If you’ve got team members who get along like oil and water, it can be tempting to just separate them as much as possible to avoid the management nightmare. But a new book says that throwing opposites together can be successfully done – and deliver better business results.
“We often hate each other, but it’s the kind of hatred that’s like flint and steel – the sparks that come out make it worth the while.” – Penn Jillette, referring to his long-time partner in magic, Teller
As the workplace becomes more global and fast-paced, more employees are thrown together in often stressful situations, requiring them to partner with their polar opposites. But unlike Penn and Teller, they’re not delivering magic – they’re delivering headaches for the manager caught in the middle of those personality clashes.
In a new book, “The Genius of Opposites,” author Jennifer B. Kahnweiler says that her research shows that those who differ – such as introverts and extroverts – can achieve remarkable results when working together. The key is for those partners or teammates to recognize the strengths of the other person, and to respect what the person brings to the table — instead of focusing on why the other person drives them crazy.
“I think the biggest thing to remember is that when someone is labeled an ‘introvert’ or an ‘extrovert,’ then we’re making judgments about that person – we’re pigeon-holing them,” she says. “Instead of focusing on a particular word to describe someone, it’s better if the focus is on what works best for each person.”
For example, that may mean a manager needs to help teammates understand how they best communicate. Email? Text? Phone calls? In-person meetings? A manager can help an extrovert understand that he or she can work best with an introvert by listening more and being comfortable with silence while the introvert forms his or her thoughts. Or, an introvert can learn to schedule time when he or she is open to being focused on what the extrovert has to say, Kahnweiler suggests.
While some managers may avoid matching up opposites in the workplace in order to avoid the potential for conflict, Kahnweiler cites several examples of how opposites often deliver better results. She says that is because they challenge one another and come up with a better solution than they would working with someone who was more similar.
“It’s even OK for such opposites working together to present different opinions to customers,” she says. “People welcome disagreement – as long as it’s respectful – because they see you’re not a one-trick pony.”
The key for getting opposites to achieve amazing results comes from having a shared goal, Kahnweiler says. For example, movie critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert built a strong following while often disagreeing quite strongly with one another.
As Ebert once said: “We were competing critics, and for a long time we fought it out on the show before we suddenly realized that we are doing this show together….This is something we are building together.”
Not only did they develop a mutual respect for one another and a goal of building their show – but they had the same passion for the movies, especially good ones. During a showing of “Fargo,” Siskel commented to Ebert: “This is why we go to the movies.”
In her book, Kahnweiler explains how opposites can bring about remarkable business results by helping introverts and extroverts learn to work together. She says managers can help them:
- Remember we’re all wired differently. Extroverts were not created to drive introverts crazy, and vice versa. Extroverts won’t be as judgmental once they accept that it’s not a personal insult that the introvert would prefer to retreat to a quiet corner sometimes. On the other hand, introverts need to understand that extroverts don’t like being always portrayed as hyperactive motormouths, and introverts need to learn to appreciate their get-up-and-go attitudes.
- Learn from an opposite. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos jokes that he learned to “listen faster,” after working with fast-talking Jeff Holden, who was also a critical innovator for the company. But jokes aside, Bezos gained a lot from getting to know Holden well, and Kahnweiler says opposites need to understand they can grow in ways they may never have imagined if they’re open to what their opposite has to offer.
- Accept differences. It is fruitless to try and change people. “Yet the stubborn nature of two strong-willing people can cause one to wish the other would think faster or talk less,” Kahnweiler says. “Ironically, the more you lay off trying to change them” the less it may bug the employee. Help teammates understand that once you “let go of this false hope of molding them to your desired image, everyone can relax and life gets a lot easier,” she says.
- Give it time. Once you’ve removed the elephant in the room and been honest that there are differences, everyone needs to learn patience. Kahnweiler profiles one pair of opposites in her book that learned to have a lot of patience with one another over their 30 years of partnering as consultants. The introvert, for example, notes that she hasn’t brought a book to read on the plane in a long time, because the extrovert is bound to talk the entire flight. Kahnweiler notes there is no animosity – just an affectionate and accepting tone from both of them in describing the reality of their working relationship.
- Develop your own communication style. Some opposites confess they’ve developed a sort of shorthand that lets the other person know that there is too much talking – or not enough. Some even have code words or phrases for when they believe things are going off course.
Finally, Kahnweiller says that one key element to the power of opposites delivering the best results revolve around being….nice.
“They may not hang out together on weekends, but when they were working, they found a way to be friendly to one another,” Kahnweiler says. “They found a way to laugh about their differences, and that helped them a lot.”
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