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Opposites Attract: Managing Personalities in the Office

We’ve all been there. There’s that person sitting across from you – every day – that you just don’t like. You’re outgoing, she’s standoffish. You’re cooperative, he’s abrasive. You’re focused, he won’t stop talking. The list goes on and on. The resume only gets you so far in being successful at a job – “people skills” and cultural fit are key to not only progressing in a career but also, frankly, to enjoying the everyday work.

So how do you spend your day with someone you don’t naturally see eye-to-eye with? This is all the more critical at a startup, where generally hours are longer, teams are smaller, ups and downs are steeper, and pressure is on, with a financial clock always ticking.

Whatever you decide to do, the critical first step is simply trying to understand the other person. As my mother would always ask, “Is he good intentioned?” Indeed, the ability to disaggregate style from substance may be the key to making these too-close-for-comfort situations work.

As a consultant I was constantly paired with different permutations of managers, partners, and clients – rotating every few months, often travelling together four days a week – and I realized quickly that I needed to find a way to work with styles very different from mine.

At one firm I worked at, a personality questionnaire – the Myers-Briggs test (MBTI) – was a part of everyday life. In every team kick-off each person would rattle off the four letters of their Myers-Briggs traits with the same ease as they would their hometown; everyone else around the table would nod understandingly, often taking notes.

So what is this test? In short, it categorizes people based on four dichotomies: extraversion/introversion (E/I), sensing/intuition (S/N), thinking/feeling (T/F), and judging/perception (J/P).

My ‘a-ha’ moment here was when I applied my test results with my manager, whom I was having a difficult time with. To me he seemed cold and direct in his communications, and not willing to engage in group brainstorming. But upon talking through our MBTI’s, we realized he was an Introvert to my Extrovert, and Thinking to my Feeling. Once we realized our difficulties were over style – and that we were aligned on substance – we both started giving each other the benefit of the doubt, and would make sure we each had time to work in ways most comfortable and productive to each of us. I didn’t take his short emails personally anymore, and he knew to carve out sometime for out loud brainstorming.

Would it have been easier to work with someone more similar to my own “type”? Perhaps, but that has inherent risks as well: blind spots. If you are detail-oriented, both of you may miss the big picture. If you are very fixated on setting a calendar ahead of time, both you may struggle to adapt to changing circumstances.

While no single test – and there are many out there – can perfectly define a person or make a working relationship effective, having a common language to identify and communicate working styles can help take the ‘personal’ out of personalities.

─ February 27, 2015