Individual Differences-A Workplace Opportunity in Oz
As a psychologist/business consultant I get to see how most of us are more comfortable finding and working with people who are similar to ourselves. “Hey, he thinks like me!” It makes it all so easy. But it is the differences between us that can be a tremendous source of work pleasure and problem-solving dynamism.
Our social networks are populated with similar, like us, friends. You know: similar values, politics, hobbies, or work endeavors. But in the workplace it is a learned skill to appreciate and utilize the differentness in others.
A few years ago I was asked to consult with a service delivery team. They all had essentially the same job: they needed to supervise a group of employees providing probation services to teenagers. Problem was that they were very different people expected to perform alike. One supervisor was stricter about the rules for his workers and the kids they managed. One had a unique gift for understanding others and counseling them about problems. And the third of the group was considered slightly obsessive; he focused on the reports and procedures expected of his staff. These collective differences were driving the Director batty (and tending to have her favor the “counselor”).
Personally I thought I’d been placed on the set of the Wizard of Oz. Could these guys be the cowardly lion, the tin man, and the scarecrow? Well, real or not, I knew it took all three of those guys to get Dorothy to Oz.
I set out to build a true team of all four in the leadership group. With prompting, each committed to appreciating the perspective of the others, and each agreed to learn skills from the others. One supervisor shared his long history of what techniques worked with kids, including the need for strong structure (probation rules). The second supervisor focused on developing the supportive (counseling) skills needed by everyone in the organization. And the third supervisor kept everyone reminded of the technical requirements of the system for reports, planning, and organization.
Individual differences are essential in the workplace. They bring the variety of perspectives and skills needed to accomplish a complex work task. Learn to utilize these differences and you won’t find yourself in Oz anymore.
Tom DeMaio, PhD