: Spending some of your limited time in a 1-on-1 where you’re really engaging with someone can make a huge difference.
  3. Receiving gifts: This one may be the most challenging to manage though. , But are there rewards or perks that are available for your top performers? Can you encourage someone to take off early for the day?
  4. Acts of service: There’s at least one person on your team for whom the best way to show you care about them is to wield your influence as a manager to help them through a tough task or project.

By spending a bit of time to figure out what motivates each person on your team, you can speak to them in their language.

Give your people the opportunity to grow

When you’re looking at people as a role, you’ll invariably focus on metrics for personal growth. “How can I get the sales team to close more deals?” “How can I make sure the marketers create campaigns with better ROI?”

But what if you look at the actual people in those roles? You might learn that Sandy from sales has been really interested in learning more about the operations side rather than just getting better at sales calls. Meanwhile, Mohinder the marketer wishes he could design his own landing pages, and is convinced he could make them that much more powerful with the right training.

Many organizations offer some kind of benefit for employees looking to grow their skills, as long as it serves the business in one way or another. But too often, that approach is too restrictive—and it’s often driven by fear that an employee who uses this benefit will leave for a better job. And I get it. You want to keep your people around as long as possible because you like them and you like their work.

But when you’re thinking about them as a role, as a salesperson who can get better at closing deals instead of a person who’s trying to build up their skillset, you’re stifling their growth and potentially pushing them away anyway.

Accompany the people on your team in their growth. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the more you help them grow without thinking about how good or bad it is for your business, the more supported they’ll feel—and the more likely they are to stay longer.

Be transparent

I want to lead this point with an example of something that happened at Enable.

We had an employee come to the People team because she was concerned that her male peers were getting paid significantly more than she was. As a woman, I can understand that concern. It’s still valid, even in 2023. In 2022, the Pew Research Center reported that the gender pay gap in the U.S. was still an issue, with women only earning an average of 82% of what men earn—only a 2% improvement in twenty years.

But while I understood her concern and could feel where she was coming from, I was limited in what I could realistically do. I couldn’t just tell her what her peers were making. I could give her our salary range and reassure her that she wasn’t eclipsed by her male peers, but I knew that wouldn’t be enough.

In a situation like that, it’s tempting to just shrug, say something along the lines of “my hands are tied” and move on to the next issue. That’s something organizations—and people—do when they see roles instead of the people in those roles.

Instead, we went with transparency. We crunched the numbers and told everyone at Enable where we stood on the gender pay gap. The result wasn’t perfect and we admitted we still had some work to do. Still, it reassured everyone that we knew there was a problem and we were already working to fix it.

Being transparent with employees the way you would be with the other people in your life, you can solve problems like this before they come up. You’ll also make them feel like they’re more than just their job.

Be truly people-first

People. Not roles. By shifting your HR and management approach to focus on the person in the chair in front of you instead of the title on their LinkedIn profile, you’re going to have happier employees, teams that perform better, and a healthier workplace. Find out what motivates them, give them the opportunity to grow, and always be transparent. It’s how we do it at Enable, and we’ve got a great team to show for it.

Want to listen to my full episode of the HR Superstars Podcast? You can do so on Spotify (below), Apple Podcasts, or Stitcher. Or tune in on 15Five’s website.

About the Author

Alex is a Human Resources Executive with a comprehensive background in overseeing all aspects of the employee lifecycle. 

As an Executive People Partner, her expertise includes the strategic development and execution of employee onboarding initiatives, sophisticated benefits and total compensation frameworks, comprehensive policy creation and implementation, global payroll administration, advanced people data management, and proactive handling of complex employee relations – with a goal to help drive positive business outcomes through innovative People practices.