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Why can't we all just get along?

How different personalities help a workplace thrive

By Elaine Varelas, 6/4/2007

You think you're pretty special. You're a critical thinker, a hard worker, a team player. You bring a lot to your department and the organization, and they are lucky to have you. There's nothing wrong with thinking this way. Most of us do.

The problem arises when HR managers try to hire in their own image. Yes, you are an asset to your company, but can you imagine an entire organization filled with clones of you? The office would be filled with people who think like you, work like you, and manage like you. As impressive as your skills and experience are, wouldn't it benefit the organization to have a variety of professionals making up the work mix?

We talk a lot about diversity in the workplace. It can mean having employees from different cultures, ethnicities, religious backgrounds, and educational experiences. In its truest form, diversity makes sense. It may have proved useful if the founders of one energy company had someone on their team with some medical knowledge to tell them that the company's original name, Enteron, was a term meaning "intestines." Once they discovered this gaffe, the name was changed to Enron (maybe that first name was a sign of things to come!).

While it is important to represent different backgrounds in the workplace, it is also imperative to have diversity in work styles. Instead of hiring in their likeness, strong managers hire to compensate for their own weaknesses and to enhance their strengths. This is a great way to build a team. Look at a team or department as a whole. Where does it need boosting? What skill set or experience is the team lacking?

It is great to have pie-in-the-sky thinkers. Every group needs people who have big ideas - who ask, "why not?", and who work without regard to constraints or resources. Of course, a team made up solely of these thinkers would never accomplish the dream. The team also needs the leader to keep the meeting on track, the detail-oriented employee to pull together the presentation, the Steady Eddie, to stay calm during crises, and the Last Minute Lucy who kicks it into high gear and pulls an all-nighter to make the deadline. It's the diversity in work styles that allows the team to thrive.

Company leaders often talk about the need to recruit leaders, and they are important to a team, but followers are essential, too. It's not about finding the same type of employee, but those who complement each other. If a baseball team was comprised only of star pitchers, they would never win a game - and it would be a massive waste of talent. A successful team has many types of pitchers, a strong closer, some strong bats, a switch hitter, defensive stars and utility players. It is this mix that makes the ball club.

Of course, diversity poses challenges too. When a team has so many different people with disparate styles working together, it can be a recipe for conflict and competition. How does a manager handle this? While some managers believe competition among team members is healthy, it often holds the team back and distracts them from their goal. Even though some people might innately clash with others, good managers help the team recognize why and how much they need each other.

It helps if each member of the team has a clearly defined role, and if each role is valued - not just the ones with the flashy titles or the most boisterous personalities. Managers can communicate that each member is vital to make the team work. Everyone within the team, regardless of the role, needs a chance to shine and be a superstar. Managers should recognize individual team members, and encourage colleagues to celebrate each other. This type of recognition creates positive energy within a team.

Managers can also remind the team that they are going after the same goal. And it may help if the manager can define what success looks like and gets each member on board, so everyone has a clear understanding of where he or she stands and how their work will lead to success. This approach works best when the team doesn't compete against each other, but instead work together against "out there." Competition can be constructive if it is directed at a rival company or a self-imposed deadline. It can also be healthy to compete against teams of years past. Teams can try to improve their numbers from year to year, or quarter to quarter.

It is also important for managers and team members to explore how they best work together. Are they more successful when they have a brainstorming session at a day-long retreat, or when individuals come up with their own ideas and then bring them to the group? It's possible that different tasks will require different methods. Empower the group to have input as to which approach works for them.

Savvy managers know that the most successful teams require a diverse cast. Group dynamics can be tricky, but if each member is valued, and the unit is cohesive, the team can be guaranteed to hit one out of the park.

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