Recognize People for Who They Are, Not Who You Want Them to Be

Several years ago, a colleague gave me what turned out to be very enlightening feedback on how I deal with others.

“Jim,” he said, “you need to recognize people for who they are, not for what you want them to be.”

Hmm. I had to soak that one in, to tell you the truth. It was meant to be constructive criticism, but I wasn’t sure how to take it.

Related: Simon Sinek: Effective Leadership Is a Learned Skill, Just Like Any Other

“I know,” I said as I nodded along in agreement, although not really knowing what I was exactly agreeing to. I was a bit confused.

But he got me thinking, and analyzing, and marinating.

It turns out that I was nodding along because it was true -- I do tend to look at people for what I want them to be. I want them to be excellent, and I want them to excel, and I want them to contribute to the team beyond anyone’s expectations.

I want them to be more than they thought they were capable of, and I want them to push the team forward.

I’m not sure that the comment was meant to be a compliment, but I have to ask, “Is there something wrong with that?”


Perhaps it’s better to recognize people for who they are. Perhaps it’s better to have a full understanding of their skill sets and a proper sense of what they are able to contribute. In that manner, so my colleague coached me, you don’t set up people for failure or push them beyond their capabilities. Perhaps it’s better to keep them in their “swim lanes,” as he continued with his feedback to me.


Related: The 4 Elements You Need to Build Your High-Performing Team

I get it. Maximizing the current skills of the team to collectively accomplish a specific goal is Management 101. Meshing talents is how projects get down seamlessly. It’s how you make deadlines and get tasks accomplished.

I get it.

But I want to do more than just manage.

I want to inspire growth. I want to help people advance. I want my team to do more. I want to lead and inspire.

Is there anything wrong with that?


If the person wants it, then all is ok. But what if they don’t? That I now totally get, hands down.

Good leaders and good managers know the mix of the team in front of them and know how to handle each person both collectively and individually. We need to know each individual’s goals and aspirations and match your own expectations to their wants. Some you can push higher, and some you can keep blissfully happy in their current role.

The key is to know when and how.

I love a good coaching moment. It’s like a gift to have someone give you a window into your own perceptions. It opens your mind.

Related: How 'Elevator' Leaders Lift Everyone to Higher Achievement

I know I learned a lot from this colleague, although he was very black and white. I’m not sure that the world works that way. There’s no black and white here, just a lot of gray.

So, I will strive to surf blissfully happy in that gray. Happily. Pushing some but also making sure all are engaged and productive -- on their terms, not mine.