How to successfully handle differences in the workplace and build a cohesive team

Do you ever wish there was a better way to handle differences with your team? 

To create an environment where everyone is able to express their wants, opinions, and perspectives that bring out the best ideas instead of “My way is the only right way”?

All while staying level-headed without getting caught in the emotions of others?

The answer is differentiation.

What is Differentiation?

The word differentiation comes from Murray Bowen, the father of the Family Therapy movement back in the 1950’s. 

According to Bowen, Differentiation is “your degree of resilience to the interpersonal contagiousness of another person’s anxiety or other strong feelings.” 

Before you jump to conclusions that differentiation is psychobabble. It’s not.

In everyday language, I think of differentiation as the degree to which you can stay in the tension of a challenging situation while staying grounded, non-reactive even when met with the strong feelings of others. 

Here are 10 examples of what differentiation looks like when successfully handling differences in the workplace and build a cohesive team:

  1. Gain Self-awareness about what’s important to you
  2. Speak up about what’s important to you, especially at the risk of others disagreeing and alienating from you
  3. Clarify your boundaries, without angst 
  4. Stay grounded, non-reactive while listening to other’s points of view
  5. Listen fully without taking other’s perspective personally
  6. Check back to make sure you understand other’s perspective before problem-solving
  7. Stay genuinely curious by asking open-ended questions
  8. Stay connected with those you have differences with while managing the tension of having differences
  9. Take actions to convey you care about the success of the team and for the best ideas to surface to move the team forward 
  10. Choose your reaction consciously, regardless of what others do or don’t do

Why is Differentiation Important in the Workplace?

Whether you are offering a different perspective during a staff meeting, addressing a problem with your boss, or asking for buy-in from your board of directors, being grounded in differentiation will empower you to take risks and create the conditions of collaboration and teamwork. 

Many of us fear that if we’re truthful about what we want, our opinions, or perspective it will create tension and rifts in relationships, especially with those who have different points of view. 

In contrast, when you practice and invite differentiation in others, you are actively contributing to innovative thinking, clarity in problem-solving, and greater productivity. 

Now more than ever, it’s essential for teams to have differentiated conversations where it’s safe for everyone to express their opinions and ideas in order to bring out the best solutions. 

When you do, teams are unstoppable.  

How can you bring differentiation to your workplace?

Believe or not, your degree of differentiation in the workplace is influenced by your family’s influence on your life.

Our family upbringing influences how we communicate and handle conflict based on behaviors modeled to us growing up.

If you grew up in a home where expressing your opinion was encouraged and valued, you have a greater chance of developing differentiation skills. 

Many of us grew up with messages such as “Children are to be seen, but not heard”. Children weren’t encouraged to express their wants, opinions, or perspective. 

Some grew up in families where if children spoke up, there was physical violence.

Others grew up in families where children were encouraged to express their wants, opinions, and perspectives and got their way. 

Looking at the influence of your family upbringing isn’t to blame, rather it’s to understand. When you understand, you can then take active steps to develop differentiation. 

All of us were influenced by our upbringing. The key is understanding those influences and how those influences are helping or hurting us as adults, including at work.

Developing the skill of differentiation 

Successfully handling differences and building a cohesive team starts with the leader’s degree of differentiation. 

When leaders stay in the tension of difficult conversations and invite others to express their wants, opinions, and perspective, it’s the difference between a team that gets divided or a team that comes together. 

To learn more about how your family upbringing has influenced your differentiation skills during conflict, take my free Workplace Family Factor®  assessment

About the author 

Bonnie Artman Fox, MS, LMFT works with executive leaders who want to gain self-awareness about the impact of their words and actions and up-level their interpersonal skills. 

Drawing from decades as a psychiatric nurse and licensed family therapist, Bonnie brings a unique perspective to equip executive leaders with the roadmap to emotional intelligence that brings teams together. 

Bonnie’s leadership Turnaround coaching program has an 82% success rate in guiding leaders to replace abrasive behavior with tact, empathy, and consideration of others. The end result is a happy, healthy, and profitable workplace…sooner vs. later.

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