Every magnet has a north and a south pole. Two like poles will repel each other but opposites attract. People say that two seemingly opposite people get along well together because “opposites attract”. While this principle is evident in science, it does not always apply in human relationships.
We do not choose who we work with. Tensions and disagreements happening in the workplace can harm our business reputation, decrease our team's productivity and impact our wellbeing.
A 2008 international study by CPP Global (the publisher of the Myers-Briggs Assessment) showed that 49% of workplace conflicts come from personality clashes.
The earlier personality clashes are dealt with, the less they affect business. What might begin as niggles between co-workers, can evolve into a divided culture as people pick sides or a stressful investigation into bullying if a complaint is laid.
While there are advantages of having a diverse team (more innovation and better problem-solving etc), this may also cause more differences which need to be managed. Sometimes these differences are blamed on personality clashes which we take as fait accompli - “Bill and Bob” are who they are, so we have to put up with them.
However, I prefer to take a more constructive approach. First, I ask if these differences can be harnessed. Can the team play to each other’s strengths?
It is only natural that people from different generations, cultural and educational backgrounds have different skills, values and ways of working. Such differences can be capitalised on if they are appreciated and respected by your team.
Mutual respect and appreciation can grow organically if you publicly give credit to individual team members and hold team building activities away from work.
Mutual respect and appreciation can also be grown intentionally if you teach your team to understand how each other acts and communicates with personality profiling (such as with Myers-Briggs).
They learn to see that their co-workers are not difficult, just different from them. Once they understand and accept that, they can relate to each other better.
If the differences cannot be appreciated, I look into other potential causes of workplace conflict, such as micro management, unclear job roles and poor communication.
Sometimes a certain management style does not fit with the culture of a team. Sometimes overworked people do not have time to explain tasks properly, plan out projects properly or treat others professionally. A whole team planning session with a common focus on improving how you work together can help everyone talk these through and find solutions that work for all.
If you do think the differences are caused by incompatible personalities, then consider these tips:
1. Act promptly. This will reduce the risk of issues escalating into verbal abuse or even a physical dust up. Listen to both sides with an open mind and talk directly to the people involved. Keep this confidential to avoid the wider team being affected and your own opinion being infected by gossip.
2. Use a mediator. Let the team members explore how to work together in a safe environment with the help of a neutral person. It’s not always as easy as shutting them in a room until they sort it out by themselves! Mediation helps you see if this is a straight personality clash or part of a wider issue. A mediator from outside your organisation will help dispel the perception that one team member is being favoured.
3. Change work patterns. Consider redeploying one or both of the team members in question, when/where they work or to whom they report. At a minimum, these are good short-term options until resolution is reached, particularly if one person can work from home. Time for them to cool down away from each other gives them headspace to act rationally, not emotionally.
4. Get workplace conflict coaching. This could be for the whole team if you do not want to single out any individuals. Understanding that we all process information and communicate in different ways and changing how we interact with our colleagues can help them solve misunderstandings directly with each other. This type of training teaches people how to articulate their thoughts and emotions in a non-threatening way.
At the end of the day, people in business don’t need to be best mates, but they do need to get their jobs done.
A personality clash can start because one person is triggered by behaviours and feelings. A clash is often as much about the person that gets triggered, as it is about the person who is doing the triggering.
While they may blame certain external factors for their behaviour (such as high workloads), they must also take responsibility for how they react to what triggers them.
Triggers could be from something deep-seated in their past or their own inferiority complex. It is good practice to offer employees paid counselling so they can address their own inner conflicts.
People also say there is a law of magnetism: who you are is who you attract. If we can learn how to relate to our team members better, then according to that law, they should relate to us better.
This article was first published in the Otago Daily Time on 30 May 2022.