When it comes to strong relationships, is it ‘opposites attract’ or ‘birds of a feather flock together’?

In the course of our research and consultancy programmes, we spend a lot of time analysing and advising on interpersonal chemistry at work. We can’t claim to have the answers when it comes to love, but if it’s effective working relationships you’re looking for, we’ve got a few tips.

Context is king

Ever thought, ‘He’s a great guy, but I couldn’t work with him…’? There’s a huge difference in the qualities we look for in colleagues and in friends. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to find people who fit into both categories, but often, we might work well with someone we wouldn’t get along with socially, and that’s OK. On the other hand, sometimes we might be surprised that we don’t work well with friends – and many a start-up has fallen victim to this problem.

When we measure personality and apply this to a work context, we can flatten these nuances, because we make an implicit assumption that behaviour is uniform across different situations, and that’s not always true. We know that smart people adapt to their environments, and that can leave us working with a lot of unknowns, if personality is our only yardstick.

By understanding how our behaviours shape our working styles – and impact those we work with – we can begin to look for those who’ll provide the yin to our yang.

Opposites attract, but we need common ground

We know that it’s generally good news to work with those whose contributions complement our own. In Belbin terms, this means seeking out people who have different Team Role strengths to ours. Ideally, our preferred Team Roles should coincide with their least preferred roles and vice versa. This diversity ensures that we’ve got all bases covered. To do this, we have to get to grips with our own shortcomings and appreciating others’ talents. If we get it right, it should be a relief to hand over the reins in those areas and play to our strengths.

A driven, dominant person who is good at making things happen might work well with a supportive, diplomatic individual who is adept at smoothing things over in their wake and can ensure that things remain good-humoured (a Shaper-Teamworker relationship, to use our lingo). Or perhaps a true creative who needs a practical counterpart to hold them to account and turn ideas into action? We call these contributions Plant and Implementer, respectively.

But that isn’t the end of the story. Maybe you’ve experienced working with someone whose approach is fundamentally different to your own? No matter how hard you try, you each come at things from a different angle, and you spend more time arguing the approach than actually getting things done.

We find that, whilst opposite strengths are key, some degree of commonality is also important. Belbin also measures ‘manageable roles’ – these are the behaviours that we can adopt from time to time and even cultivate in the right environment. Having a manageable role or two in common can oil the wheels and allow each half of the pairing to feel heard.

Put yourself in the market

Too often opposites don’t attract, because they don’t enter the same working environment and interact. We work in a so-called ‘team’ (spoiler alert: it’s usually a group, rather than a team) of like-minded people all doing the same job, so we operate in a bubble and never derive the benefit of a different point-of-view.

This bubble becomes our comfort zone – we know we need to look outside our usual circle, but perhaps we lack the confidence to start the conversation or we fear that projects or plans will be dragged off-course by a new collaboration.

Just as in any relationship, it’s important to understand what we have to offer and what we want to gain from a work pairing – the purpose, the ‘why’. When we know others’ strengths and our own, we’re well-placed to call on the right person at the right time and crucially, to set and manage expectations.

Where do I start?

Before you can begin looking for workplace harmony, you need to understand your own strengths and limitations. The Individual Report is the place to start. When considering a new pairing, our Working Relationships Report can help you by measuring your behaviours alongside your colleague’s, so you can identify synergies, gaps or overlaps. For more information, why not check out our post on working in pairs or get in touch with us today?

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