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How to Manage Different Workplace Personalities

​Most workplaces have a similar cast of characters—the achiever, who constantly pushes the team to finish a project; the know-it-all, who thinks he's smarter than everyone else; the reticent employee, who stays silent during every meeting; and the naysayer, who finds fault in every idea.

Managing these diverse personalities isn't easy, but it's important. That's because the most successful teams are formed when a supervisor understands each employee's strengths and weaknesses, knows how to leverage each member's unique talents, and encourages everyone to work together.

"A great manager knows what motivates each employee and is able to adapt her leadership style to bring out the best in that employee," said Allyson Parker, executive director of HR and chief ethics officer at Ally Financial Inc., a financial services company in Detroit.

Different perspectives prevent teams from having blind spots and from moving too quickly on projects, according to Jennifer Brown, CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting, a Manhattan-based firm focused on developing inclusive leadership. "If you had a magic wand and could create the best team, you would want to have the devil's advocate, the skeptic, the rally-the-troops person, the person who slows things down to analyze and the soldier, who doesn't want to be the visionary but loves to follow the visionary," said the author of How to Be an Inclusive Leader (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2019).

One of the most critical roles a manager can play is regulating team conflict, said Taya Cohen, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business. About 20 percent of what senior leaders do is manage conflict, she added.

"Managers have to be comfortable with conflict and know it's for the better of the organization," said Tracey Adams, Ph.D., founder of ThriveOn Seminars, a Portland, Ore.-based firm focused on developing emotional intelligence.

Seek to Understand Each Employee

Good managers try to understand what is going on in the lives of their direct reports to better comprehend what drives them, what keeps them up at night and what they hope to achieve.

One way to do this is to engage each employee in one-on-one meetings and ask open-ended questions to better understand their motives, said Caroline Stokes, founder of FORWARD, an executive leadership coaching company based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. However, she warned, it's important to have these conversations "without it looking like the Spanish Inquisition or a witch hunt." Give employees the questions in advance so you're not putting them on the spot, advised the author of Elephants Before Unicorns: Emotionally Intelligent HR Strategies to Save Your Company (Entrepreneur Press, 2019). "Don't critique or judge their answers," she added. "If you do, you won't get the information you want."

Questions to consider asking include:

  • What is your biggest strength at work?
  • What do you like most about your current role?
  • What is most inspiring about your work and why?
  • Is there something you would like to learn at work?
  • Would you like to learn from anyone in the organization?
  • What do you want to accomplish in the next 30/60/90 days?
  • What do you need from me to succeed?
  • How can we best measure your progress?
  • How would you prefer to be recognized for your achievements?

Managers may find that an employee who is acting aloof, disengaged or even aggressive might not understand where they fit into the organization. "They might feel insecure," Stokes said. "They might not have a mentor, might not know what they're doing, might be feeling like an imposter."

The know-it-all might aspire to be promoted and is making sure she isn't overlooked, Stokes added, and the shy employee who is reluctant to participate might not be in the right role.

Don't Label Employees

However, Stokes warned against labeling employees. "It's a toxic habit," she said. "It leaks into how you communicate with people." For instance, if someone is known as a complainer, the entire department might try to avoid including that person in meetings. Or, if someone has a reputation for being shy, she might be ignored when the team is looking for feedback.

Managers need to coach employees on how to strengthen skills that don't come naturally. For instance, Parker said, conversations with achievers should include advice on helping them to collaborate with others, such as "I know you're anxious to get this project done, but let's talk with some other stakeholders first." If someone is reluctant to speak during meetings, the manager should encourage him to express his opinion and even let him know in advance that he'll be asked for input during meetings.

Before managers can encourage their teams to work together, they need to think about their own reactive behaviors, according to Kevin Bush, principal at Teams and Leaders, a leadership development firm in Seattle. "We are socially and culturally programmed to figure out what is wrong with the other person," he said, but managers should instead ask themselves how their own behavior may be impacting team members. A good manager, he explained, will reflect on his or her own behavior before judging an employee for being difficult, being slow to respond or complaining.

Bush recommends that managers pause before responding when they believe an employee is being difficult and try to look at the problem from the employee's point of view. "As a manager," he said, "you need to let go of your own needs first to understand others'."

Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.



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