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When Personalities Clash

One thing we all bring to the job is the self, making conflict inevitable. Seize it as a sign to look inward.

Wouldn't it be nice if people—other people—came with an instruction kit?

Don't think that hasn't been tried. A prominent organizational consultant tells this story: On a visit to a large engineering firm, he noticed that most employees wore plastic name tags with large capitalized letters after each name: William Jackson ENFP or Allison Barton INTJ. Turns out the company had every employee typed according to the beloved Myers-Briggs personality inventory. For the sake of efficiency, workers wore their personality descriptions as lapel pins. That way no one had to waste time figuring anyone else out.

Pathetic or touching? Actually, humanly, a bit of both.

The fantasy and frustration captured in the story reflect a workplace truth. In the end—no matter how we refine policies and procedures, no matter how well we train managers or finely construct a job description—we still have to deal with other people. And, as Sartre noted, other people are our hell. Surely he was referring to other people's personalities.

Personality, that quirky grab bag of traits, tics, reactions, and beliefs that distinguish one person's projected self from another's, is the wild card of the workplace. Whereas most of the stressors we encounter at the office can be scheduled, delegated, avoided, or at least reimbursed, the personalities of one's coworkers remain the uncontrolled variable.

True, that variable largely recedes, swept under by the conforming tsunami of office culture, professionalism, and sheer workload. Still, our selves sneak out, and when they do they often offend someone.

Of course, some selves are more offensive to us than others. Predictably, at one time or another you will share a work team, a cubicle, or a reporting relationship with one of those that offends you. Then you will get to experience first-hand that most commonly reported office problem: the personality conflict.

Consider as but one of many such examples the traditional office bad marriage between the sweeping big-picture person and the cautious detail man. Remember, these roles occur across genders and reporting relationships. What matters most is the personality variable.

Let's say the emotional, intuitive man is the boss, because, in fact, he often is.

He is action-oriented, confident, and demanding. He worries about missing opportunities. This boss can't always articulate the basis for his decisions, which are part percentages, part gut. He doesn't bother to spell out exactly what he wants from his staff either, but he knows it and rewards it when he gets it. And he lets you know when he doesn't.

Mr. Big Picture's callous vagueness drives The Planner nuts. The latter has a more controlled, fact-driven personality, with more faith in data than in personal feelings. He worries about the costly mistake and takes a slow, thorough approach to policy change or project design.

Assuming that both these men are highly competent, why wouldn't they make a marvelous partnership, balancing each other's strengths and weaknesses? They do, if they like and trust each other. But personality gets in the way of such respect. Instead of admiration, their personality differences may make each man anxious about the other. And when someone makes us anxious, we figure there's something wrong with that person.

It's easy to imagine the many workplace scenarios that would set these men off. A deadline is being set. The big-picture guy feels it's not soon enough, whereas the planner resists, fearing a rush to judgment. Money is being allocated. The intuitive person may want to bet the bank; Mr. Cautious is only comfortable diversifying. A new project is assigned. The boss resents giving so much guidance; his underling is frustrated that he is being given so little.

In a psychologically enlightened person—say, the Dalai Lama— frustration and discomfort would prompt thoughts such as, "I wonder why you make me anxious. Maybe I could stretch a little and get comfortable with you. Maybe I need to change to make you comfortable with me."

I have never actually met a person who has such an emotionally enlightened reaction, but I like to imagine that she exists. For the rest of us, frustration and discomfort add up to a personal judgment: "I don't like you. Here's what's wrong with you..."

Then we quite naturally account for our anxiety by explaining—to ourselves, to our spouses, and sometimes, unfortunately, to the rest of the office—that the person who is making us anxious is either mad (crazy, troubled, manic, anal, insecure, or some other psychological brickbat) or bad (evil, selfish, arrogant). Once we've reliably settled on mad or bad as our dynamic explanation of a personality conflict, we tend to live there, enduring each other, sniping at each other, or undermining each other until human resources is called in to clear the air.

A better system would be a culture of celebration of personality differences, or at least an appreciation for them. That may have been what the name-tagged engineers were aspiring to. The problem with their simplistic system was this: You end up only looking outward, at other people's tags. The impact of personality on the workplace starts with one's own needs, idiosyncrasies, assumptions, and expectations. Those are much tougher to spot.

We are fish, and our personalities are the water in which we swim. We don't notice the water, but it just feels... right. So if you and I are struggling—well, it's only logical that you must be wrong.

Off we go, gritting our teeth in the boardroom, whispering in the hallway about each other, sitting through the conflict resolution seminar called, mysteriously, just for us. We find that other person, that aggravating, provocative, screwed up other, impossible to understand.

Can't someone give us an instruction kit? Yes. Socrates handed it over some time ago. It starts and ends with the hardest rule to follow, whether in the workplace or any other setting: Know thyself.

Cease-fire for a Personality Conflict

If you are caught in an unpleasant struggle with an irritating colleague, here are some ways to extricate yourself.

  • Resist recruiting allies. It's reassuring to find evidence that "I'm not the only one who thinks our boss is a disorganized mess." But the more you bond over the negative, the larger that negative looms in your own life.
  • Focus on strengths. Remind yourself of the contributions your adversary does make—to the team, to the company, and especially, if you can find it, to your own work. This will take the edge off your annoyance.
  • Get out of the way. Some personalities push buttons so personally sensitive that you are able only to cringe. If you can't diminish the intensity of your reaction, at least reduce your contact.
  • Look in the mirror. Not everyone at your office is as affected by the other's personality as you are. If you can figure out your role in the dynamic or the source of your response, you'll learn something important about yourself.