How to handle diverse working styles

Everyone works in unique ways, but that doesn’t have to lead to conflict.
How to handle diverse working styles

It’s no great secret that everyone works in different ways and that diverse working styles often conflict. This can translate into lost time and productivity, workplace stress, financial costs, and employee despair and departure.

“Conflict is an unmet need, and it escalates when nobody deals with that need,” said Shay McConnon, CEO and chairman of McConnon International Ltd., a Barton-on-Sea, UK, consultancy that specialises in workplace relationships. “We judge behaviour from the impact that the behaviour has on us, rather than the intention. I feel hurt, and I conclude you meant to hurt me.”

But tension can be defused if professionals recognise others’ working styles, along with their own, and then communicate and adapt. This is especially key for managers, most of whom supervise employees whose processes vary greatly.

“To get the best from people, you need to understand them” and treat each individual differently, advised Alison Love, head of Resolution at Work, a UK-based provider of mediation services. Conflict, she noted, often emerges when managers lack skills to address these differences.

So what are the various “working styles”? They run the gamut and depend on the source. McConnon defines professionals in four categories: those who want cordial and thoughtful relationships; the go-getters who are always rushed and brusque; those who are objective and aim to get things right; and people who are a mix of all three.

Cynthia Tobias, a Seattle-based speaker and author of The Way We Work, said some people function best in the morning, while others are night owls; some learn and work best by hearing, while others are visual; and some people are methodical, while others are global and contextual. “We’re not born in a box or category, but our pre-wiring determines a lot of how we choose and use our strengths,” she said.

Love takes her list from the book People Styles at Work ... and Beyond, by Robert Bolton and Dorothy Grover Bolton. The pair define four distinct working styles, Love explained: drivers, or task-oriented individuals; expressives, the blue-sky thinkers and creative types; amiables, team-oriented people who are empathetic and sensitive; and analyticals, the workers who are quiet, focused, and detail-oriented.

Trouble is, no matter what the list, not all styles mesh. “I have struggled with analyticals in the past because the detail stifles me, and to me the big picture is more important,” she acknowledged.

“The big picture thinker versus the perfectionist can often clash heads, but when managed correctly, this can actually be an ideal combination,” added Nathan Murphy, co-founder of Melbourne, Australia-based WorkStyle, an online platform that helps teams understand each other’s working ways.

To ward off conflict, maximise productivity and engagement, and help employees reach their highest potential, managers need to take certain steps to not only distinguish, but also supervise and embrace the varying work styles in play. Experts offer the following tips:

Analyse yourself. First and foremost, conduct a self-assessment to determine your working style. Ask yourself, “What am I doing when I’m at my best? And when it’s not working, why does this frustrate me?” Tobias said. It’s important, added Love, to remove your feelings from any workplace differences. “It’s important to manage your emotions in professional conflict,” she noted.

Observe. Next, study your colleagues and employees, and interact with them based on their own communication styles. Recognise their energy and how they address others. A people person may say, “Would you like to sit down?” McConnon said. A go-getter, he added, may state, “Take a chair.” Also, “Figure out how people are doing things, especially those things that are irritating you,” Tobias noted. “Awareness is half the battle.”

Adapt your words appropriately. If you’re requesting a task from a people person, you could say, “Will you do something for me, please?” McConnon advised. For go-getters, in contrast, say something like, “This is absolutely vital to winning the contract. Can I leave it with you?” And for the more objective types, who value independence, you could say, “The problem is x-y-z; can you explore it?” he said. Tailor your requests to how others will perceive them.

Focus on strengths and motivations. Don’t criticise others if their working style differs from yours, since all styles are valid. “If you’re focusing on weakness, you don’t have anything to build on,” Tobias noted. Examine their strengths and what drives them, and determine how they can help you, your team, and your organisation. “Some people are motivated by the prospect of financial rewards; others are motivated by a sense of responsibility and leadership in delivering new products,” Murphy said. “Understand the behavioural traits and motivations for each person on the team, and then adjust your feedback and work allocation accordingly.”

Employ online resources. Consider using platforms, such as WorkStyle, and activities that can help people succeed and collaborate. McConnon, for instance, established a website that helps employees manage and improve the quality of their work lives. In addition, use team-building activities — either online or in-house — that can create camaraderie and goodwill and help people better understand one another, Murphy said.

Be flexible. If there’s office conflict due to clashing work styles, it helps to talk about it. But it’s also smart to put a system in place before problems arise. Investigate and be open-minded. Ask employees and colleagues how they work best. “Take the time to get to know people and truly listen to them,” Love advised. Also, identify the end goal of a particular project or task, and then allow people to work in a style that is both inspiring and comfortable for them, as long as it is good for the business. Finally, realise your working style may not be the only way to get things done. “What if there’s a different way to get there?” Tobias said.

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at