You Don’t Agree With Me? Good!

A recent situation at work reminded us of the challenges leaders face when they bring people together with different perspectives and temperaments. In our case, two employees, both incredibly creative, were having a difficult time working with each other. The root cause of the conflict was a fundamental difference in the way they saw and interacted with the world. Development experts refer to this as a person’s temperament.

Vive la differénce

Temperament theory goes way back—all the way to Hippocrates. In today’s work environment, the two best known temperament models are the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Keirsey Temperament Sorter. We like the model as explained in What Makes You Tick & What Ticks You Off by Jim Harden and Brad Dude. Harden and Dude use the four elements of Water, Air, Fire, and Earth to depict the four temperaments that have been identified to describe the differences in people.

  • People with a predominant Fire temperament are into passion, performance, freedom from hindrance, and making a splash.
  • People with a predominant Earth temperament are into duty, responsibility, stability, and social identity.
  • People with a predominant Water temperament are into people, empathetic relationships, causes, and promoting the greater good.
  • People with a predominant Air temperament are into logic, rational thinking, knowledge, and whatever work they hold sacred.

While people have characteristics of all four temperaments in their personalities, everyone has a bigger part of themselves in one of four temperaments. In our case, one of our two employees was a Fire temperament and one was an Earth temperament. Although they produced great work, there was a constant rub created by fundamental differences in the way they saw the world and in what they valued.

It’s exactly this type of ongoing conflict that causes people and organizations to tend to favor, partner with, and seek out others who are a similar temperament to themselves. Everyone enjoys working with others who see the world the same way that they do. But there is a long-lasting cost associated with this approach that catches even seasoned professionals off guard.

Yes, things feel smoother—and easier—and people get along better when they're like-minded. But in the long-term you risk becoming one-sided, typecast, and susceptible to blind spots. All of these qualities negatively impact you and your organization’s potential, creativity, and ability to innovate.

As a leader it’s important to understand and weigh the benefits of bringing together people with fundamentally different perspectives. The long-term benefit is there—but in the short term, be prepared for a bumpy ride as people work through their differences. Everyone involved will have to learn how to relate, not judge, and truly appreciate each other’s differences.

All four temperaments are necessary

You need all four perspectives. For example, picture life without Fire, which is what so many companies and industries are lacking today. While Fire can be challenging to deal with, it would be a mistake to summarily reject people who represent this temperament. Fire has benefits—and while a life without fire might be uneventful, it’s also unimaginative, less innovative, boring, and cold.

Imagine an organization without the stabilizing Earth temperament. Some organizations aren't grounded. They don't really have the responsible guardians and keepers of the past who provide stability. These organizations can run into trouble because they may not have the staying power to build the traditions, stamina, and stick-to-itiveness that are required for success.

Imagine a life without Water. Sometimes we complain about people in HR and those who champion other people's causes. But think of how lopsided the world would be without those who say "no," "wait a second," and "that's not fair."

Finally, imagine a workplace without Air—the thoughtful, rational people who ask, "How can we do something better?" and "Is this system the best way?"

It’s easy to take the short road and to cut out the people who aren't like you. But every time you do that, you rob yourself of important resources and a wider perspective. The strongest organizations are the ones that bring Fire, Earth, Water, and Air together in a creative tension and then manage those dynamics. These organizations are more change-ready, more transparent, more able to grow, and more sustainable.

Take advantage of differences

The best decisions consciously take diverse opinions into account. World-class organizations have a built-in practice of asking "Who is missing from weighing in on this decision?" Organizations that don't ask this question on a regular basis are asking for trouble. Do you have a balanced group of people for important decisions and work teams—or do you tend to favor highly specialized and potentially myopic groups who look at things from only one temperament perspective? This type of institutional bias can get in the way of making good decisions—especially decisions that are supposedly for the greater good of all. You want to consider the perspective of everyone involved.

No temperament has a monopoly on wisdom. These four temperaments exist for good reason: They all have value. Use them and thrive.

Scott Blanchard is the Executive Vice President of Client Solutions for The Ken Blanchard Companies®. Ken Blanchard is the best-selling co-author of The One Minute Manager® and 50 other books on leadership. You can follow Ken Blanchard on Twitter @KenBlanchard or @LeaderChat and also via the HowWeLead and LeaderChat blogs.

[Image: Flickr user James Vaughan]

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  • Laura Dragomir

    Very interesting article; even more interesting when combined with the cultural differences. As many will argue, there is something else deepened within our roots and that is the national culture, of primordial importance business-wise.