On paper, it looked like Peter* had the dream team to tackle a challenging tourism industry project with a tight deadline.
His team members had good experience, strong skills and the right credentials. But there was a problem: they couldn’t get along.
“I had a lot of mixed feelings when I wasn’t able to get the team to move forward. I hadn’t experienced this kind of resistance before,” says Peter, who was recently promoted to manager for his excellent work on a big project. “I questioned my abilities as a leader. I wondered if I had just been lucky with my previous team.”
Peter is hardly alone when it comes to this type of situation in the workplace. Surrounded by a melting pot of different personalities, managers often say one of the hardest parts of their job is managing people and their conflicts, which can lead to a steady string of problems.
Many experts have weighed in over the years on the most troublesome workplace personalities. Alan Willet, a leadership development specialist whose clients include NASA, names a few troublesome types in his book Leading the Unleadable (American Management Association, 2017). They include cynics with their oversized doses of negative comments; slackers, who just don’t seem to care; and narcissists, who think everything is about them. Then there are those who persistently annoy coworkers with never-ending excuses or criticisms.
But Willet cautions that it’s important to avoid labelling and blame.
“The exceptional leader,” he writes, “believes that when someone is causing problems, it is not that person’s intention to cause problems. Almost certainly the troublesome person is trying to do his or her best to further the overall good of the initiative. The calm leader has the mindset that when trouble arises, it is not of evil intent, it is because something is missing.”
Carolyn Yeager, COO at GT Hiring Solutions, doesn’t believe it’s helpful to divide personalities into types. “I don’t look at personalities that way because there are too many variables. It depends on the industry. For examples, what’s OK in the trades may not be acceptable in helping professions.”
That’s not to say Yeager doesn’t see value in using assessment tools to help individuals understand how they like to work and help people grow together. Psychometric tools can help in a team-building environment, she says, because a diverse team will always come to the best solutions.
Indeed, diversity matters a great deal because teams who all share the same basic personality traits and skills are not teams that tend to evolve. Too much likeness can lead to mediocrity because no one questions anyone else or disagrees.
It’s about traits, not type
Anna Harvey is the owner of Boost Potential, which conducts custom workshops and programs for leaders and teams trying to get along.
According to Harvey, workplace conflicts often arise, and they impact everyone on the team and prevent work from getting done. Sometimes the conflicts can drift to upper management, sucking up more of everyone’s precious time.
One of the tools she uses to help teams and managers achieve better self-awareness is Lumina Spark — an assessment tool that brings detailed information about personality to light. At the heart of the approach is a lengthy questionnaire, which creates a portrait of an individual’s strengths and behaviours in various situations, such as a casual afternoon at home or a stressful morning in the workplace.
“It’s a huge benefit to teams to have this kind of data on themselves,” Harvey says. “It’s about traits, not about type. It’s a huge insight for leaders and their teams to understand that people who make up their teams hold paradoxical traits that can be of value to the business, the team, the project and the company.”
She notes that one of the core challenges of teams involves helping extroverts and introverts to understand how each other operates. The key to this challenge, says Harvey, is to increase self-awareness, which leads to an understanding that people aren’t purely extrovert or introvert, but instead have a number of individual qualities and traits — and some of those traits can be used to build a bridge toward establishing a good rapport.
Shelly Berlin is co-owner of the boutique consulting firm Berlineaton. Much of the work she does involves executive coaching practices and development work with leaders at all levels in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors.
One of the complexities of today’s workplaces, Berlin says, is that they include multiple generations and each comes to work with a different set of expectations, largely built on their experiences as children. Instead of taking a negative view, Berlin sees this diversity, combined with different cultures and genders, as a strength. The key, she says, is to create self- awareness.
Leading Means Learning
So how can leaders help their teams increase self-awareness and work together to succeed? Part of it starts with learning and understanding that just because someone finds themselves in a leadership position doesn’t mean they automatically know how to lead. They may have become a leader because of a promotion, for instance, or maybe they’ve become a business owner. A positive start is to acknowledge that they are at the right place to have a positive influence on others and accomplish bigger things than on their own.
Like Harvey, when Berlin steps in to assist a leader, who is often trying to impact some change, she uses personality assessment tools. These may include Lumina Spark, Myers Briggs Type Indicator, the Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI), and well-known team-development models to establish the purpose, clearly define goals, responsibilities and resources, and define a real sense of what success looks like.
A good leader, according to Berlin, is someone who is courageous, selfless, reflective, collaborative, empathetic and has integrity. Good leaders are also deliberate about the way they behave and are always learning.
“Good leaders realize that leadership is a skill and a discipline all of its own … ,” she adds. “The great leaders we have worked with all have one thing in common — they pursue a greater good that goes well beyond their own needs or interests.”
For Yeager, good leaders model good behaviours. “In meetings, you encourage different opinions, and in a subtle (informal) way support that discussion. Show that we can all share a discussion and then go out for coffee,” she says.
“It’s how our teams look to us to deal with conflict, and if we hide disagreement, how do they learn? Diversity isn’t just about religion, gender, orientation, but also about diversity of thought. The other things are quite rightly top of mind, but we mustn’t forget diversity of thought.”
Remember Peter and his team challenges?
He decided to address his problem by getting to know each team member one on one, asking what their strengths were, where they were challenged, how they wanted to grow and how the project could help them achieve their goals.
Next, he did some assessments to identify the diversity of his team members’ strengths and how they could complement one another. He then brought the team together to revisit project goals, clearly define who was responsible for what and how to leverage each other’s strengths to get the job done.
After a month filled with discussions and meetings, the team emerged much stronger and exceeded everyone’s expectations.
How To Manage Different Personalities
When To Let Go
Sometimes, despite counselling, coaching and assessment tools, some teams will always be ridden with conflict — and when the troublesome can’t be transformed, that’s when someone might have to go elsewhere.
In Peter’s case, one of his team members was unable to shift his attitude, forcing Peter to take him off the project and bring in someone else.
It’s really tough when a team member has to go, Berlin says. “There are a variety of ways to deal with it, but some people don’t even realize that teams are on their own evolutionary development path themselves. So without that awareness they just think nobody gets along on this team.
“As managers and leaders … our obligation is to the group as a whole,” she adds, “which means sometimes we must provide tough guidance to those who are hindering the progress of the whole.”
And, says Yeager, a good place to start in order to prevent an unfavourable ending is to start with good hiring.
“Hire people with the same values and principles,” she says. “If we all want the same thing, there are different ways to connect the dots.”
Finding Strength, Pulling together
Ultimately, if a leader can inspire, educate and lead team members to share in creating a positive but diverse culture, conflict can lead to cooperation.
For Peter, patience and trust in the process were key. “I felt a lot of personal satisfaction when I started to see the team turn around. And I also felt very proud of them. They were as much of the reason things were changing as I was.”
And, as Alan Willet writes in Leading the Unleadable, “… remember that we have most likely been that difficult person before. It is helpful to remember that the guidance we have been provided in the past is the guidance we must be able to mindfully provide to others.”