Dealing with disparate personalities requires communication

October 30, 2010
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I wonder how many opportunities are lost because of a failure to communicate. There is a famous scene in the movie “Cool Hand Luke” in which the main character, played by Paul Newman, is struck from behind by a prison guard as the warden states, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

In business, a failure to communicate can be fatal. During my business career, I have become aware of several types of communication “gaps” — reasons people don’t understand each other due to dissimilar life experiences or circumstances.

There is the introvert/extrovert gap. Analytical people and promoters need to communicate with each other. Donald Trump is one of Americas leading promoters. Have you ever heard the names of any of his analysts? They do not have their names in neon lights, but I am sure they are well paid. They don’t get public credit for The Donald’s successes, but you can bet that if they calculate wrong, it will make headlines and it will be Trump’s name and picture that is used to report a failure.

There is the age gap. It is sometimes difficult for older people to realize that what once was isn’t anymore. I passed the CPA exam in 1972; public accounting has changed dramatically since then. Lloyd Yeo of Yeo & Yeo in Saginaw related the story of a CPA who was told the profession should be known as SABs: shiny-assed bookkeepers. As the business world has come to recognize the value of good financial council and accountability, that concept has faded. Manufacturing, law and, I guess, just about every profession has experienced dramatic change. Look at the Big Three. It was a classic case of the good old boys being out of touch with the new order. It could happen to you.

There is the gender gap. I grew up with six brothers and no sisters, so this is one gap I have experienced. Men and women see the world differently. I read a book about the American auto manufacturers that pointed out the importance of gender differences. American auto manufacturing executives dreamed of the muscle cars of their high school years and made cars reflecting that dream. Japanese car makers asked women what they wanted in a vehicle. You know who won. It is sometimes difficult — but necessary — for men to understand women and vice versa. Listen to everyone with an open mind and try to understand why their perspective is different than yours.

There are culture gaps. People in northern Michigan, for instance, often have a different attitude about life than people in Michigan’s southern cities. You may work with a person to whom opening day of deer-hunting season has almost religious significance. Your feelings may be negative about hunting, but the other person may have grown up in a culture that valued marksmanship. You're not going to change your opinion nor are they. Accept the cultural gap and agree on what you can agree on to get the job done. Now change cultural differences in Michigan to such differences in the rest of the world: That's the world we live in today.

There are economic gaps. People who grew up wealthy may have a different attitude about life than those who grew up in austere circumstances. A child who grows up in a wealthy family may ask why life seems unfair. A child who grows up in a middle-class or a poor family has learned at a young age that life is unfair. Hopefully, both understand that the other's reality is colored by their circumstances. What one person considers normal, another sees as exceptional. One person goes to the college of their choice; another goes to the college they can afford. When these people work together, things can be said innocently that may sound like bragging. It takes a real effort to work together in harmony, understanding that the other person sees the world differently due to the circumstances in which they grew up.

There is a gap between employers and employees. Some people were meant to be employers; some were meant to be employees. In the military, it’s officers and enlisted people. The people who take the initiative to lead often find people who don't have that trait difficult to understand. But there are people who come to work at a designated time and leave at the designated time every day. Both leaders and laborers have life goals. They may not be at all similar, yet both groups must work together.

The worst example of poorly handling this relationship is General Motors. Management and labor almost hated each other. The product suffered and finances suffered. The largest manufacturing company in the world imploded. This situation replicates itself on a smaller level on a regular basis. It may not make headlines, but for those who find themselves unemployed due to management and labor's inability to get along, it is still a tragedy.

Management is generally considered to be responsible for seeing that different personalities get along at work. But there's a bigger issue. Most people work with someone with whom they don't feel comfortable. It is up to the individual to take responsibility for getting along with others.

Business owners must not only be aware of their impact on workers, but also of the impact workers have on each other. In other words, they have to promote communication between the disparate people who work in their organization. Many entrepreneurs have high-energy, outgoing personalities and thrive on challenges. These extroverts tend to be better-than-average speakers, but in order to deal with disparate personalities, they also have to be better-than-average listeners. For an extrovert, that’s difficult but essential.

Paul A. Hense, CPA, is president of Hense & Associates, a local accounting firm. He also is past chairman of the National Small Business Association and the Small Business Association of Michigan.

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