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Navigating Differences on a Team

By Erika Miller
Illustration of Carl the yeti sitting on couch typing next to a cat.

You’re struggling with your team again. Angela is dominating the conversation about your new product, Dante is bent on talking in the abstract, Jade is ignoring it all to work independently, and Anthony is cracking jokes. What can you do?

There is a beautiful thing happening as workplaces and teams become more and more diverse. The potential for better and more nuanced ideas is high. But there are also differences in backgrounds, working styles, personalities, and fundamental beliefs between coworkers that must be addressed in order for you and your team to function at its highest level.

Per CPP, Inc.’s research, 85% of workers experience conflict at work. Nearly a third of employees constantly experience conflict, and 9% of projects fail completely due to conflict. The cost of lawsuits, lost productivity, and employee turnover is high.

But all is not lost! We have a list of five suggestions that can help you navigate conflicts to make your work environment more peaceful and productive.

1. Check your ego at the door

Get off your high horse. Feeling defensive or upset when confronted by a difficult employee is understandable, but try to check yourself before letting your emotions dictate your response.

Especially as a leader in the group, you have a responsibility to take a moment to reflect on each employee’s point of view and why they might hold it. Is there something in your own behavior that has contributed to the situation? Take responsibility to deescalate an emotionally-charged conversation and show that resolution is more important than you being right.

2. Ask and listen

Seeking to understand potential areas of conflict before they explode into larger issues, requires deliberate effort and good listening skills. Use 1 on 1s and open-ended surveys to find out how your employees prefer to interact with their colleagues, where they are dissatisfied with their work environment, any insecurities about their place in your organization, and what they want most out of work.

Armed with this information, you can intervene early to meet their needs. For example, a disgruntled employee whose attitude is starting to wear on the team may just need a mentor-figure and a solidified view of their importance and potential career path within your organization. Sharing general results with the group can help all employees understand each other and work together better.

3. Consider personality types

If you find that your team has trouble working together or you are having problems reaching and connecting with one of your employees, it may be helpful to consider differences in personality type. MBTI has a list of 16 complex personality types that impact the way we all see and interact with our world, and that includes the workplace. Your type, denoted by four letters, explores how much you tend towards extraversion or introversion, sensing your environment or relying on your intuition, rational thinking vs. feeling, and judging or perceiving.

When problem-solving, it can be very helpful to know when relying on logic or appealing to emotion, brainstorming 1 on 1 or with the whole team, getting hands-on or theoretical, or keeping a strict structure or fluid discussion will appeal to your various team members. Connect software offers a personality test along with tips for getting along with different personality types — invaluable information for managers and coworkers alike.

4. Avoid strict stereotyping

Of course, putting anyone in a box has limitations and inaccuracies. You can’t assume that just because an employee tends toward extraversion, they want more collaborative time at work because about 40% don’t. Similarly, while certain personality types tend towards leadership positions, kicking other personality types off the promotion ladder is not going to be the best thing for your organization.

Every personality type has strengths, weaknesses, and some fluidity. Most people who take the test get a different type the second time around. So communicate with your employees. Use their type as a springboard from which to confirm or adjust your impressions of their needs and wants through open communication.

5. Validate opinions and competence

When campaigning for their opinion, sometimes all your employee needs to hear from you is, “That makes a lot of sense” or “I can see why that’s a good idea.” Phrases like these help your employees feel seen and heard. They may not need to “win” the argument as long as they feel their ideas were appropriately considered. While not everyone has words of affirmation as their top love language, most people don’t hate it. So offering validation for the work your team members did to arrive at a solution, and the contributions each member made toward the discovery, can go a long ways to preserve morale even where there was disagreement.

Furthermore, when we said that every personality type has strengths and weaknesses, we meant it. Just because one team member’s personality is more difficult to get along with, doesn’t mean that their contributions are less important. Focus on your coworkers’ competence and the positive end results they are achieving over the style that got them there. Make sure that each member of your team feels valued and appreciated by telling them so.

Ultimately, true leaders need to get comfortable with the dissonance. Divergent ways of thinking can jumpstart transformation where too much similarity tends to maintain the status quo. Embrace the differences on your team, treat others the way they want to be treated, and watch your company’s innovations soar.