Not Just Child’s Play: Learning Chemistry From Kindergarteners

By Kim Christfort

May. 21, 2015

I have children in kindergarten, so I spend a lot of time talking about opposites. Big vs. little, hot vs. cold, and, my favorite, yummy vs. yucky.

This focus on dichotomies isn’t unique to childhood. When I work with executives in our Leadership Center for Clients, I hear them talk about opposites as well, largely in reference to other executives. Idealistic vs. skeptical. Data-driven vs. intuitive. And my favorite: reasonable vs. unreasonable. That last one in particular captures my attention because it isn’t just an observation; it’s an interpretation. And that’s where things can get interesting.

The difficult thing about opposites is that they are, by their very definition, adversarial.  Opposing, opponent, opposition — all of these things suggest contrary tension at best, conflict and hostility at worst.

When people mentally label something as being “opposite,” they are already inclined to think of that thing as a threat, as something negative and unreasonable. In business this often creates unpleasant friction and clashes that can harm morale and impede organizational progress. Yet we can’t solve this by working only with people who are similar, since diversity of style is not only desirable but optimal to a well-performing team. So, what to do?

Let’s revisit the classroom for a moment. Our challenge with opposites is the philosophical equivalent of a simple math problem. If we think of a characteristic as being positive to one extreme and another characteristic as being negative to the opposite extreme, then when you put them together, they cancel one another out. Like (5) + (-5) = 0. This is literally a zero-sum game.

Alternatively, we can shift our thinking away from antithetical absolutes and toward complements. A complement is defined as “a thing that completes or brings to perfection.”  Think puzzle pieces. Each shape dramatically different, but when they’re put together, they create a full picture. And just as importantly, they are better together than on their own.

It is amazing what a difference it makes to reframe personality dynamics this way — to consider how types can pair with one another vs. fixating on negative differences. I am reminded of a business chemistry lab I facilitated with a chief financial officer who, in the first quarter of his tenure, wanted to improve interactions with his major stakeholders. Using the business chemistry patterns to visualize the different styles in the group, it became clear that this CFO prided himself on his ability to make tough calls quickly and was frustrated by a colleague who was “incapable of making decisions.” His frustration stemmed from a perception that this different way of thinking was an impediment to progress.

As we dug into the situation further, we saw that the reason this colleague took more time to make decisions was because he was evaluating all the data and ensuring there wasn’t undue risk — characteristics typical of the “guardian” pattern — whereas the CFO would quickly discard what he saw as extraneous data in order to move things along — characteristics typical of the “driver” pattern.

We then went through a series of interactive exercises and discovered that the colleague’s high level of meticulousness was essential to specific business processes that the CFO himself had neither the time nor inclination with which to deal. The CFO realized how in these instances, the colleague could be a great complement to himself. In order to improve their working relationship, we didn’t go so far as to have him say to his colleague, “You complete me,” but we did suggest that he explicitly highlight and acknowledge the value of this work in their discussions.

We also identified other scenarios that didn’t require that same level of scrutiny.  In those instances, we determined that the CFO could help his colleague be more comfortable moving forward by making it clear that the risk of inaction — of delaying a decision — far outweighed the risk of proceeding more rapidly. By changing the way he looked at the situation, the CFO went from having a perceived “opponent” to a strong partner within the organization.

With the pace at which businesses need to move today, this kind of reframing isn’t a nicety; it’s a necessity. Companies can’t afford energy and time wasted on interpersonal conflict.  And since people are the building blocks of organizations, if they’re not working together, then companies may lack the necessary foundation for growth.

While I generally don’t encourage executives to act like kindergartners, with some exceptions, there are classroom lessons worth remembering. When it comes to human dynamics, stop thinking tug-of-war and start thinking puzzle pieces. That’s personality math, which really adds up.

Kim Christfort is a director at Deloitte. She also heads up Deloitte’s Leadership Center for Clients Group and leads U.S. Deloitte Greenhouses, which are permanent spaces designed to promote exploration and problem-solving away from business as usual. Comment below or email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

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