Why Productive People Work Well With Their Opposites

If you’re a cobra, find yourself a mongoose.

Why Productive People Work Well With Their Opposites
[Image: Flickr user Digitalpimp]

Opposites, as you may know, attract.


But they also do something else: Pairing up with someone who provides complementary contrast may actually make the both of you more productive.

“We’re self-medicating with the other person’s personality,” says Leigh Thompson, a professor of management at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and author of the Creative Conspiracy. “When you have a deep work-style diversity, that’s going to help groups be much more productive. I need to find someone who drives me nuts, but that person is going to be a good check on my behavior.”

She calls it the reverse Noah’s Ark theory: Instead of two of every kind, you’re looking for two of every complement.

So when you’re looking for your cofounder or at-work BFF, find someone who drives you crazy in just the right way.

Organizational psychologists talk about automators and assessors: While the automator acts, the assessor considers. The assessor might think the automator is reckless, while the automator thinks the assessor is always delaying. Which, strangely enough, is why they work so well together.

If you’re an automator, you shouldn’t work with another automator, Thompson says. Why? Because you’ll be tripping over one another to get the same things done. Then there’s your bias toward action, which can be super helpful in getting things done super quick but will leave you with blind spots, since your psychological makeup isn’t one that wants to take the time to consider.


That’s where the complementary contrast comes in.

The “anti-self”: a perfect match!

Charles Van Vechten and Les Kollegian, the partners of Jacob Tyler, a San Diego-based design firm, get along perfectly–that is, like a cobra and a mongoose. As Van Vechten writes at Entrepreneur:

He thinks I’m meticulous, and I think he’s messy and impulsive. But it’s because of these differences that our business partnership works well. If it didn’t, I doubt we’d have been able to quadruple the size of our company despite the tough economy.

Our secret? I like to think we are each other’s anti-selves.

Why the contrast works

As Van Vechten notes, most creative shops are run by two people with the same backgrounds–say in print design, marketing, or some other such discipline. After all, people like people who are like them.

That homogeneity is great if you want to always agree. And have the same ideas. But maybe not if you want to grow, Van Vechten says, since a pair with “the same skills and methodology will end up duplicating work, or worse, stepping on each other’s toes.”


But when you partner with someone with differently developed skills, the organization gains strengths that neither person has individually–allowing you to divide and conquer a broader range of tasks. Plus, you’ll make better decisions, since you’ll be more diverse.

Hat tip: Entrepreneur


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.