“My reality is just different from yours.” – Cheshire Cat from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

Not long ago, I spent some time chatting with a team of directors from a large local company excitedly talking about a competition announced by their vice president. The prize, intended to increase productivity, would be an extravagant team dinner. One of the directors mentioned he thought a more effective prize would be a team visit to a laser tag game course.

When I remarked that a mandatory team outing might not feel like a prize to everyone, it surprised them. These directors were experienced, worked for a company with an excellent reputation, and managed many teams. Yet not one of them was thinking about the differences in their team members.

Differences define us as individuals. They are the traits that make us tick and preferences that help us do our best work, both individually and on teams. They are also the traits that cause misunderstanding and stress for teams.

In today’s teams, there are countless ways of describing our differences. A few of the descriptions are: Myers-Briggs scores, personality colors, whether someone is a morning person or a night owl, our preference for coffee or tea, being left- or right-brained (not to mention left- or right-handed) – and the list goes on and on and on.

Does is it seem too obvious to point out that we are all different? While teams must work together (that is the nature of teams, after all), individuals make up teams. Individuals are naturally self-focused.

As individuals we struggle to understand those who differ from us.

When you are different from me, I have difficulty understanding you – I don’t have a comfortable frame of reference, coping mechanism, or empathy for the way you think or act. I don’t understand why you don’t like coffee, why confrontation makes you anxious, or why you are so grumpy in the mornings. Those are differences that cause me anxiety – sometimes a little and sometimes a lot.

Which is why we like to function with the principle of the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is a remarkable reminder to think not of our needs alone, but also the needs of others. It is an elegant, timeless philosophy, and an excellent starting place for interpersonal relations.

The Golden Rule, though, actually focuses on you, not the other person. It takes the perspective that you and the next person and the next person need, want, and like the same behaviors, timeframe, answers, and rewards. But this assumption isn’t accurate. In reality you and I do not want the same things

A more team-focused way to say this would be, “Do unto others as they would prefer, not as you would prefer.” The director who thinks his team should be rewarded with a laser tag outing needs to recognize that his desires might not be the same as his team’s desires.

Think about some of the things we hear teammates say behind closed doors. These are clues to our differences:
  • “She’s too nice to clients”
  • “I just don’t trust her, but I can’t really tell you why”
  • “Don’t tell him – he’ll just make you look at his to-do lists again”
  • “He takes way too long to make tiny decisions”

How, then, does a team excel despite (or because of) an overwhelming variety of personalities and interactions? There is hope. I help teams all the time work more effectively and happily with people who are vastly different. The key lies in this simple solution to handling our differences well: focus on one difference at a time, one person at a time. Here are 3 steps to help your team do it.

1. Recognize one specific difference. Just one. In fact, you probably have already done this. You’ve noticed Joe likes to think out loud, Fred prefers to put on headphones and disappear into his cubicle to think, and Linda would rather stand in front of a whiteboard with 3 different colors of markers to help her look at a problem visually. None of these approaches is right, better, or even necessarily more productive. They are just different. A few common differences to consider when you are trying to find “just one”:
  • preference for speaking up in a meeting or not;
  • amount of time and research needed to make decisions;
  • preferred noise level;
  • ability to arrive at a meeting on time;
  • shake hands or hug; and
  • to-do lists vs. deadlines.

2. Ask your teammate about your observation. Ask Joe, “I’ve noticed you like to talk through solutions. What can I do to help you?” This approach will help you better understand why Joe processes this way, as well as indicates your openness to working differently (and effectively) within the team dynamic.

3. Make an effort to be kinder and more patient, and do it in the way your teammate needs. You can ask Linda if she would like any help sketching at the white board, give Fred the time he needs by himself to think, or offer to buy Joe a cup of coffee so he can talk through his ideas with you. You don’t have to be a leader to do any of these things, but you can set an example for your team by doing them.

Maybe noticing a single difference seems too basic. Perhaps being kinder in just one way – a way that will be more meaningful to your teammate – feels like too small a thing. Yet we have already established that our differences can make it difficult to understand one another. Who am I – or you – to judge one kindness as too small to have meaning? Individual differences don’t have to cause great stress and misunderstandings. Not even when it is the norm for your team culture. Each of us has the power to see diverse strengths among our vast differences – one difference at a time.

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1 Comment

  1. Gary Monti

    Agree that noting even one difference in a neutral manner can go a long way towards opening up pathways of empathy. It begs the question, “What else don’t I know about this person?”
    My experience is consistent with what is stated – let go of self, and just “be” with the person. Makes it a lot easier to find connection points as well as seeing the value they bring to the team.