How To Work Outside Your Comfort Zone

July 5, 2011

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New managers frequently ask me how to cope with conflicts among colleagues, especially when working on and with global teams. I’ve headed up several internal startup businesses within IBM (IBM) and have a lot of experience working on teams whose members have strong differences of opinion.

That’s O.K. Sometimes the best solution to a problem emerges when opinions are challenged and colleagues need to negotiate with one another to reach consensus. While it’s not always comfortable working outside of your comfort zone, it often can result in more creative problem-solving.

Part of the reason major differences of opinion may arise about a situation is the trend by large organizations to rely on networks of people not just within their own organizations, but also outside of them, to drive sales. Depending on the industry, these networks may comprise customers, business partners, governments, or even academic organizations.

By using the collective intelligence of such networks, an organization can get work done more efficiently, identify what needs to be done, and take action. We see our networks not just as collections of people, but also as a collective means to accomplish our business goals. This approach differs greatly from the top-down, homogeneous approach of decision-making of the past.

But what does it take to understand and get the most of the expertise contained in these networks? How can you manage a network of people as part of your extended team to get work done and to encourage diversity of thought?

Here are some tips I have found especially useful:

• Surround yourself with people different from you. The tendency of many managers is to hire those who look and think as they do. I once had a manager who limited his hiring to employees who graduated from the same business school as he did. He knew what professors they had, what they studied, and what books they had read. He created a homogeneous clique that thought alike, did not challenge their colleagues, and delivered predictable results. It’s a better approach to break out of your comfort zone and embrace a cacophony of styles and opinions to achieve more innovative—and sometimes breakthrough—results.

• Also, think about diversity in terms of regional differences. When I worked in the Midwest, it was common to do business on a handshake, which was as good as a contract. That congenial style of business did not apply to the more conservative Northeast, and I adjusted my style accordingly.

• Encourage active collaboration to drive results. Most of us know how to collaborate, because otherwise we would not get work done. But collaboration can generate conflicting points of view. We don’t always want to be challenged by others, especially if we don’t think it will be constructive. Active collaboration leads to constructive dialogue, because by challenging others, the whole becomes better than the sum of its parts.

For example, when I led a new health-care business at my company, I was surrounded by a crazy quilt of opinions, genders, ages, and schools of thought. We were all polar opposites and strongly opinionated, and styles ranged from those of a “show me” marketing exec to a pragmatic mathematician. It was a living lab of personality types, and I had to force myself outside the comfort zone of my logical science background to influence my team members, when to speak up or push back, and to use our time together more for working and less for sparring.

• Hold your ground.

This is more of a state of mind than a negotiation strategy. Once I was in a senior strategy discussion, and someone came up with an idea. A few minutes later, someone more senior restated the same idea, claiming it as his, and nobody said a word. My colleague who came up with the original idea did not speak up or reassert himself. We see a lot of this with colleagues from other cultures who consider it impolite to speak up or contradict. How do you overcome this? If you are in a room with a team, write it on a whiteboard to document your ideas. If it’s a conference call, commend someone for agreeing with you. It’s a subtle approach, but it works.

• Winning isn’t everything.

That may seem counterintuitive, but compromise has a place in business. You can set the expectation that a debate or disagreement will result in a common understanding, rather than creating a winner and a loser. That’s especially important in today’s global marketplace, especially with a diversity of cultures, where it is essential to understand the point of view of others.

I have dotted-line responsibility for hundreds of people from other countries. While our project may have responsibilities to finish on time and come in on budget, I must also keep in mind that my colleagues in Australia, Brazil, or Romania face local managers with local expectations to drive revenue that must be juggled with mine. Sometimes I may have to go to their senior management and plead my case for my project and its global agenda. Part persuasion, part negotiation, it requires me to use my informal network of influential people to achieve common goals.

Today’s highly global, networked business environment requires different constituents to work together to solve problems, whether it’s within a company, with clients, or with local communities. The best way to overcome business and personal obstacles is to break out of your comfort zone, find common ground with those who have different objectives and constraints, and make it work for you.

Sharon Nunes is vice-president of Smarter Cities Strategy & Solutions at IBM.



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