How to work with people who are different than you, making it a success

When people are different than each other, it can at first seem really hard to get off to great teamwork and collaboration.

But don’t let that put you off – because if you are willing to make it work, you can start to build a very powerful partnership; one that is healthy, creative and successful. 

Differences come in many shapes and forms – we can have different personalities, values, cultures, opinions and more. If we can see any kind of difference as a creative force, an opportunity for learning and better answers, then we can make the most of the different perspectives they bring.

Many people hate conflict and avoid it at all cost. But it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Besides, conflict is a natural thing – we all have different opinions, which is what conflict is – it’s simply a difference of opinion. Conflicting opinions can be the source of healthy debates, great innovation and needed change, meaning we get even better results.

Personal differences, conflicting goals and competitive behaviours are indeed some of the reasons why conflict and tension occurs. And there’s an inherent power in that conflict and tension, which can give a team, organisation or business relationship the boost that it needs to progress, change and become more effective. If everyone has the same opinion, everything remains the same, and in a fast-changing world, that’s a disaster and will leave you behind those that embrace the differences. Continuous innovation is an absolute must for survival.

If you’re serious about working well with business partners, clients, employees or any other stakeholders who are different to you – check out our top 7 tips:

There’s no need to “be right”. Tell yourself that your solution might not be the right or only one. The first step to managing different opinions is to welcome it. When two or more people have different opinions, see it as a good thing – we have different views here, what can we learn from all of those different views? There’s no need to think in terms of “right and wrong” – who’s to be the judge of that anyway? 

Be curious about people who are different than you. Assume that you can learn from them and them from you. Ask questions. This is of course part of communication, to ask good questions – in order to deepen awareness and understanding. Just use questions though, not judgments. It may seem like a small difference, but it makes all the difference. 

Invite and engage people into dialogue, knowledge exchange and even healthy debate. Take an active interest in others by asking for their input and creative ideas. Assume that everyone has something to bring to the table and mean well. This makes you look for the positive, the possibilities, the possible connections into what you are doing. If someone is competitive for example; see the positive intent behind that rather than going into a competitive mode yourself. 

Find the common purpose. What do you both/all want to achieve? When you know the answer, communicate that to everyone involved and agree on a shared commitment to that purpose. If there is competitive behaviour between people, strive for connected goals that will make that behaviour counterproductive and superfluous. Linked goals bring out much needed collaborative behaviours. 

Agree on how to work together. This becomes the base for your collaboration and teamwork. This effectively removes the risk of frequent – and very avoidable – conflict situations. 

Find out what everyone is best at. Everyone has a unique collection of strengths – different to yours. Know them, make the most of them, and highlight how you can achieve more together when everyone contributes the best of themselves. This also reduces the risk of unhealthy competition as people feel unique and that need for competition disappears. 

Never stop communicating. Tensions and misunderstandings are often the result of incorrect and unnecessary assumptions, which in turn emanates from a lack of communication. Take responsibility for your communication with key stakeholders and encourage others to do the same. Create an open, trusting communication climate.

Achieving great collaboration with people that are different than you can be challenging, and will take longer to achieve than if you were more alike. But it’s worth it. The greater level of innovation, learning and development as well as the dynamic interaction it brings is worth every challenging moment. Stay focused and keep reminding yourself that there is a win-win outcome to be had when working together in this open-minded and creative way.

In closing, pay particular attention to how you communicate. Think about what you say and how you say it when your opinion differs from somebody else’s. When faced by a different view, don’t say “What do you mean by that?!” – try ”That’s really interesting, I hadn’t thought about it like that. Tell me more” instead and keep the creative dialogue flowing.

Differences at work and in business interactions can be a great thing, and should not be feared but addressed. Embrace those differences, welcome them for their innovative powers and make them work for you by using our top tips above.

Mandy Flint & Elisabet Vinberg Hearn, award-winning authors of “Leading Teams – 10 Challenges: 10 Solutions” is out now, published by Financial Times International. Download your free chapter here: www.leadingteamsbook.com

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