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Tips for dealing with conflicting work styles in an SME

The Confederation of British Industry estimates that conflict costs UK business £33 billion per year, taking up 20% of leadership time and potentially losing up to 370 million working days. One of the sure causes of such conflict is a difference in working styles.
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This can particularly be the case in an SME where the environment is much more intimate and often intense. However many books you’ve read about “managing difference”, it’s tough to navigate strong personality or working style clashes. So how can you deal with this issue effectively?

Recognise these types?

While no single category neatly describes one person, the chances are that there’s a dominant energy that emerges for yourself and each of your team members within the list below.

1. Cautious, precise, deliberate, questioning, formal;
2. Caring, encouraging, sharing, patient, relaxed;
3. Sociable, dynamic, demonstrative, enthusiastic, persuasive;
4. Competitive, demanding, determined, strong-willed, purposeful.

If we’re all a unique combination of attributes and preferences, how can we come together to get the best results for ourselves, our careers and our SMEs?

Accept differences

One doomed approach to overcoming workplace differences is to try to get others to change their fundamental styles. At the other extreme, the “chameleon method” requires you to disguise your style to match those of your surroundings. By taking a middle road between these two poles you stand the best chance of building camaraderie and inspiring others to accommodate your preferences in return.

Find ways to adapt

We’ve all got to stay firm in who we are, while also having the ability to flex our styles. If you recognise yourself in the first description, for example, you might need to be more open to impromptu conversations rather than escalating attempts to keep things orderly. While casual interactions might be out of your comfort zone, in some circumstances you’ll need to stretch yourself. 

Discover common ground

We each tend to have a dominant working style, but no-one is limited to only the one approach as we’re all a blend of preferences. Even if your dominant working style isn’t compatible with someone else’s, you may still be able to connect with that person in a lesser-preferred but still comfortable working style. We all can usually find some areas or topics of compatibility if we take the time to look for them.

Choose communication channels wisely

If one of the keys to overcoming conflict is acknowledging others’ styles and adapting your own as the situation calls for it, this approach must also consider communication channels. An impromptu face to face conversation may not work for a person who likes to examine all the data through the dispersal of in-depth reports. Similarly, wading through the facts and figures in a meeting might stifle someone who likes to brainstorm ideas verbally. 

Be curious, not judgemental

When you’re frustrated with someone’s behaviour, it’s tempting to start cataloguing the person’s weaknesses. Instead, push yourself to make the “most respectful interpretation” before letting judgement set in.

Remember, someone is not wrong because they arrived at a different conclusion than you did, they simply perceived things differently. If you inquire about how they arrived on that conclusion, you’ll usually be able to uncover what perceptions were at play.

Acknowledge shared humanity

Another way to avoid getting caught up in criticising others is to remind yourself of your own attributes that may sometimes rub others the wrong way. Think of past feedback you’ve received from trusted family, friends and colleagues. The point isn’t to feel bad about yourself but to remember that, like everyone else, you too, have room for improvement.

Shift your point of view

Instead of taking personal offence when someone doesn’t behave the way you’d prefer, consider that the person may be facing other pressures and challenges, many of which you may know nothing about. 

Know thyself!

Personality assessment models that help identify your interpersonal preferences in detail, and, if used properly within an organisation among colleagues, are extremely useful for learning about the entire team. Going through a facilitated learning experience with an in-depth assessment component, is a great first step to connecting and ultimately, to reducing occurrence of unhealthy conflict in an SME.

It’s less about labelling and more about working with the fact that everyone has a different, equally valid world view. Working together isn’t about changing who you are or about expecting someone else to change.

It’s about recognising that people have different interpersonal preferences, and if you take time to identify them, recognise them, and are willing to adjust your communication styles to better connect with others, you will be on the way to a healthier and more productive workplace.

Doug Upchurch is Insights’ chief learning architect

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