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How to Work with People Who Aren’t Like You

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In business you’ll meet people from all walks of life. Working alongside someone with completely different views can be incredibly challenging. There has been a view in business circles for some time now that culture-fit hiring ensures employees are all singing from the same song sheet. But, is that really the best formation for a successful business team?

Research suggests that diverse teams perform better. One study found that companies with diverse management teams have 19% higher revenue as a result of innovation. Diverse minds, approaches and ideas lead to better outcomes. But, what does that mean for employees?

Managed poorly, differences of opinion can create division and have a significant impact on levels of productivity. HR software provider, Breathe, have written extensively on business culture and highlight the difficulties small businesses face during periods of rapid growth when cracks can appear between the visionaries and staff, describing this period as the ‘cultural chasm’.

So, if as research suggests, diversity is a key driver of success, how do you work with people who aren’t like you?

Find common ground

Kelly McDonald, marketing and consumer trends expert, believes it is possible and beneficial for leaders and managers in business to navigate the minefield of conflict and misunderstanding diversity can bring.

McDonald makes some simple but striking observations about the nature of the human condition (we essentially want to work together and help each other, despite our differences). Finding common ground is step one to building a connection. No matter how tenuous, it’s a start.

In her own experience she learned how valuable finding common ground can be. When McDonald found out that an accountant she once worked with (she felt she had nothing in common with him) was adopting a child, she began asking him about it when she bumped into him at work. As a result, she found it easier to connect with him at work.

Simple conversations make people feel valued, show that you are interested in them and build threads. Finding common ground can connect diverse characters.

Remember no one is perfect

According to Deep Patel, author of the book A Paperboy’s Fable: The 11 Principles of Success, it helps to remember nobody’s perfect. In an article about the ways successful leaders deal with people they don’t like, Patel argues that whatever you feel about a person you find it difficult to work with, they probably feel the same about you.

Although it can be tough working with a challenging person, they can offer useful insights (they see the world differently to you). Open your eyes to difference and it will help you to see things from a different perspective. This is the starting point for innovation. Your ideas aren’t the only ideas and they aren’t always the best.

Successful business people understand this. Let go of the need to be right and always remember nobody is perfect, and that includes you.

It will feel uncomfortable

McDonald also picks up on this point in her presentation on working with and leading people who aren’t like you Working with people who you find it difficult to get along with will feel
uncomfortable – at first.

The important point here is that it’s OK to feel uncomfortable. Once you have started to build small connections (finding common ground), working with someone who is different to you does get easier. It may never be a walk in the park, but once you are over the initial hurdle you will begin to see the benefits.

There are also a few things you can work on to get more comfortable with others and yourself, such as making eye contact, exchanging pleasantries and showing an interest.

In overly competitive work cultures certain colleagues can clam up.

Conflict is only a difference of opinion

Collaboration can be challenging when people are markedly different to each other. But having different opinions doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Healthy debate can be the seed for change and successful innovation.

According to Elisabet Vinberg Hearn, Managing Director of Think Solutions: ‘Differences can exist in many varieties: cultural, linguistic, political, religious, personality, gender, values and many others. They are all opportunities. Full stop.’

In overly competitive work cultures certain colleagues can clam up. ‘Look at me’ cultures miss out on ideas that could take the business forward. There’s nothing wrong with competition, but good business culture needs to embrace difference and find ways to ensure inclusivity in the business decision-making process.

Always be professional and respectful

Being civil is important in business and that also applies to the way you treat people you find difficult. Always approach every conversation with the same diplomacy. Try to share your opinions without being antagonistic. When you don’t agree, McDonald reminds us that it is OK to say so with a simple: ‘I see things differently.’ Stay professional and civil, and conflict is much less likely to escalate.

There are nuggets of gold to be mined when working with people who aren’t like you if you are open to finding them.

Dennis Relojo-Howell is the founder of Psychreg. He writes for the American Psychological Association and has a weekly column for Free Malaysia Today. 

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