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Use Your Work and Learning Styles to Build Better Professional Relationships

How to adapt to any team

Aja Frost
Aja Frost / March 28, 2017

Everyone has their own unique preferences, habits, and strategies for getting work done. These range from small things—like you can’t concentrate without ambient noise—to bigger ones—like you’d rather sit in a two-hour presentation about a topic than read a 50-page report about it.

The better you know your personal work style, the more you can tailor your approach and environment.

But it’s not so simple as soon as you introduce other people into the equation. Your team members have their own preferences, habits, and strategies—and those idiosyncrasies will occasionally clash with yours.

Maybe your boss sends you emails filled with half-baked ideas. She loves getting her thoughts down so you can run with them; however, you find it much easier to sit with her one-on-one and learn more about what she’s envisioning and which ideas you should prioritize. Or maybe you prefer to get everything in writing and skip real-time conversations altogether.

If you ignore these differences, you’ll sabotage your productivity. But if you insist on your way or the highway, you’ll sabotage your professional relationships.

Luckily, there’s a third option: finding a happy medium between your colleagues’ work styles and your own.

Forget the Golden Rule

Most of us know the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do to you.

While the sentiment is right, this principle can steer you wrong at work. After all, it takes for granted that everyone has the same preferences and goals as you—which isn’t the case.

Dave Kerpen, author of The Art of People: 11 Simple People Skills That Will Get You Everything You Want, explains we should instead follow the Platinum Rule: Do unto others as they would want done to them.

In practice, this means continually questioning your assumptions about how your coworkers want to work with you. Before you make a decision involving someone else, ask yourself, “Am I doing it this way or making this choice based on their work style or mine?”

For instance, maybe you always schedule meetings in the first half of the day because you like uninterrupted work time in the afternoons.

But if your report doesn’t feel truly awake until 11 a.m., an early morning check-in might not be productive.

Being aware of potential work style conflicts will help you avoid them. That’s not to say you should let others’ styles override your own all the time. To reach a happy equilibrium, know when you should compromise and when you shouldn’t.

Identify Your Deal Breakers

Before you can figure out where you’re willing to adapt, you need to identify your “deal breakers.” In other words, what are the work habits or practices critical to your productivity and happiness?

For example, a sales manager I know refuses to use Slack. He’s discovered it’s too difficult to get his everyday work done while fielding constant messages from his sales reps, the product team, customer success associates, marketers, etc. If you want to get in touch with this manager, you need to email him.

While this might be an extreme example, it gives you an idea of what your line in the sand might be. On the flip side, you could have a coworker who vastly prefers communicating over Slack. She thinks it’s far more efficient to answer a quick message than read and respond to an email.

To hone in your dealbreakers, ask yourself:

  • How do I like to send and receive information?
  • Which productivity tools do I use frequently?
  • Have I replaced or changed any work habits because they weren’t efficient?
  • Looking at the last few times I was frustrated with a team member, can I find any trends?
  • When do I feel the most and least focused?

Identify Your Non-Deal Breakers

Once you’ve pinpointed the elements of your work style you’re relatively unwilling to modify or cut out, think about what you’re less tied to.

To give you an idea, maybe you’re equally happy starting a project with a loose outline and timeframe as an extremely detailed, structured action plan. Or perhaps you don’t mind whether your coworkers want to collaborate in a shared Google doc or hold an in-person brainstorming team and whiteboard your thoughts.

Having this personal knowledge is incredibly powerful. Now, you can essentially negotiate with your team members to find a work style that suits you both.

Develop Compromises with Your Coworkers

Consider letting your coworkers know you’d like to talk about their work preferences and how you both can be as productive as possible.

Here’s a sample email template you can use for new team members:

Hi (coworker’s name),

I’m excited to work with you on (X project, Y goal, the Z team)! :) Do you want to chat for 20 minutes or so about our individual work styles and how we can help each other succeed?

Thanks,
(Your name)

Here’s an email template for team members you’re already working with:

Hey (coworker’s name),

Working with you on (X project, Y goal, the Z team) has been great so far. I’d love to learn more about your individual work style and preferences and if there’s anything you’d like to modify about how we work together.

Do you have 20 minutes to chat?

Thanks,
(Your name)

If they agree, let them know you’ve outlined your productivity “must-haves” and would love to know theirs, too. (You can send them this article for reference in advance.)

Kick off the meeting by reiterating the purpose (to lay some collaboration guidelines that you’ll both be satisfied with), then ask them to describe their general work style.

Here are some questions that may be useful:

  • How do you like to run meetings (with a set agenda, over a chat platform, etc.)?
  • Which method of communication do you like best (phone, email, video conference, text, chat, in-person conversations, etc.)?
  • How often do you like to check in (once a day, once a week, once a month, when a significant milestone is reached, etc)?
  • If I have questions, should I email them to you, come by your desk, send you a message over chat, ping you on our project management platform, or call you?
  • Are there certain times of day you block aside for specific activities? Do you have any preferences about when I schedule meetings?

Note where you overlap. For instance, if you both prefer weekly status updates, say, “That’s great, I’m also a fan of checking in once per week.”

When you differ, delve into their rationale. Figuring out why they like doing something a certain way will make it easier to find a compromise.

To give you an idea, maybe you find weekly check-ins excessive. You might ask, “What are the benefits of checking in once per week versus every two weeks or month?” or “In your experience, does a weekly check-in help you catch errors before they’re a big deal?”

Once they give you some context, you may decide there’s a good reason for their preference. Here’s a handy response:

“I usually do it (other way), but I’m happy to adapt because your way makes a lot of sense.”

Being flexible in this area will make your coworker more likely to compromise in a different area.

However, if you’re still not bought-in, instead say something along the lines of, “I understand why you prefer that. I tend to prefer (other way). Can we meet in the middle—maybe by doing (middle version)…?”

By the end of the meeting, you should have created a collaboration strategy that suits both your styles.

Identify Your Boss’s Work Style

Depending on your relationship and company culture, a slightly less casual approach might be necessary with your boss. Use this template to request a meeting:

Hi (boss’s name),

I’ve really enjoyed working with and learning from you these past (X months). I realized we’ve never had a formal discussion about work style. To ensure I’m doing the best job in this role as possible, I’d like to talk about your preferences for communication, meetings, and so on. Do you have 30 minutes this (week, month)?

Thanks,
(Your name)

During the meeting, consider covering:

  • Their preferred method of teaching you, answering questions, and helping solve problems
  • Their preferred meeting format, time, length, and style
  • How they make decisions
  • Their expectations for work quality and speed (Is “done better than perfect” or should you spend additional time making sure your work is error-free?)

The initial email and the agenda focus on your manager’s work style because in many offices you’re expected to conform to your manager’s work style.

However, a good boss will take your preferences into account. If they’re in the second camp, this meeting gives them an opportunity to learn about your work style. Once they’ve responded to your questions, they’ll naturally ask questions like, “And what do you prefer?”, “How do you normally work best?”, and “What can I do to make you successful?”

Bonus: Identify Learning Styles

learning styles
A quick quiz can help you find your strongest learning style

If you’re working extremely closely with someone (like a direct team member or manager), consider identifying their learning style as well. The way people absorb information is closely tied to the way they work; plus, you can use this to avoid misinterpretation and miscommunication.

According to Howard Gardner, a Professor of Education at Harvard University, there are seven (or more) basic types of intelligence. His Multiple Intelligences Theory states, “the mind is better described as consisting of eight or nine relatively separate faculties.”

While every person has every type of intelligence, they’re usually stronger in one or two and weaker in the others. Unsurprisingly, it’s easiest for them to learn in a way that reflects their primary intelligence.

Here are the seven types of learning styles:

  • Visual-spatial: Can understand the relationship between images and meanings and objects and space.
  • Interpersonal: Can recognize, understand, and influence other people’s emotions, wants, and desires.
  • Linguistic: Can use words (both written and verbal) to express their ideas and learn new concepts.
  • Intrapersonal: Can understand one’s own emotions, wants, and desires and control them as needed.
  • Kinesthetic: Can use their body to convey information and ideas.
  • Logical-mathematical: Can solve abstract problems, analyze complex information, recognize patterns, and develop calculations.
  • Musical: Can appreciate, create, and reproduce music.

It’s usually easiest to identify your coworker’s primary intelligence by asking them. Shoot them an email with a link to this test and pay attention to the words he or she uses.

For instance, if you say, “Could I please get your feedback on my lead gen ideas?”:

  • a kinesthetic person might say, “Hit me”
  • a visual person might say, “Let’s see what you’ve got”
  • a logical-mathematical person might say, “I’d be happy to review them”

Of course, a single answer can’t tell you what their primary intelligence is—but if you keep track over time, you should notice a trend.

It’s also helpful to observe how they naturally communicate.

  • Do they default to drawing on a whiteboard or sending you screenshots and screencasts? They’re probably a visual thinker.

  • Do they use their hands and physical objects to explain their ideas? They’re probably a kinesthetic thinker.

  • Do they send you detailed emails, write reports, and give presentations? They’re probably a linguistic thinker.

  • Do they spontaneously come up with jingles or raps during conversations? They’re probably a musical thinker.

  • Are they reflective, calm, and the go-to person in a crisis? They’re probably an intrapersonal thinker.

  • Are they charismatic, universally well-liked, and a natural leader? They’re probably an interpersonal thinker.

  • Are they one of the first to spot a pattern or discrepancy in the data? They’re probably a logical-mathematical thinker.

Once you’ve figured out which category your colleague fits into, tailor your communication method appropriately.

Let’s say your boss is a linguistic thinker. Instead of sending her your monthly report in a Powerpoint deck, like you usually do, consider sending a straightforward text document.


Whether you’re a freelancer, an individual contributor, or a leader, other people must interact and collaborate with you to get their own job done. Your partnership will be far more successful (not to mention, enjoyable), if you’re working in a way that suits you both. These strategies will help you build and reinforce mutually productive professional relationships with anyone.

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