Personality Clashes at Work

We’ve probably all said it at one time or another: “Those two have a personality conflict.” That kind of tension is hard to be around–the strained voice, prolonged silence, or constant misunderstanding. Perhaps it started because one worker is a detail-minded person and the other is a big-picture person. Or one person is five minutes early to every meeting and another constantly wants to reschedule.  But is it really true? Is the power struggle or blame game that’s playing out in your office actually the result of two clashing personalities?

Finding the Root Cause of Conflict

Probably not, says Harvard Business Review’s Ben Dattner. He thinks it’s easy to blame workplace strife on personality differences because making rapid judgments and quickly assigning labels enable us to survive. But in reality, Dattner believes that many conflicts are due to the situation itself.

“The real reasons for conflict are a lot harder to raise — and resolve — because they are likely to be complex, nuanced, and politically sensitive. For example, people’s interests may truly be opposed; roles and levels of authority may not be correctly defined or delineated; there may be real incentives to compete rather than to collaborate; and there may be little to no accountability or transparency about what people do or say.”

Jumping to the Wrong Conclusion

Although Dattner discredits them, I’m a fan of the Myers-Briggs and 16 Personalities tests. But could we be oversimplifying the problem and jumping to the wrong conclusion by holding differing personalities responsible? Dattner maintains that creating safe sets of explanations distracts us from addressing the real issue. Calling someone a micromanager or saying he doesn’t care whether errors are corrected prevents us from challenging others and coming together to deal with the real problem. “To solve conflict, you need to find, diagnose and address the real causes and effects — not imaginary ones,” urges Dattner.

Focusing on the Problem

Author and business consultant Nancy Ortberg would add that pointing the finger at people causes them to go on the defensive, solving nothing (you may recall our post on how conflict can build a better team). Ortberg also recommends focusing on the problem, which diverts our brain from the fight-or-flight mode to the cerebral, where we collaborate and solve problems creatively.

Allowing for Differences

But what if part of the problem really is how different we each are and, therefore, how differently we interact in the same workplace? I believe we still must make allowances for differences in personality.  You’ve undoubtedly heard of the Golden Rule, which basically says, “Treat others as you would want them to treat you.” Isn’t it possible that some personality clashes at work could exist because not everyone has heard of the Platinum Rule? It says, “Treat others as they would want to be treated.” In other words, if I like vanilla ice cream but I learn that my coworker prefers chocolate, I offer her chocolate ice cream and don’t expect her to crave vanilla.

The reality is, some workers want coffee but others want tea, some prefer quiet and others like noise, some thrive on interactive meetings and others prefer to express their ideas in writing…there’s no end to the list of differences people exhibit at work. Many of these are identifiable by a personality test such as Myers-Briggs. It explains why, for instance, some people are Introverts and don’t feel as at home as do Extroverts in a big company gathering. Some are Judgers who prefer a well-defined structure, unlike their counterpart Perceivers, who like to make up their schedule as needs arise. One size certainly does not fit all, and some workplace conflicts occur simply because different types of people have different tendencies, needs, abilities, and expectations.

Becoming More Aware

Can all “personality clashes” at work be explained by other causes? Some can, and if you’re experiencing a conflict yourself, you’d do well to take a good look at the heart of the underlying problem. But don’t rule out personality conflict, because it’s a real thing. And it can be partially resolved by employing the Platinum Rule. Being aware that others are not made the same way you are can help you approach them with understanding and compassion, ingredients which are just as necessary to resolving the conflict as understanding the problem itself. Chocolate chip ice cream, anyone?

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