People Watching: Watch and Learn

Most of us entertain ourselves through people watching at least once in a while.  It could be at the mall, in a restaurant, or even our child’s school.  There is something fascinating about watching the small gestures, plethora of facial expressions, and odd quirks of other human beings, especially when we feel we are watching without the person’s knowledge.   Although it is considered more of an art than a science, some people take it very seriously. even has an entry for it to help prepare the aspiring watchers:    The site defines people watching as:

observing people to get a feel for the beauty and rhythm of the community around us. For some people watchers, it’s about creativity, using the moments of watching to try and guess at another person’s story just from mere observation, and embracing the fun of what is, in effect, an amateur social science.

Although some might be drawn to the “beauty and rhythm of the community,” most of us are just curious of our fellow human beings and their behaviors.  Moreover, we all probably know someone that as an amateur social scientist can weave a very dramatic story of why someone holds their bag a certain way or always cuts their food left to right.  An old friend had this gift for invention.  He could watch someone do the most mundane of tasks and create a yarn of considerable detail, complexity, and adventure based on the clothes, facial expression, posture, and activities of the individual. A frazzled shopper hid the identity of a secret agent while the tired mother of three seemed to live a much more interesting life than one would expect.

At this point, you might be wondering why a discussion of people watching is beneficial to me or my employees?  The answer is if you want to be successful when interacting with others, it is important to comprehend their motivations, thoughts, and patterns.  Most of us assume that being human makes us true experts in other human beings.  When we look at the state of most relationships of any sort, clearly that is not the case.  Think how often we verbally or internally reach the conclusion that we do not understand why someone did what they did.  As you consider how better to comprehend those around you in your workplace, there are three important lessons we can learn from people watching:

  • Observation is important
  • Read the clues
  • Judge carefully

Observation is Important

Given how busy we are at doing our own work, we are sometime oblivious to those around us and their situation.  When trying to meet deadlines, balance home and work, and ensure that work is done as productively as possible, it is tempting to “block out” the rest of the world.  If want to understand and possibly support or even motivate those around us, we have to open our eyes. By watching people we gain a basic understanding of what is important to a person, how they wish to be seen by others, and how they are reacting to what is inside and outside around them.

Read the Clues

Once we have opened our eyes, we need to do something with the information.  More than a few times, I have worked with a manager that said he or she knew something was wrong based on the employee’s behavior and appearance, but just “filed the information away.”  These same managers only later link the observed behavior with a reduction in engagement and productivity.  In most cases, the elapsed time is sufficient to have diminished the output of the work unit and created a new challenge.  The best approach is to develop the capability to recognize the subtext of behaviors.

Judge Carefully

Once we begin observing and thinking about what we see, it is important to determine the best course of action to take.  Things are not always what they seem and we need to carefully weigh the potential action we want to take based on our observations.  I worked the last few weeks with a group of managers that did a good job at observing and understanding the reasons behind certain employee behaviors, but they always selected the same method of addressing employee behaviors.  A key lesson of observing people is that they are all different and respond differently to different actions.

I would encourage you to try people watching.  Next time you have an extra moment at work take five minutes and see what you can observe.

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