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How Deloitte Is Helping Clashing Coworkers Work Better Together
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AnnaMarie Houlis

If you're having trouble seeing eye to eye with someone on your team, you're not alone. People have different working styles, and opposite types tend to clash as they approach situations from different perspectives. And because it's impossible to force two grown adults who dislike one another or who adamantly disagree with one another on the daily to coexist, companies can suffer from a decline in morale.

Deloitte kicked off the development of the Business Chemistry Project for that exact reason. It's become a seven-year exploration into what makes people click or clash, why some groups excel and others fumble and how leaders can make or break team potential.

In BUSINESS CHEMISTRY: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships, which publishes on May 22, 2018Deloitte’s Suzanne M. Johnson Vickberg and Kim Christfort uncover what makes people click and what makes them clash. Deloitte teamed up with biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, best known for her insights on romantic relationships, and molecular biologist Lee Silver to survey more than 190,000 people, as well as work with leaders and teams in thousands of interactive sessions.

Deloitte has not only been working on building a resilient team by understanding cognitive diversity, however. It's also been focused on promoting diversity across the board. The company is renowned for its female leadership and attractive benefits for new parents, among other efforts.

"Deloitte is a great place for women (and men!) in so many ways," says Vickberg. "There are seemingly endless opportunities to learn, grow and develop and to take charge of your own career. And as women, we see ourselves strongly reflected in the leadership ranks of the organization. The CEO of Deloitte US is a woman (the first and only female CEO of a big four firm), so is the CEO of Deloitte Consulting, and so are many of our other leaders. And there are many benefits that are particularly helpful for women, although they’re available for men, as well."

She's referring to the fact that Deloitte provides up to 16 weeks of fully paid leave should employees need it to care for a family member — a child or a parent. They also have available up to 30 days each year of backup care, subsidized by Deloitte, for the times when usual care plans fall through (like when school is cancelled for a snow day or a parent needs some extra help during the day while recovering from an injury, she says).

We caught up with both Vickberg and Christfort to talk about the company's latest project, the ensuing book and how the findings can help companies follow in Deloitte's footsteps. Here's what they had to say.

1. Can you describe the Business Chemistry Project at Deloitte, the seven-year exploration into what makes people click or clash? How did it get started seven years ago and why? 

Christfort: When we first started out we were exploring what made some of our people so good at their jobs, and we identified the quality of their relationships with others as a key differentiator. These star performers seemed to have a particular knack for walking in other people’s shoes, and it made their clients and their colleagues feel connected to them. And so we started to wonder, could we teach the rest of our people to relate to others in this way? Could we help them develop empathy and guide them in adjusting their behaviors based on what the other person wanted or needed out of the interaction? From these questions, Business Chemistry was born.

One goal was to develop a framework for understanding different working styles that would be easy for people to learn and remember so they could recognize the different types easily as they interacted with others. Another goal was to offer people very practical strategies for using this new information to adjust their own working style to the person they were interacting with.

2. Can you describe the four work styles and their proclivities?

Christfort: Business Chemistry identifies four primary types:

  • Pioneers value possibilities and they spark energy and imagination. They’re outgoing, spontaneous and adaptable. They’re creative thinkers who believe big risks can bring great things.
  • Guardians value stability and they bring order and rigor. They’re practical, detail-oriented and reserved. They’re deliberate decision-makers apt to stick with the status quo.
  • Drivers value challenge and generate momentum. They’re technical, quantitative and logical. They’re direct in their approach to people and problems.
  • Integrators value connection and draw teams together. They’re empathic, diplomatic and relationship oriented. They’re attuned to nuance, seeing shades of grey rather than black and white. 

Each of us is a mix of all of these types, but most of us lean a bit more strongly toward one or two of them.

3. Can you talk more about Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships? What can we expect from the book?

Vickberg: You can expect to learn a lot and have some fun in the process. In the book we share all that we know about the four Business Chemistry types, from their preferred ways of working, thinking, and communicating, to their responses to stress and their career aspirations. We teach you how to develop a hypothesis about someone’s type, even if you’ve got limited information about them, and we describe the work environments that kill each type’s potential and discuss what to do about it. We guide you in flexing your behavior to strengthen your own relationships with others and in creating team environments where people with very different preferences and needs can simultaneously thrive. 

While there can be some serious benefits to improving your work relationships, we don’t take a strictly serious approach in this book. It’s colorful and interesting to look at and also easy to read. Kim and I are opposite Business Chemistry types (she’s a Pioneer and I’m a Guardian) and don’t always agree about what’s most important or how it’s best presented, so we took advantage of our differences to create a book that has something to offer for everyone — data, images, practical strategies, stories, research citations, graphs and humor, too. 

4. Please provide some background on yourselves and how you became interested in this topic? 

Christfort: Having a client-centric background as both a consultant and in public relations, I’ve worked with executives and their teams on a wide range of unique business challenges. I began noticing issues related to human dynamics — often rooted in different working styles. At the same time, I saw firsthand how some partners at Deloitte were able to relate to clients in a whole different way, tailoring their interactions. I wanted to figure out how to transform what was often a disruptive force into a powerful tool to help people build great relationships — for themselves, their teams and their organizations. 

Vickberg: I’m a social-personality psychologist and so I’ve always been interested in how people’s behavior is influenced both by who they are and the situations they’re in. Before I came to Deloitte I was involved in health psychology research and then program evaluation and then consulting around workplace culture and employee engagement. I joined Deloitte almost 10 years ago, starting in the Talent organization. I had been there for about four years and was starting to look around for what might be next when the opportunity arose to work on the Business Chemistry team. It was a really natural fit for me.

5. So why do people click or clash?

Christfort: There are lots of factors that can influence who works well together and who doesn’t. One of these factors can be working style. We often click with those who have a similar style, because we approach things from the same perspective. Working with someone who is similar is likely to be smooth and to feel easy. For example, I often really enjoy working with other Pioneers because we tend to share a penchant for the art of the possible and to feel mutually inspired by our conversations.

On the other hand, if you have very different working styles or perspectives, working together is often more challenging and might feel more like clashing. When I start talking about the art of the possible with someone who insists on pointing out why things are not possible I don’t feel quite so inspired. 

6. How can those with different work styles see eye to eye? 

Christfort: The good news is, when people learn to bridge these differences they can forge powerful partnerships and teams, because the strengths of one perspective often bolster the weaknesses of another. So my art of the possible perspective may lead to some really imaginative ideas, but sometimes there’s not quite enough realism in the mix. When I partner with someone who has a more practical perspective, like Suzanne for instance, we both have the opportunity to benefit from our partnership (she can help me make my ideas more realistic and I can help her stretch her practical ideas to be more innovative). But this works best when we both understand how our perspectives are different, recognize the value of the other’s perspective, and make an effort to partner in a way that works for both of us.

So the goal is not necessarily to help people see eye-to-eye, per se. What we aim to do with Business Chemistry is to give people a better idea of why they aren’t seeing eye-to-eye, and also what the value is of the different perspectives they’re each bringing.

7. What are some better strategies for more effective interactions among team members?

Vickberg: The key here is empathy and flexing. That is, making an effort to understand others and how they are different from you and then adjusting your style accordingly. Instead of necessarily doing what you’re naturally inclined to do you would instead do things in a way that meets the preferences and needs of the other person.

For example, as a Guardian I typically write long emails because I want to make sure I’ve covered all the details. But if I’m writing to a colleague who is a Driver, that strategy isn’t very effective, because Drivers typically don’t have much patience for long emails--they like to get right to the point. If I really want to communicate something to a Driver or even get them to do something, I’m better off keeping my message short — writing it in the way they prefer as opposed to the way I prefer.

When it comes to teams things get a little more complex because you’re now trying to flex to multiple different styles at once, and the preferences and needs of each often conflict with the others. So your Integrators want to take time to connect while the Drivers want to get right down to work. Your Pioneers want flexibility and free-ranging conversations while your Guardians want structure. So there we suggest you use a combination of meeting the basic needs of each type — the essentials — and then offering options so that you can meet the needs of more people without turning others off.

As one example, Integrators often want to spend some team time on personal connection, while Drivers sometimes feel impatient with this use of time. So, you could either keep those activities limited to a certain amount of time (and let the Drivers know it will be limited) or you could make it optional, by, for example, starting meetings with a 10-minute "gathering" period that people are free to attend or not. You’d then start the business of the hour at exactly 10 minutes after the hour.

8. How can we bypass conflicts in the workplace by understanding those four styles?

Christfort: You probably can't. But conflict isn't always bad, even if it feels uncomfortable. Conflict and the process of working through it can lead to better problem-solving and more creative ideas. So we wouldn't suggest you try to avoid it entirely. But ideally you would keep conflict focused on the work on the task at hand, not on the people doing the work. 

You might start by trying to get a sense of what the source of the conflict is — it's often due to different working styles and different perspectives. If that's the case, it can sometimes help to just acknowledge it and talk about your differences in perspectives. This can be easier if you have a common language like Business chemistry to talk about these things. And keep in mind that sometimes, what feels like conflict to you is really just people actively engaging in debate. Try to get a sense of whether that's what’s happening and if so, do your best to get more comfortable with it.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.

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