How to Bridge our Differences at Work

Guest blog by Joanna Gaudoin

Our upbringings impact us more than we think, ultimately shaping what we consider “normal” and “how things should be done”. However, I often think too much emphasis is put on our differences as humans being down to culture. It can be too often used as an   excuse for not making the effort to work together and embrace our disparities. Differing “culture” can too easily be made a scapegoat.

I do a lot of work with clients on their challenges working with others, whether it is the boss that someone seems to have a continually strained relationship with, other senior people who never support someone’s proposals or the team member who can’t be motivated to pull their weight and fulfil their potential. There are some common themes. Yes, cultural differences can play a role, both in perception and reality but they are neither the whole “cause” nor the whole “answer”. Even if they were, the ways to tackle relationship difficulties wouldn’t really differ.

Being able to navigate “office politics” positively and build productive professional relationships are essential skills, in my view. None of us works in complete isolation (even during a pandemic). We are made to relate and have dependencies and interdependencies with other human beings so it isn’t an issue we should deprioritise – for the sake of our careers, the organisation we work for and our own happiness and wellbeing.

Here are my top five (very simple) tips for improving your relationships. You’d be surprised how rarely they are used but when they are, my clients see a marked improvement in their working life:

  1. Make time for relationships: we are not machines. If you only ever engage with someone when you want something from them or to respond to them about functional tasks, no real relationship will be built. Be human and listen to what people are really saying!
  2. Have in mind that we are all different: the whole premise of the useful and easy to read book Surrounded by Idiots, by Thomas Erikson, is that very few people in the world, if any, will think exactly the same as us about everything and behave the same as us in every situation. Therefore, with most people we will have frequent moments of not understanding. This has implications for how we engage with people and communicate.
  3. Remember we are in different situations; when thinking about how to engage with people, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes is imperative. We might want to share every glorious detail with our line manager about the big problem we have resolved. But is it really relevant or a good use of their time? We need to acknowledge what is useful for someone else and our motivations for wanting to do something a certain way.
  4. Consider how you react: It’s very easy to react based on an immediate emotion we feel in the moment. This is rarely a good way to go. If you need to, ask for time to consider what someone has said to you (there’s often pressure in our society to react immediately, which is not always a good thing) and consider your reaction based on the outcome you want to achieve, whether that relates to the situation and/or the relationship.
  5. Have the difficult conversations when you need to! Few would say they enjoy difficult conversations, but if a situation is either going to reappear anyway or cause ongoing resentment that could impact how you engage with someone, it is best to confront the situation. I could write another article on this topic alone! Think about how and when you start a difficult conversation.

How can you employ these tips? I’d suggest you start by considering your key relationships and scoring them so you can see which ones you need to work most on. Think honestly about which relationships you make an excuse for, whether it be differing culture or something else.

Behaviour change doesn’t happen overnight, so I’d suggest working on one or two changes at a time to forge longer-term habits.

If you liked this blog, you might also enjoy Eight Ways to Mitigate Stress and Build Resilience.