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Why It’s Better To Work With Someone Who Is Your Polar Opposite

Working with people who think like you can feel supportive and safe, but it's also limiting.

Why It’s Better To Work With Someone Who Is Your Polar Opposite
[Photo: Flickr user Stig Nygaard]

When it comes to love, opposites attract, but in business, the tendency can be to gravitate toward people who are similar. Having others agree with and support you feels energizing, but it can also be limiting, says Peter Arvai, CEO of the presentation software provider Prezi.

He and cofounders Péter (HP) Halácsy and Adam Somlai-Fischer have very different personalities: "Adam is a creative genius but he also needs a lot of time alone, sitting in his room tinkering with ideas," Arvai says. "HP is a party guy, and he’s helped organize community events throughout his career. I straddle those two extremes, neither yearning to be party guy nor wanting to be sitting alone and thinking."

The differences have created situations and strengths that Arvai credits for helping the trio grow their company to 60 million users.

Different Work Styles Bring A Variety Of Strengths

"Adam always creates delightful experiences for users, and that comes from spending time by himself," says Arvai. "HP has a way of finding shortcuts and thinking differently about any challenge, and that helps keep us on our toes. I focus on the bigger picture, and that’s where I help the team."

In fact, partners who are polar opposites can strike the perfect balance for an effective and successful business, says Ruth Palacio, a corporate trainer who specializes in teaching respect in the workplace. "Understanding the value of what each partner possesses, and respecting the differences of one another are two main ingredients necessary for a successful business partnership," she says. "A third is setting a clear structure outlining each partner’s role and specific function based on their identified strengths."

As a company grows, roles can change, too, and it’s important to communicate about how to best leverage each other’s strengths. Prezi recently experienced this with Halácsy, who is the chief technical officer. "HP went from an operative role to a strategic and less involved role," says Arvai. "We could have been worried that he would leave Prezi, but we sat down and found areas that are exciting for him. Now he’s spending time at conferences speaking about Prezi."

Give Each Other Space To Grow

A combination of personalities will provide a combination of points of view, and that can bring challenges. "The best resemblance to having this kind of setup is similar to a successful long-term relationship," says Arvai. "You go through phases of infatuation where you admire the differences, but it’s easy to end up disillusioned."

Get through situations by reminding yourself why you were intrigued by the other person. "There is a paradoxical connection between stability and connection and wanting excitement and novelty," he says. "When we face conflict, it’s important to reach back to positive experiences and use those to find a way forward. You also have to give each other space to grow and continually impress you in order for the dynamic of the relationship to evolve."

It’s also important to respect each other’s business value, adds Palacio. "Not understanding this may lead to a partner devaluing or undermining the differences in the partnership," she says. "Setting clear business boundaries surrounding individual strengths is helpful for working through the challenges. And asking a question is the quickest way to move away from judgment to curiosity, and understanding when there is difficulty accepting someone’s differences."

Let Go Of Your Ego

To work with someone who has a strikingly different personality, Arvai says you have to be willing to let go of your ego. "You can develop a profound relationship where you start learning about yourself and others," he says. "The relationship is so rewarding when there are differences. It has allowed me to expand the horizons for business and personal growth at same time."

The Prezi founders make a point of spending one or two days every other month together to connect. "It’s a little bit cliché, but it’s about quality time," says Arvai. "Most of the time it surrounds Prezi, but we also talk about our personal lives, our values and philosophy, what’s going on in the world, and what makes us happy. It gets very personal."

You can’t challenge yourself in the same way when you have other people reflecting back your personal biases, says Arvai. "If you want an accelerated track for growth and self-improvement, surrounding yourself with people who have differences is key," he says. "It doesn’t mean you have to accept everything the other person says, but it will help you learn if you can do a better job."

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