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Monday, October 08, 2007

Diversity--of Personality and Styles

In my experience, the biggest conflicts I've seen in departments are due to a diverse set of personalities, not differences in race, gender and age.

For example, Bob is a 8 to 5 type of a guy. You could set your watch by his comings and goings. He believes that the only work that counts is the work done between those hours. If you are not at your desk you are not working.

Steve takes calls in the car. (Hands free, of course, we wouldn't want Steve to be violating any laws.) He comes in when he comes in and goes home when he's ready. Steve generally works from home for 3-4 hours a night, after the kids are asleep.

Jenny requires absolute silence to work. She can't concentrate around other people and noise. She's started to come in earlier and earlier to get things done when it's quiet, but it's no use--once others show up and start yacking away, her cube becomes unbearable and her productivity drops.

Tom is a music man. He needs to be listening to something in order to work. He loves to have his radio on and keeps it as loud as he possibly can.

Jose is a political junky. He reads all the political blogs and listens to talk radio all day. If you stop by his cube you are likely to get a lecture of some sort.

Candice is also a political junky, but on the opposite side of the spectrum from Jose. If they should happen upon each other, well, the rest of the department runs and hides.

Do you see where the problems come in? Bob complains about Steve--how can he possibly be working if he's not in the office? Tom and Jenny are constantly at each other's throats. "Your radio is too loud!" vs "I can barely hear it!" And well, Jose and Candice drive the rest of the office nuts and constantly complain about each other.

Other personality conflicts come into play as well. Does the boss like independent workers or needy workers? Given my personality, I would say, "duh, doesn't every boss prefer independent workers?" But, I've seen bosses that don't think you are doing anything productive if you aren't constantly asking for help.

Sometimes people assign race or gender reasons to why they aren't getting along with a co-worker. (She just complains about my music because I'm X and he's Y.) Reality is, she'd still complain even if you were both X.

This is not to say that cases of racial or gender discrimination and prejudice do not exist. Of course they do. It's just to say that other problems exist as well.

So, what's a manager to do? Well, for one thing, get Jenny an office and Tom some ear phones. Or vice versa. Tell Jose and Candice to knock it off and leave politics for lunch and after work. Tell Bob to chill and Steve to get in earlier. Right?

But, then Jenny's office makes everyone else envious. "Why does she get an office? We're the same grade!"

And Jose and Candice both loudly proclaim that they are being oppressed because of their points of view. (Neither one recognizing that they have opposite points of view and are being given the exact same treatment.)

Bob and Steve? Both work best in their own environments. Why should Steve get in earlier? He's working until midnight almost every night. Bob's desire for strict schedules and guidelines also makes him an excellent quality assurance guy, which is what he is.

You still want to manage people?


Aaron Erickson said...

Yep - and the solution is easy:

1.) Bob is clearly wrong. In a results oriented work environment - i.e. the kind we all should be running, face time is for special occasions. Bob's line of thinking costs the company money, and needs to go away. If he complains to me, he gets one explanation, and if that isn't good enough, he leaves. Problem solved.

2.) If Jenny doesn't like the office, she can work from home, or her car, just like Steve does.

3.) Tom, Jose, and Candice, same thing.

When you care about the results, and trust people to find a way to get it done outside the bounds of an office, you start to do less managing, and more leading. I would think that would be a good thing.

bruce said...

Bit harsh Aaron. I'm all for results oriented environments, and getting people to suck it up a bit, but you're talking about having an empty office by the end of the week. That doesn't help anyone achieve the results they want.

Evil HR Lady said...

Ahh, but you are assuming that your company policies allow and encourage that. What if Steve really is working outside of policy?

Evil HR Lady said...

And keep in mind that Bob is producing results. He's just whining along with results. I wouldn't fire someone for whining. If I did that, I'd spend half my day firing and half my day recruiting to replace the whiners.

Plus, I would have to fire myself. (And there are days I'm tempted to do just that. I asked my boss if I could make my own severance package and she said, "Only if you make one for me too!")

Aaron Erickson said...

Bruce - if you have an empty office at the end of the week - you have done your job!

If Steve is working outside of policy, he should be seen as a maverick - exactly the kind of person who, statistics show, tends to produce the kinds of innovation that produce competitive advantage. Saying its policy is always kind of a tautological argument anyway. If we waited for a policy to allow us to work from home, nobody would ever be allowed to work from home today.

In the hypothetical you propose, Steve is the change agent, the person that contains the solution to the problem. Any company of any size will have these kinds of conflicts. My job as an executive isn't to make the world a better place by making people whose work style that is incompatible play nice, it is to achieve business results. And if that means I have a monoculture of people who self-organize and meet on their own when they need to - whether it be the office (or anywhere else), thats great. I will take that over the monoculture of those who think productivity and innovation happens strictly at the office any day of the week.

If Bob is producing results, but complaining about how others produce results, and creating a workplace problem because of it, then you have to question what results he is producing? Sounds like Bob is being divisive - I don't hear Steve - or any other telecommuter - complaining about the people in the office - it is usually the reverse.

pawnking said...

In my experience, if you just listen to the whiners, they are usually happy. They might very well recognize you can't do anything about it, but if you take them seriously and do what you can, and let them know you are doing so, they are usually understanding that you aren't all-powerful.

Ask a Manager said...

For the noise issues, I have found it very often useful to say: "I hear you. Unfortunately, we don't have the physical to space to make those problems go away, so we're all faced with finding ways to work around them. What compromise do you suggest that would best meet the needs of everyone?"

For the Bob/Steve conflict, if Steve's free-wheeling shchedule is negatively impacting other workers in any significant way, I'd tell him to find ways to minimize the impact in exchange for the flexbility. If it's not, Steve can carry on with what he's doing...

Anonymous said...

I'm definitely Jenny. Id go in really early but my most annoying co-worker is there early. So I solved the problem: Radio Shack has these AM-FM radio headphones that fit all the way around the ears. I can't hear most stuff over my (very political) talk radio, I can whip off the headphones the minute someone shows up at my desk needing something, I can slam them right back on when my annoying co-worker starts complaining, and I never ever discuss what I'm listening to with anyone. God help me if I ever have to work for a really bureaucratic employer that wouldn't let me wear headphones.