Learning & Development

Adaptation Is Your Key to the Kingdom at Work

By Dr. Karlyn Borysenko

Chief Science Officer, RallyBright

February 7, 2019

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In a previous articleI defined office politics as nothing more than navigating the unwritten rules of the human workplace so you can influence the direction of the team. I also told you that the best way to gain influence is to make relationship building your goal. But how do you do that? It’s all about adaptation.

Every person you work with brings a different set of natural preferences and tendencies to work. These are the things that we do without thinking about it – our default state. For example:

  • Some people prefer a fast-paced work environment with lots of different projects going on. Others prefer a more moderately paced environment with just a few projects on their plate.
  • Some people love nothing more than to spend their days engrossed in spreadsheets full of numbers, seeking to understand every detail. For others, that type of work would make their head explode – they prefer bullet points and big picture detail.
  • Some people bring a natural skepticism to work that can help identify problems that might come up. Others are more naturally accepting of new ideas and approaches.
  • Some people love the social interaction and collaborative nature of working on a team of people. Others prefer to work by themselves in a more solitary environment.
You get the idea. And that brings us to our next principle:

Office Politics Principle Three: Understand and adapt to people’s natural tendencies to build better relationships.

People are like cats and dogs. A dog is not fundamentally better than a cat, and a cat is not fundamentally better than a dog. They’re just different, and there’s nothing wrong with having a preference for one over the other.

The same is true of work style. Our work style is made up of our different natural tendencies. There is no right or wrong, no best work style or worst work style – everyone is just different, each with their own set of strengths and with glorious flaws.

The problem is that when our co-workers have a different perspective, communicate differently than us, or want to try an approach we wouldn’t have selected, we see tend to judge that as a bad thing and it causes us stress. When things stress us out, we go into flight, fight or freeze: We either come at the situation aggressively (fight), try to escape the stressor by running away (flight), or do nothing to solve for it (freeze). It’s easy to think of these responses in reference to escaping from physical danger, but at work they manifest a bit differently. You might get into an interpersonal conflict with a colleague (fight), ignore critical feedback you’ve been given in order to escape conflict (flight) or keep silent in a meeting in the face of adversity, even though you might kick yourself for being passive later on (freeze). None of these responses allow you to proactively engage and find a way to flow with the different work styles at play.

Step back to gain perspective

What if, instead, you could step back, take a beat, and remind yourself that there’s nothing to worry about in the situation – you just see things differently. The reality is that, just like cats and dogs, no work style or approach is fundamentally good or bad. It’s just different. When you understand the unique work styles of your colleagues, that’s when you can adapt by making the effort to approach and work with them in a way that makes them feel comfortable, even if that’s outside of your comfort zone. This is how we can learn to flow with the different styles that exist around us, and build better working relationships in the process.

Adaptation starts by learning each other’s preferences.

You might get lucky and work with a group of people with exactly the same work style as you, but the reality is that’s not very likely to happen. We don’t want those very human differences in work style to be the reason that you don’t make progress towards accomplishing your goals. So, the first step is to make an effort to understand the work styles that exist around here. Here are some ways you can do that:

Take advantage of assessments.

I’m a very big fan of the DISC profile. It’s a tool I’ve administered with thousands of people and, when it’s assessed well, it’s one of the most freakishly accurate ways available of learning about your work style, the work style of others, and show you how to adapt to meet them in the middle. That said, there are other assessments out there that you might prefer as a tool to help you. Check in with your workplace to see which ones they use and inquire if you can take one if you haven’t already. It’s your ultimate shortcut.

Mirror them.

If you don’t have access to assessments, the next best thing is to pay attention to what people do and then give it back to them. For example, if you work with someone who sends short, to-the-point emails, don’t send long emails in response. Try to whittle it down to the main points, or at least add a summary on top they can scan. Or if you are working with one who tends to work more slowly and wants to make sure all the loose ends are tied up, just slow your pace down a bit to meet them. These don’t need to be grand gestures – just small changes that allow you to learn what your colleagues respond well to.

Up your listening game.
Repeat after me: Waiting for your turn to talk is not the same as deeply listening to other people. Be mindful of which one you’re doing: When other people are speaking, are you tuning in or are you mentally rehearsing the point you want to make when they are through speaking? People will tell you what they want, but those words mean nothing if no one is there to hear them.

Stop defaulting to email.

Email is great for many things: scheduling meetings, sharing files, letting someone know you’re running late, etc. However, it is not great for anything that could be considered a human interaction. So many relationships at work are destroyed (or never get off the ground) because people conduct the majority of their communication over email. Talking to your colleagues in person allows you to understand them on a more human level. And if you are in different geographic areas, try video chat or the phone. The benefit of being able to hear someone’s tone more than outweighs the slight inconvenience.

But most of all, show people you support them by having their back. Only 38% of people in the United States trust other people. This is foundational to an effective relationship. And it can only be developed by showing your colleagues that you deserve to be trusted. That’s what having their back means – proving that you are going to lift them up rather than push them down. And this is binary – you either have someone’s back or you don’t. As you start to understand the preferences and needs of your colleagues, show them you’re one of the good guys. The more people trust you, the more they will let their guard down. That’s when that relationship starts to develop and you can really get to the good stuff.

This is not about manipulation.

It might be easy to look at adaptation as a way to manipulate colleagues to get what you want. But that’s a very cynical way to look at it. Remember, we are learning to use office politics for good, not for evil! Positive relationships are grounded in trust, and trust is not one-sided. It has to go both ways. By adapting to your colleagues’ needs, you’re creating the opportunity for them to drop their guard and return the favor.

In the most ideal situation, you would not work in an environment where a discussion about adaptation would even be necessary. You would do it naturally with the understanding that you’re giving your team members what you want from them. This is about understanding that every person you work with brings something valuable to the table. The best outcomes for everyone always come when diverse viewpoints are brought together.

And that leads us into our next principle in your office politics playbook: Always look for the win-win. 

Give your team the tools and skills to work well together and reach new levels of success. Sign up for a free demo of RallyBright’s Resilient Teams™ assessment. Want to read more from me? Head over to Zen Workplace

A version of this article was previously published on Forbes.com, where it’s part of a series explaining the psychology behind office politics. If you haven’t yet, read the full series.

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