We spend a lot of time with our coworkers. These days virtually more than not. And while each and every one of them is lovely, it may be more time than you, and they, would like. But when we think about navigating these relationships with empathy and skill, many times they fall to the bottom of our list after spouses, family, friends, and most definitely our four-legged colleague, Mr. Meeting Crasher.
Jokes aside, these relationships matter. So how can we understand these dynamics and become effective teammates when, for many of us, even our closest colleagues have become floating faces on screens?
Jim Bolton, the president and owner of Ridge Associates, the consulting firm that produced the seminal management handbook “People Styles at Work” says navigating personal dynamics remotely presents unique challenges.
“There are behavioral clues we all give off. There are style indicators, what you're physically doing with your body, vocal indicators, and also sometimes the words that you use,” says Bolton. And when we’re not around others physically, these signals are more easily misunderstood. Was that slightly_smiling_face emoji passive aggressive? It’s so hard to tell.
“How we work will continue to evolve. Think back a decade — or two or three. Video conferencing was science fiction. Now it’s as common as a phone call.”
We’re learning that it’s more important than ever to think introspectively about ourselves and empathetically about our colleagues when we’re physically separated. But bringing this kind of emotional effort into the office space (even if that space is our dining room table) takes just as much planning and tactical thinking as reaching our business KPIs.
Bolton’s guidance offers a helpful approach.
“People Styles at Work,” authored by Bolton’s parents, the founders of Ridge Associates, helps to assess working behaviors and map your “style” on a matrix. Understanding where you are, where your coworkers are, and where you are perceived to be on this matrix can help you understand how to manage your interaction and collaboration with colleagues.
What style are you?
The “styles” method calls out responsiveness on the vertical axis and assertiveness on the horizontal axis. If you tend to be less responsive and less assertive you would be classified as Analytical. Analyticals are most at home with facts, data, and details. They want to be sure of all moving parts before taking any action; this can make them seem overcautious. Often people with this working style are quieter and like step-by-step procedures.
Being more assertive but less responsive would put you in the Driver category. Drivers are results oriented. Drivers can appear to be demanding and may speak loudly and quickly.
Those who are highly expressive and responsive are categorized as Expressives. Expressives are enthusiastic and creative, have a tendency to go off on tangents, and can be distractible. If you are an Expressive you may be easily excitable and most comfortable being informal.
Finally, being more responsive and less assertive would categorize you as Amiable. Amiables are usually good at juggling multiple tasks, may be easygoing, and are fairly quiet. Amiables are genuinely concerned with the feelings of others,
Bolton stresses that none of these categorizations carry any value judgments; instead, see them as a roadmap for navigating how your colleagues communicate at work, and how you communicate.
Flexing your style muscles
The thinking goes, if we can understand our colleagues’ styles, that may help us understand how to approach a difficult interaction or explain your own thinking and ideas. The book calls this idea “flexing:” adjusting to another person’s working style by understanding and adjusting our own. Doing this well requires an understanding of how we are perceived by our colleagues.
Bolton says the foundation of this model still holds while we’re separated from each other at work. But the level of stress caused by the pandemic can quickly turn an in-person strength into a remote-work weakness.
“When our stress levels elevate, we're not super conscious [of it] and our behavior might become dysregulated.” This in turn tends to make us exaggerate our own personal working style, for better and for worse.
Consider exploring what workstyle you and your teammates gravitate toward. Very few of us will show 100% alignment with any one style but understanding where you fall on the matrix can make your next project that much more effective.
Bolton also suggests having brief, more frequent check-ins. One tactic he suggests is the ‘5-15 Report’. “The idea is that it takes 15 minutes for people to fill out, and it takes about five minutes for somebody, presumably your manager, to read. It's a way of keeping people connected when we're disconnected.”
How we work will continue to evolve. Think back a decade — or two or three. Video conferencing was science fiction. Now it’s as common as a phone call. New technologies will continue to demand new skills, new fields will require new expertise, but the human factor will always be the core of how we operate as a team, whether it’s remote, hybrid, or in person. (With or without Mr. Meeting Crasher.)