The key to winning people over at work is learning to “flex”

You shouldn’t become a different person and act completely out of character, but there’s a graceful way to accommodate others’ preferences and needs.
You shouldn’t become a different person and act completely out of character, but there’s a graceful way to accommodate others’ preferences and needs.
Image: REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin
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You can’t please all of the people, all of the time. But if you want to succeed in your job, sometimes you do need to please certain people, like your customers, your boss, or even key teammates. If those people are a lot like you, it’s probably not all that hard. Just do what comes naturally and you’ll likely be good to go. If they’re not much like you, it’s more complicated. Maybe you’re crazy imaginative and they’re utterly practical. Or perhaps you’re decidedly direct, while they’re exceedingly diplomatic. What do you do then? Much like raising your voice when talking to someone who doesn’t speak your language, doing more of what you’re naturally inclined to do won’t get you very far in that situation. So you need to do something else. We suggest “flexing.”

Flex is a funny word, because it can mean seemingly contradictory things—to bend and stretch, but also to tighten and contract. We like that apparent incongruity because the concept here is that sometimes you need to tweak your style to adjust to other people’s needs, while also being true to yourself. There’s an inherent and healthy tension in that. You shouldn’t become a different person and act completely out of character, but you should make an effort to accommodate others’ preferences and needs. It’s not about being inauthentic, but sometimes it is about doing the exact opposite of what you’re initially inclined to do.

Maybe you’re an adaptable, imaginative, risk-taker who’s trying to sell a new idea to a deliberate, detail-focused pragmatist. While we’re sure your creative genius knows no bounds, emphasizing how original and cutting-edge your idea is will likely backfire with such a person. Instead, you should remember that your love of novelty isn’t equally shared by everyone. Indeed, some people are quite skeptical about ideas that seem totally new or foreign and will likely respond more positively to change that’s incremental rather than disruptive. So when you’re hoping to get a practical person on board with your innovative idea, emphasize what’s not new—what’s not changing. This will likely feel counterintuitive to you, but it can get the detail-focused pragmatist comfortable with your idea more quickly.

Or maybe you’re the practical one and you’re trying to prove yourself to a creative thinker. Yes, we know…you can instantly see all the flaws in this person’s idea. So you should point them out, right? Not so fast. With a really imaginative person, it’s important to be a positive force. Pragmatists are great at spotting mistakes, identifying the cracks that make an idea impractical, and foreseeing what might go wrong with a plan. And there’s no question this is a valuable role to play, but people won’t always love you for it because it feels like a downer. You may simply be practicing defensive pessimism—spotting everything that could go wrong so that you can plan for it. But the problem is, this approach can sap the energy and enthusiasm of others, especially your most creative colleagues. Instead, try strategic optimism on for size. This practice involves envisioning the best possible outcome and then planning up a storm to make that happen. Both involve planning—your specialty—but the tone is quite different and is likely to impact others differently.

Just how much you need to flex, and how challenging it’s likely to be, depends on how different the person with whom you’re dealing is from you. If he or she is not exactly your opposite, but just has a few key differences—maybe you both love data and analysis, but this person likes to move more quickly—you might be able to flex a little less. Or, if the person is flexing toward you while you’re flexing toward them, then the stretch is a little less uncomfortable for both of you.

And what about when someone is really quite similar to you? Then you’re off the hook, right? Well actually, no. Like-type pairs can quickly find themselves in trouble. Two competitive people might end up in a power struggle, while a pair of consensus-seekers may get stuck in an endless loop of considering and reconsidering every option in light of all the input they’ve gathered. A couple of detail-focused people may analyze a problem to death and never make a decision, while a really creative duo might make very little progress on some really great ideas because they come up with even more great ideas before they can implement the first ones. So sometimes what customers, bosses, or teammates most need is a perspective that’s different from their own, but offered in a way that’s palatable to them. Maybe someone is a big-picture thinker who needs help sorting through the details of an implementation plan. Or he or she prefers to avoid conflict and wants some support in making the right decision even when it’s unpopular with others. If you find yourself in a situation with someone who is a lot like you, your goal is still to flex, but not in order to get closer to the other person’s style. Instead, you want to get a little bit further away.

Whatever framework you use to discus differences in working styles (At Deloitte, we call ours “business chemistry”), learning to flex can begin the same way. First, get to know yourself and your preferred working style. Do you act before thinking or think before acting? Would you rather compete or collaborate? Do you prefer structure and stability or openness and flexibility? This isn’t just navel-gazing. Such knowledge forms the basis of your understanding about how you can strengthen your relationships with others.

Second, recognize that your way of doing things is not the only way, the right way, or even the best way. It is simply your preferred way. And other people have different preferred ways.

Third, make an effort to understand the other people’s working styles. How do they communicate? What are their decision-making processes? How would you characterize their interactions with others? Ideally this is not a one-and-done process. We recommend forming an initial hypothesis about a person’s style and then refining it over time as you observe his or her behavior in different contexts.

Finally, because an ounce of action is worth a ton of theory (or so said Ralph Waldo Emerson), flex your style to give the other person more of what they want and need.

When laid out in this way, these steps seem almost painfully obvious. And yet, there’s a good chance you often fail to apply them. After all, the golden rule, which you likely learned in kindergarten, taught you to treat others they way you want to be treated, not the way they want to be treated. We often simply forget that our preferred way of doing things isn’t shared by everyone.

Do you really have to flex your style just because someone else prefers it? Certainly not. Of course it’s up to you, but it’s possible your working relationship may suffer if you don’t.

Flexing your style to jibe better with someone else’s isn’t about becoming someone different. It’s about developing empathy—understanding what someone else wants and needs from you in order to get in your corner. And you want that, because if you’re extraordinarily imaginative you could probably benefit from the balance of a little practicality, and vice-versa. If you’re brutally honest, it could pay to partner with someone who has a surplus of tact, and vice-versa again. You don’t need to turn yourself into a pretzel—just a little stretch can be all you need to make your relationships more powerful.

Kim Christfort is the national managing director of The Deloitte Greenhouse Experience group. Suzanne Vickberg is the Deloitte Greenhouse Experience social-personality psychologist.