US Business News

How to Work with People Not Like You

How to Work with People Not Like You
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In today’s interconnected and diverse world, the ability to work with people who are not like us has become increasingly important. Whether it’s in the workplace, community organizations, or social settings, our interactions with individuals from different backgrounds and perspectives have the potential to enrich our lives and expand our horizons. 

However, navigating these differences can sometimes be challenging, requiring us to cultivate empathy, open-mindedness, and effective communication skills. By embracing diversity and actively seeking to understand and collaborate with those who are different from us, we can foster a more inclusive and harmonious environment that celebrates the unique contributions of each individual.

Kelly McDonald, author of How to Work With and Lead People Not Like You, knows a lot about this. We caught up with Kelly to ask a few questions for leaders, with Victor Hawkins’ leading queries.

  1.     Is it harder to work with people not like us than it was, say, two years ago?

Absolutely.  Working with people who have different backgrounds and perspectives has always been a challenge, because we may not approach work projects the same way or agree on the best way forward.  But today, people are so afraid of saying the wrong thing at work – or having what they say taken the wrong way – that they say nothing.  And that’s not good for business.  We need to be able to discuss business issues, especially when we don’t agree.  That’s a signal that we need to dig in deeper to understand different ideas, concerns, and issues.

  1.     How do we overcome being afraid to speak up?

By using language that is inviting and collaborative, not confrontational or dismissive.  For example, instead of saying, “That won’t work,” say instead, “Tell me more about that and how you came up with the idea.”  Often our ideas may not be the right solution, but the thinking behind the idea is gold.  Stop saying “let’s agree to disagree” – it’s a conversation ender.  If the other person agrees to that, the conversation is over.  Say instead, “I see it differently.”  A phrase like this invites more conversation and gets to the thinking or perspective that frames how they see it.  Using welcoming and collaborative language leads to better ideas and fresh thinking on work issues.

  1.     What about people who just rub us the wrong way and we don’t know why? How can we make that better?

This is a great question, because sometimes people do just irritate us or rub us the wrong way.  And what we do in those situations is try to avoid them as much as possible.  But that’s not good for business.  A better approach is to remember that you don’t have to like someone to work with them.  Of course, you do have to be professional and respectful at all times, but your job does not require that you like them.  Focus on the task or assignment instead of the personalities at work.  For example, if you and I don’t like each other – we just never have – we can still sit down and do a budget forecast together.  That’s a task, not a backyard barbeque.  We don’t need to socialize together, we just have to work together.

  1.     What if we’re frustrated with political correctness or honestly don’t know what to say to someone else, and we are afraid of offending them?

Keep the focus on business conversations, not on politics, activism or social injustice.  Business is about growth and success.  When someone says something that veers into these areas, you can say, “I hear you.  I’ve got my hands full with work, so when I’m here, I’m just focused on getting through the day.”  It sends a soft message that you’d rather not engage on topics other than work.  And the “I hear you” is acknowledgement, not agreement.  It’s a neutral statement, but lets the other person know that you heard their opinion.

  1.     What are the four questions that make starting a conversation about differences easier and more likely to result in a positive outcome?
  •       “Tell me about yourself – what is one thing about you that’s important for me to know?”
  •   “That’s interesting –can you tell me more about that?”  (This gets back to drawing out the other person’s thinking behind an idea or approach.)
  •       “I’m looking forward to working with you on the XYZ project.  How do you like to work?  What’s the best way for us to collaborate / meet this deadline, etc.?”
  •       “Let’s get to know each other a little bit.  What’s a cherished tradition in your family that means a lot to you?”

The first three are business questions that may really help you work effectively with another person.  For example, in the first question, they may tell you that they really like the process of ideation and brainstorming.  Or they may tell you that they are an introvert or extrovert.  Or that they are in the process of buying a house.  Be open to whatever direction the conversation takes.  It’s fascinating to learn what people will tell you when you ask them to name something about themselves that they think is important for you to know.  Regarding working together, the third question goes directly to “how can we be most productive?”  The other person may say that they hate meetings and would rather meet once a week instead of once a day. Or that they are a morning person and starting their day with a quick status on the project is really helpful.

The last question is a personal one and most people are happy to share a family tradition.  It can be very interesting and insightful and you can share one of yours.  This fosters a personal connection without getting too personal.

  1.     In the workplace, how do we handle racist, sexist, homophobic, and other offensive remarks in a productive way that is aimed at resolution?

Most companies and organizations now have a zero-tolerance policy for inappropriate comments and bullying.  When someone says something offensive, look them right in the eye and say, “Wow – I’m going to assume you didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”  This is a major warning that a person has stepped way over the line and usually they will immediately retract their statement by saying “Oh my gosh!  I didn’t mean that the way it sounded – I am so sorry!”  Or they may say something like, “just kidding” or “don’t be so sensitive,” in which case you can respond with, “What you said is not OK.  Respect is required at this company.  Are you not aware of the policy on this?”  The person will rarely double down at that point.  Most likely their reaction will be to walk off muttering under their breath, but you will have made the point.

  1.     What do we do if we see a situation where a colleague is bullied or disrespected? Do we just ignore it, or do we say something – and WHAT do we say?

This is a really important question, and the answer is that we must stand up for our coworkers and colleagues.  Failure to do so sends the message that “this is who we are here – someone can be verbally abused here and no one will do anything, including me.”  When a situation like that arises, say, “Jim, are you OK with what Simon just said?  Because I’m not.  It was totally out of line.  That’s not who we are here.”  This lets your coworker know that you are an upstander, not a bystander.  Saying nothing is still saying something and makes you part of the problem.  Be part of the solution. 

  1.     It’s tough having to call out an employee on work that isn’t up to par. If you’re a manager or in a supervisory position, what is a good strategy for dealing with that?

The best way is to try to get to what the issue is, rather than berating the employee for poor performance.  Start with, “Jessica, your work lately has not been up to standard and that’s a change.  What’s holding you back from performing your job well?”  You may learn something important about the person that is affecting their work.  If they offer no real reason for poor work, then say, “You have to get back on track and show immediate improvement.  If not, your job will be at risk.”  In this way, you have not berated or denigrated the employee in any way.  You’re doing your job by bringing their poor performance to their attention, asking about what might be affecting their work, and outlining consequences.  The important phrase in this exchange is “you have to show immediate improvement.”  Saying this lets the employee know that they are on notice and that things must change – quickly.

  1. EVERYONE hates meetings! How can we make them more productive and not waste time?

Have an agenda and state the purpose of the meeting in a short, simple phrase, e.g., “The purpose of the meeting is to discuss our pricing strategy on the ABC product rollout.”  Keep the agenda to no more than three items.  Send the agenda to the team in advance so people can see the discussion points and start thinking about their contribution.  This avoids the wandering and pondering at meetings that eat up so much time.  When the team starts straying off topic or the meeting is getting nowhere, bring it back to the goal: “This meeting is to figure out our next step on pricing.  What do we need to do now?”  This focuses the team on what to do next, not big picture, macro issues that could take months or years to work through. Every project can be broken down into next steps.  Keep meetings short by tackling one issue or deliverable at a time.

  1. What’s the best tip you ever got on how to work effectively with others?

I have two:

  •   As an employee or team member, resist the urge to shut down ideas from others.  You never know where a great idea will come from.  Be positive rather than negative to keep conversations and meetings forward.  For example, don’t say, “We can’t do that George because of xyx…” Or “That’s not going to work.”  Say instead, “George, that’s an interesting idea – how would that work with the parameters that we have?”   Or say, “Tell me your perspective on this.”  Often we may be working on the same goal, but coming at it from different perspectives.  Diversity of thought is the most powerful tool we have.  But you won’t get to it if you shut conversations down or dismiss them because you see things differently.
  •   As a leader, the best tip is to lead by example.  Employees and team members see everything and hear everything.  And what you do, they will do.

In conclusion, the ability to work effectively with people who are not like us is crucial in today’s diverse world. It requires us to cultivate empathy, open-mindedness, and effective communication skills. By embracing diversity and seeking to understand and collaborate with those who are different, we can create a more inclusive and harmonious environment that celebrates individual contributions. Overcoming fear of speaking up, handling conflicts, and addressing offensive remarks are important aspects of working with diverse individuals. It is also essential to stand up for colleagues who are being bullied or disrespected and to address poor performance in a constructive manner. By creating productive meetings with clear agendas and focusing on next steps, we can make collaboration more efficient. Ultimately, leading by example and promoting positive, inclusive behavior is key to fostering a culture of effective teamwork.

Kelly McDonald is an acclaimed speaker who specializes in consumer trends and changing demographics. She is the president of McDonald Marketing and has authored four bestselling books on the customer experience, leadership, and marketing — all from the standpoint of working with people “not like you”.  Her book, How to Work With and Lead People Not Like You has been on two bestseller lists. 


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