Why Bridging Diverse Work Styles is so Challenging

Each of us has a way of being in the world that reflects our personality. If you are a leader this will manifest as your leadership style. If you are a coach, understanding your client’s learning and workstyle will inform your coaching approach.

Even the seemingly simplest orientation, such as whether we are more task-oriented or relationship-oriented, can have huge bearing on how we approach a given situation.

It has long been recognised that leaders, and those interested in being effective in their roles, need to know their default style and behaviours. We need to understand the strengths and limitations of our own style, while paying close attention to the style of others and how our diverse styles interact. To be effective we need to recognise when we can play in our preferred way and when we need to modify our style to fit the situation.

Unconsciously applying our personal preferences to those around us doesn’t always work.

Yet why is it so hard to simply adjust our approach? Here are a few of the reasons that stand out from my own coaching practice – and my own life, come to think of it.

1. What We Know Is Easy

Most people in the modern workplace have more than enough on their plates. Working to our preferred style allows us to enter a natural and instinctive flow. We enjoy functioning in our own style because don’t have to think about it.

Opening up to a diversity of styles involves expanding beyond our comfort zone, admitting that we don’t know everything and expanding our repertoire of responses. We are more likely to put in the effort involved when have realised the costs of taking the easy – and usually ineffective route.

2. We Lack Insight

Have you ever been surprised by the realisation that other people can be so different from you? We might be so hypnotized by doing things our way that we don’t even notice how we’re neglecting other’s styles.

Education about differing workstyles goes a long way to providing a shared framework for understanding and discussing differences in workstyle.

3. We Become Myopic

Even with these understandings, I still get caught up in the moment and forget how these dynamics might be at play. There I am, enjoying being in my flow, when I am jolted out of it by the realisation that life works very differently for a colleague or associate.

It’s easy to fall into a self-referencing trance. Yet it leaves us short-sighted. We forget to check in about how others want to approach shared tasks. We make assumptions. Coaches and astute managers and peers can break this cycle by asking great coaching questions about the needs and preferences of the other parties.

4. We Seek Self-Expression

Many of us haven’t ever been able to truly express our own style of working. We haven’t been afforded the permission to truly see what we (and our style) are capable of. When this is the case, being asked to modify our style can be particularly irking.

Sometimes, it’s important to pursue your own way of working toward a defined outcome.

However, if you just plough on through as though no-one else is in the picture, you will put people offside. When you feel the need to fully express your own style, it’s important to articulate this, asking your team for their support. It’s the negotiation that is key for being able to actualize your approach.

5. We Have Been Downed

Often individuals bring to coaching (and to life), a history of being put down for who they are and how they go about things. The quiet child is bullied in school, the experiential learner is chastised for pulling things apart to see how they work, and so on. Most of us have been downed even for things we later discover are our gifts.

These experiences of shaming result in a residual struggle to fully understand and stand for our preferences. They can make negotiating a shared approach with others a complicated process. The slightest hint of criticism or risk of exposure around these deep tendencies, throws up painful memories that occlude our capacity to separate what is being said today from the pain of those past experiences. The effect is subtle but damaging, both inside and out.

6. We Fear Exclusion

In negotiating our differences the question invariably arises as to whether there is room for everyone’s working styles. Our answer to this question usually reflects the power map in the room – whether it is explicitly articulated or if it remains unspoken. Will each individual’s style and its strengths be respected? Will individuals be supported in areas in which they might struggle or will weaknesses be taken advantage of? Is there enough latitude to accommodate difference? If we do not believe this to be the case and we feel our style is not welcome, trouble is likely to ensue.

7. Power Struggles Develop

Often clear communication around the adoption of working styles doesn’t take place. And if it does, it may not happen on a level playing field. Perhaps the boss imposes a way of working. Maybe a more dominant colleague sets the tone. Sometimes we feel that a way of working is imposed on us. Or we feel that we cannot advocate for a particular approach due to past history and/or the current power dynamics.

When this is the case, the conversation and negotiation is not about diversity as much as it about acknowledged and unacknowledged power. Power and rank dynamics are major influences when it comes to determining which ways of working, living and being are endorsed and which are marginalised. Process Oriented Coaches learn to attune to the underlying power dynamics at play – and to work with clients to unpack how their co-workers are perceiving and reacting to them.

So whether you are a coach supporting clients to navigating diverse working styles, or are in the midst of a tricky working relationship or team dynamic yourself right now, take heart. Once you lift the lid on work style preferences you will see that there is a lot going on. Remember that in addressing these differences you are addressing the potential for greater challenges in the future. By learning to bridge diverse working styles you are crafting an environment where everyone can bring their gifts to the table.

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