How to Manage People With Different Work Styles
A friend of mine used to write copy at a major advertising agency. She liked to use what she calls the Don Draper method to develop creative ideas. It’s based on a line the “Mad Men” character said to his copywriter, Peggy Olson, on the award-winning TV show:
“Think about it deeply, then let it go. And an answer will pop into your head.”
Here’s how that translated for my friend: She attended the brainstorm, spent some time afterward writing down initial thoughts and then turned off her brain for a while – maybe by playing a dumb phone game – so that her subconscious could get to work. An hour later, her brain would be cooked, like bread turned into toast, and her ideas would pop to life. She would then turn to her computer, and amazing copy poured from her fingers.
Except. Management. Even though her copy won awards, even though clients loved her work, time and time again, management. A random VP or creative director would wander by her cubicle, see her on her phone playing “Angry Birds” and admonish her for “slacking off.” They judged her by what they saw, not by what she produced.
Eventually she realized no amount of five-star client reviews or industry rewards would be enough to have her boss let her work the way she wanted to work … so she quit and started her own firm. Now she plays Candy Crush until the cows come home and still produces extraordinary work.
Not wrong, just different
Her case isn’t unique. Conflicts often happen at work between “what a manager thinks working looks like” and how an employee actually gets work done. The argument might sound like a manager admonishing their employee by saying something passive-aggressive, like “At this company, we keep our desks neat and tidy.”
But what’s really going on is that the manager thrives on organization, but the employee works well in a pig pen of chaos. And even if the manager knows the employee is doing great work, they still get all self-centered and think, “Well, they could be doing *even better* work if they followed my organizational system!”
We also see this pop up a lot in offices vs. bullpens vs. work-quietly-from-home. Some people thrive in loud environments where they can hear their coworkers winning the sale from the next cubicle and cheer from theirs. For other people, that setup is an unproductive, cacophonous hellscape in which no real work will ever be done. I have one friend who is required to work in such a bullpen, so she goes to work at 4 a.m. every day in order to get half her day completed in peace and quiet.
The sad truth is that, usually, the employees who like to work out of the way of the noise – the neurodivergent folks (humans with autism, ADHD, ADD, etc.) – get the side-eye and a feeling that they’re now labeled a problem child for not working “the right way.”
With that in mind, let me reiterate: Different does not equal wrong. Write that down on a post-it and read it often.
What matters more, the means or the end?
So let’s take a second to examine … reality. This will require an exercise in empathy. I want you to sit quietly and close your eyes. Take a deep breath and imagine your perfect working environment. Maybe it’s a private office in a lush forest with a dog at your feet. Maybe it’s a bustling bullpen in the middle of New York City with people shouting “SELL SELL SELL!” all day long. Perhaps it’s a cute row of purple unicorn cubicles where everybody is dressed in their favorite onesie all day. Doesn’t matter, just go ahead and picture it.
Ahhh. Soothing. Delightful!
Now, imagine the exact opposite. Imagine your hellscape. If you love soft onesies, imagine working in a constricting business suit all day. If you prefer a bullpen of noise, imagine being forced to be quiet for eight straight hours. It will feel pretty uncomfortable, and you’ll want to find a way out …
Here’s the aha moment: Your nightmare is someone else’s dream. Your most-hated, least-productive way of working is the absolute ideal condition for another person. And those people exist – tens of millions of them – and some of them work for you.
But if this is the truth, then why does the current business collective still push people to conform? Has COVID taught us nothing? If a fully functioning adult employee knows what works, what doesn’t, and how to manage their own workload, should they constantly have to explain themselves? Should they be given the short shrift because they need some time to ruminate?
Do they have to continually stand up for themselves, like my copywriter friend, who found herself constantly saying “It’s my process!”
What’s a manager to do?
So, now that you know that your way is not the only way to get work done – that your way, whatever it is, should not be the way you force everybody to work – how are you supposed to determine the value of your employees? If you can’t evaluate someone by how well organized their desk is, or by how much they participate in company foosball, what’s left?
Results, that’s what.
Judge your employees solely and exclusively on the results they deliver in their position. Focus on the ends, not the means. Trust them to do the job you hired them to do, and if they’re doing it – the how shouldn’t matter.
(Side note: This requires you’ve defined the expected results. If you haven’t yet, check out this article).
I can hear you out there, asking the “What ifs” … What if a bullpen style is the only option available? What if people have to work together on group projects? What if a brilliant piece of copy is due rightnow?
Here’s a look at some of the ways you, as a manager, can work with everyone’s unique needs and still get work done … even if one loves the bullpen and the other loves a quiet, grassy field.
- Remember that the goal is to get the work done well, and on time. Trust the people you hired to be able to manage themselves and their workload. If you set an overall milestone or deadline for a project, work backwards and allow the team to set their own in-between milestones. Then, on an even more individual level, let each employee set theirs.
- Meet your employees on their level. The onus for adapting is on you, not them.
- Along those same lines, check your judgment at the door. No matter how odd something sounds to you, it’s just different – not wrong. If your marketing manager wants to go work in their car for a few hours because for some reason they get inspired there, let them. Did they turn in an amazing strategy after that? Then you all win.
- Be clear about your expectations. Allowing your employees to take more of the reins on how they go about their work doesn’t mean you can turn them loose without supervision. Set clear expectations and enforce deadlines. If someone says they are going to finish up after hours and have whatever it is that’s due to you in the morning, it should be there. And if not, you need to ask why.
- Pay attention and actually listen to what your employees are saying, because over time something magical happens. You, as a business owner or manager, begin to understand your coworkers and automatically know how to work with them best. And then you can put diverse coworkers together on a team BECAUSE of their different styles, and let each one use their superpower.
A practical example
This is a lot easier to grasp when employees work on individual goals. But what happens when there’s a conflict at work between two people who just seem like oil and water? Your first step is to examine not just their personalities, but also their work styles. For example, you could begin a project with not only a traditional kickoff, but also a meeting about working styles. Each person talks about how they best work, and the team as a whole uses that to their advantage to create the best work.
“Okay, so if you can finally focus around 2 p.m., why don’t I get my part done in the morning and then hand it over to you after lunch?”
“What if we each do our own rough draft, then have a meeting to merge them together?”
“Do you prefer in-person meetings or are you more comfortable on Slack?”
The idea is to separate “the thing” from “how each person does the thing.” Play to each person’s strengths and come up with a plan that leaves every team member feeling confident and supported.
In case that sounds familiar, that’s a core tenet of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Everyone has a different style of working that brings them the best results. Some are get-up-and-go first thing in the morning, some need a few hours to get out of granny gear, and others can only be creative with the TV blaring infomercials in the background.
As a manager, it’s your job to understand and acknowledge that your way isn’t the only way, and to offer your employees the leeway to do their best work when they are in the right state of mind to do it.
That doesn’t necessarily mean a free-for-all, but it does mean shifting focus to understand that the overall goal here is the end result – not the way your employees get there.