Embrace the negative nigels and nancys in your organisation and you might be surprised, says Stuart Duff.
Working with someone who has a negative outlook can be taxing. Maybe they’re pessimistic, regularly complaining about clients and workloads. They might nit-pick, criticising and questioning details which seemingly have no real impact on the bigger picture.
Or they may be direct and confrontational, seemingly putting down every idea that comes their way.
We’ve all worked with people like this, and we know how uncomfortable it can be to have them casting doubt and negativity over the team. As a result of this discomfort we tend to avoid or move away. Instead, we’re naturally drawn to people who exhibit what we deem to be socially desirable characteristics, such as enthusiasm, cheerfulness and spontaneity.
Research shows that the three most attractive personality characteristics are sociability, emotional stability and enthusiasm. Why? Probably because we feel safe with people who show these traits. Because they are less of a risk. Because we find it easier to trust them.
However, the surprising truth is that with the right approach and management from their leaders, people who exhibit less ‘desirable’ behavioural traits can almost certainly become some of the most valuable members of a team.
Being genuinely inclusive as a leader is about creating an environment in which everyone has an opportunity to contribute and where everyone will actively seek out different perspectives to improve outcomes.
As a leader, it’s easy to get on well with compliant, enthusiastic, outgoing colleagues. The real challenge is handling subtle differences. Being genuinely inclusive as a leader is about creating an environment in which everyone has an opportunity to contribute and where everyone will actively seek out different perspectives to improve outcomes.
Translated into a team environment, the leader will realise when and how they over-rely on some individuals. They will recognise when they give trust to some, but not to others, and consciously challenge themselves on this. They will believe that inclusion is not just about obvious and visible differences, but much more often about subtle and uncomfortable behavioural differences.
There are a number of behavioural traits that will appear – on the surface – to be a hindrance in the workplace. The most common traits are below, but I would argue that these ‘negative’ traits often provide a competitive edge when properly harnessed.
Quiet and reserved
We often communicate less with people who are serious, more reflective and don’t share their thoughts spontaneously. We tend to allow them to sit quietly, rather than creating opportunities, and the time and space to express their views.
In reality, when prompted, these people are likely to have given more thought to problems and will offer valuable opinions. They will have reflected more than many of their colleagues and may well have considered all of the options.
We shy away from people who are more direct and assertive in their views, because the idea of getting into arguments or being spoken down to naturally makes us uncomfortable.
In reality, those who come across as opinionated can spur us to challenge the norm, think differently and add value to our own ideas. They’ll drive a team to re-think weaker suggestions and further develop strong ideas.
Some people have a tendency to worry outwardly, causing others to worry too and making them difficult to work with. What we tend to forget is that anxiety is principally made up of a desire to not let ourselves down and a fear of failure.
In reality, when focusing their anxious energy on doing rather than feeling, these individuals can be very high-energy and committed team members who pay more attention to their work and deliver better results. Those who feel more anxiety also tend to be more sensitive to the feelings of their colleagues.
We can often feel uncomfortable around people who are pessimistic, as they can closely guard opinions and ideas, forming a perception of disinterest or mistrust.
In reality, when allowed to voice their thoughts, ‘pessimists’ have often considered a problem in greater depth and can challenge group thinking by suggesting valuable alternative opinions. It’s the reason that someone with a pessimistic outlook will usually describe themselves as a realist.
Some people have the ability to detach themselves emotionally and appear as though they care very little about others. They can be difficult to work with because of their perceived lack of empathy, warmth and concern for their colleagues.
In reality, those who tend to be more tough-minded have an ability to make more objective and detached decisions, where others may struggle due to concern for the reaction or judgement of their team colleagues.
It can sometimes be irritating to work with people who are overly detail-focused. They concentrate on what seem to be minute or irrelevant details, and often get stuck on specific issues until they’re resolved.
In reality, a strong focus on details brings greater awareness of quality to a team, by noticing flaws and faults in ideas and offering very specific solutions to problems that may evade other members of the team.
Discussions of diversity, bias and exclusion in the media often focus on gender and race, and it’s essential that these areas are addressed. However, the hidden value of undesirable behaviour means that leaders must also consider diversity from a personality perspective.
The issue here is, without question, one of inclusivity. To foster a team environment in which all personality types are given the space they need to operate and thrive, and to ensure valuable team members aren’t overlooked, leaders should be aware of three considerations.
First, demonstrate clear and mindful decision-making
Leaders should be constantly analysing situations, considering the facts and weighing up how their team is equipped to respond. Showing this kind of thinking helps to demonstrate to a team that their various strengths and pressures are being considered, and ensures their various skills are applied where they can be of most use.
Second, build strong relationships
Building rapport with someone is a vital part of establishing acceptance and understanding. This is especially important when a member of a team may appear on the surface to have a challenging personality.
Fostering a good rapport among a team helps to create an environment where genuine communication can take place, ideas can be developed, connections made and productive relationships formed. This will ultimately help team members who might commonly be shunned to play a more active role.
Third, encourage an inclusive culture
Simply bringing people together and calling them a team doesn’t make them one. There must be mutual trust, cooperation, support and commitment – in other words, a shared identity. A leader should never write off a team member just because they might sometimes be difficult to work with. Everyone has something to offer. It’s simply a case of adapting the approach to bring out the best in each person.
It’s natural to feel uncomfortable around negativity; especially if you have to lead or develop a professional relationship with the person. It can likewise be easy to gravitate towards people who are easier to connect with, giving them more responsibility, praise and attention than their colleagues, sometimes without even realising.
To build a collaborative, open and successful team, where all personalities are valued and cooperation comes naturally, be aware of what skills a colleague’s behaviour might be hiding, the value that they can be encouraged to bring, and how we must consider personality in our efforts to improve inclusivity.
About the author
Stuart Duff is head of development at Pearn Kandola