What Does It Mean to Be a People Person?

Contrary to popular belief, it’s more the deftness with interpersonal relations than gregarious cocktail party ease that makes a “people person.”

I have always said I am not a people person. I say this because I don’t enjoy large groups of people in situations such as cocktail parties, in which conversation requires forced small talk. I also find meeting new people stressful, much preferring a dinner with just friends over a dinner with new acquaintances mixed in. Now, even with all those traditionally telltale signs I’m not a people person, I am rethinking this self-definition.

I know what the shallow definition of a people person is, but is it possible there is a deeper meaning of “people person”? Maybe it isn’t the person who likes wandering around an office or party meeting and greeting, fist-bumping, back-slapping, and asking about the kids. Or maybe doing those things aren’t enough to merit the title “people person.”

I found this article by Karen Nimmo, “10 Traits of a (Genuine) People Person: Do You Have Them?” The article notes that it’s more the deftness with interpersonal relations than the cocktail party ease that makes a “people person.” For instance, Nimmo writes that a people person cares about others, is easy to be with, asks good questions (which I think means they also must be good listeners), doesn’t antagonize other people, and is good at remembering “the little things.”

Do companies need to rethink which employees are truly good at relating to others? It’s not unusual for a manager or department to tag a back-slapper, who may have none of the above qualities, as a “people person.” That person then is categorized as one who should be moved into higher-level positions because they are supposedly good at dealing with people. I have seen in my own experience that this is not necessarily the case.

Over the course of my career, I experienced a manager who was great at talking up strangers and business contacts. He liked nothing more than to make the rounds at trade show booths, or sit at a bar sipping cocktail after cocktail while yucking it up with a person he was trying to make a deal with. Yet in interpersonal communication with employees, he left much to be desired.

For example, he eschewed career planning, never checking in once to see where I wanted my career to progress, practically offering an open position above me to another person without even letting me know the position would be open, and never asking if I was interested. Knowing how insensitive and unresponsive he was, I sent an e-mail to another executive and his boss, letting them know in so many words that I would leave if I wasn’t promoted to that job. That workaround did the trick, and I got my promotion. But I had to navigate around my manager, rather than look to him for support, encouragement, and fair treatment.

In day-to-day operations, it was his default mode of operation to make business deals in which he promised the moon—a moon that we who worked for him would have to deliver. The problem was he didn’t bother asking us if what he was promising was feasible. And he frequently wouldn’t tell us about what he had promised even after the deal was made. Or he would tell one employee who the new deal would impact, but not others. He was notorious for not responding to e-mails, and sometimes not even to text and voicemail messages.

He was petty, once asking us to delay delivery on materials that had been promised to an advertiser because the advertiser had responded to one of his e-mails in a way that offended him. He also played favorites and was duplicitous. Under pressure, he gave me the promotion, but hollowed out the position, giving the resources, opportunities for advancement, and possibly the salary to the man he originally wanted for the position. He put that man at a smaller, much less profitable sister publication, which was published less frequently and had far fewer advertisers. Yet he designated a junior employee for that man, and went out of his way to celebrate that publication’s minor wins while ignoring the greater accomplishments, and much greater profitability, of the one I worked on.

I could go on, but you get the idea. He was enjoyable and easy to talk to socially and in business meetings, but once you were his employee (unless you were a favorite), he wasn’t nearly so charming.

The real test of a people person is how they are after the deal has been made—after they have gotten what they want from you. What kind of co-worker is this person? Do they communicate frequently, clearly, and sensitively with fellow employees and direct reports? Is this a person who knows when their employees’ birthdays are, knows what each employee likes, and takes joy in celebrating with them? It may be time for all of us to rethink what it means to be a people person, and stop advancing those who are nothing more than cocktail party and business meeting showpeople, capable of a great song and dance but incapable of meaningful and caring relationships with employees.

Is your company aware of the ersatz people person, who is impressive at parties and meetings, but falls short one-on-one over the long-term? How do you weed these individuals out of your succession planning?