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How to Work with People Who Aren’t You

By Diane Bock

Diane Bock She is reserved. He is gregarious. She loves to plan and organize. He’s a spur of the moment kinda guy. She loves romantic comedies. He prefers action movies where things explode. They’ve been very happy together for many years. So perhaps it’s true what they say about love—opposites attract.

But at work? Not so much. Does occasional discord with your different-thinking colleagues ever make you long to work with birds of a feather? Do you ever secretly wonder why other people can’t be more like you?

And, is that “opposites attract” notion even true? A Psychology Today article says it's complicated. Happy couples have differences, but they also typically have key similarities in age, religion, political orientation, and education. Even when they are very different, they perceive themselves as more similar.

So here we are, back to the (apparently human) yearning for similarity.

The diversity imperative

Of course, by now, we know that having a diverse workforce, leader group, and boardroom is a truly good thing for business. Diversity in thinking, experience, and people isn’t just a politically correct idea. Diversity and inclusion is an important business imperative. Here’s one report from McKinsey that reviews some proof of the financial value.

But here’s the rub. Knowing something is true—that differences and diversity are good—doesn’t mean you are naturally able to deal with it. It doesn’t mean you automatically have positive relationships with all colleagues who are not you.

People Who Aren’t YouUnfortunately, traditional “diversity training” programs are not the answer. They mostly don’t work. But what’s the alternative? On an organization level, there are strategies, for example, to increase diversity in the ranks of leadership. For that kind of help, I invite you to check out this fantastic blog by the authors of Inclusive Talent Management: How Business Can Thrive in an Age of Diversity.

And how about getting some help of a more personal nature, for you and me as individuals? What can we do to effectively navigate a landscape of differences at work? What are the do’s and don’ts?

Terrible, horrible, no good, bad ideas

Let’s start with the don’ts. To better work with people who aren’t you, the terrible no good plan is simply don’t do it. Deny! Ignore! Stick with your comfy tribe. Here’s a list of four avoidance strategies (to run screaming from).

  1. The Mad Men Approximation
    Rise to power in your company and hire and reward only those who are like you. Try to be a trim, handsome, tall, older white male with a time machine enabling you to travel to the 1950’s. And do get there in time for your two-martini lunch.
  2. The Jerk-itude Reverberation
    Insist that pesky co-workers who are not you conform to your preferences or experience your wrath. Be a jerk.
  3. The Fake-Out Equivalency
    Pretend to work collaboratively with others not like you. Be nice to their faces, but undermine them when you have the chance. Be inauthentic, passive-aggressive, and/or back stabbing.
  4. The Alikeness Identification
    Make believe that all people are alike and would work and appreciate the world in just the ways that you do. Be oblivious.

Mediocre, limited, feeble ideas

These next methods range from weak to half-hearted. They don’t really answer the question of what you can observably do to meet the challenge of interacting daily with people who aren’t you.

  1. The North Pole Permutation
    Find a job where you mostly work alone, like maybe a researcher in a remote location. Or a queen locked up in a tower.
  2. The Clone Resonance
    Find a company that has a corporate culture that requires all employees be clone-like, lock-step similar and just happens to be like the natural you.
  3. The Personality Elevation
    Assess your personality, and those of your co-workers. Use any simple questionnaire and don’t worry if it is not valid, reliable, or legally defensible. The main thing is to use the findings to help others understand why being you is so awesome.

Strong strategies for working well with non-you people

And now for the “do’s.” All kidding aside, there are powerful strategies individuals can take to master the challenge of working with colleagues who have different ways of thinking, working, and living.

  1. Become more skillful interpersonally
    The great thing about effectively communicating and interacting with others is that you can be highly skillful without being just like the other person in temperament, ideology, personality, belief-systems, etc. You’re still you, only better. And when you are highly skillful, you can build respectful, trusting, and collaborative relationships that make work life better for everyone, including you!

    Our proven model for effective interpersonal skills is called Interaction Essentialsand includes key principles such as:
    • Maintain or enhance self-esteem.
    • Listen and respond with empathy.
    • Ask for help and encourage involvement.
    • Share thoughts, feelings, and rationale (to build trust).
    • Provide support without removing responsibility.
    You can read more about these skills, including the research behind them and the proof that they pay off. This Harvard Business Review article provides additional great advice from Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, the CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems.
  2. Expand your horizons
    Develop knowledge of peoples and cultures. Get to know people who totally aren’t you. Enlist a trusted friend who is friends with such a person to make the introduction. Plan questions you will ask so the other person can do most of the talking.
  3. Learn about cognitive biases
    And now for some science! When you think of challenging situations with people who aren’t you, do you ever view those people as Cruella de Vil, Moriarity, Sauron, Voldemort, or some other demon in disguise? If so, there’s a good chance that an unconscious cognitive bias is hijacking your thinking and preventing you from perceiving situations and people in an entirely rational way.
    Wikipedia reviews more than a hundred biases in categories of social, memory, behavior, beliefs, and decision making. Here are just three examples:
    • Fundamental Attribution Error—finding fault in a person’s skills, character, or personality rather than seeing environment or situational causes that might explain the person’s behavior.
    • Confirmation Bias—only seeking, interpreting, focusing on, and remembering information that confirms your previously held beliefs.
    • Negativity Bias—paying more attention to bad news or negative information.
    You can read more here. These kinds of biases hack into the brains of the best of us. They happen to all of us. The key is building awareness of your unconscious biases to prevent them from skewing your perceptions and making life harder to deal with than it needs to be.

Now let’s go back to our happy couple who have some differences. Marriage research would suggest that the key to their wedded bliss is that they can always find the most generous explanation for each other’s behavior. She’s not controlling, she’s admirably planful. He’s not a scatterbrain, he’s adorably spontaneous. See how that works?

Don’t you think the “generous explanation” approach could work for all relationships?

So, when it comes to working with people who aren’t you, challenge yourself to see them in the best light and use exceptional interpersonal skills to be your very best self. And may you live happily ever after!

Diane Bock is a senior consultant for DDI’s Leadership Solutions Group and is passionate about helping organizations drive business results through people. She likes food to be French, shoes to be comfortable, and wisdom to be cheeky.

Learn more about Interaction EssentialsSM: what everyone must do every day to be effective.

Posted: 16 May, 2017,
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