5 Tips for Working with People Not Like You

February 11, 2021
Kelly McDonald

Bestselling author and company culture guru Kelly McDonald explains five simple but crucial steps to collaborating with people with different backgrounds and world views:  

1. Understand that any discomfort you feel is normal

Social psychologists say that we naturally gravitate toward people who are similar to us. 

So it makes sense that, when working with someone who is “not like you,” you may feel uncomfortable. And that’s compounded by the fact that you feel you can’t really say anything about it — it’s too risky. Your job could be at risk, or you get branded as someone who is not on the “diversity bandwagon.”  

So you keep quiet.  But inside, you’re still struggling. Social psychologists also say that the discomfort or friction we feel when working with people who are different from us is normal. You’re not a bad person. You’re not alone. The discomfort you feel is normal. So what should you do?

2. Find common ground

It’s always there.  When you talk to people who are different from you, you’ll find that you’re more alike than it may first appear.  

You can break the ice with almost any topic: the weather, sports, what your plans are for a holiday weekend, where your hometown is, kids, the challenges of working from home, the new recipe you tried or the meal you made. 

It can even be a simple work comment, such as, “Wow, I didn’t think that meeting would ever end!  Why are they always like that?”  Once you start talking, it’s astonishing how quickly you’ll find common ground. And when you have common ground, you have the foundation for building trust.

3.    Build trust – regardless of what position you hold

Leaders and managers are told continuously of the importance of building trust. But everyone on a team needs to foster trust with their coworkers and colleagues. 

How to do it? Two key ways:

Talk straight – especially when it’s difficult.

When you level with a coworker, you’re giving them respect. You’re demonstrating that they can handle the truth, even difficult truth. 

Anyone can give great news — it’s a pleasure to do so. But the real test of your leadership and your respect for your team members is how you deliver difficult news. It’s not easy. But people can handle the truth — what they can’t handle is the runaround. And nothing will erode trust faster than someone wondering what you’re not telling them.

Use simple language.

It’s interesting that large and global companies often choose simple language when there is a big problem to solve or when they need to move business forward quickly.  

It makes sense: “business buzzword bingo” can be exhausting and confusing. Would you rather hear, “We have indicators that inhibit our KPIs and our initiatives to address these will be prioritized with resource allocation in consumer-heavy markets?” 

Or would you rather hear, “Our truck sales are off by 30%, so we’re having a major sales event in March and we are supporting it with $1 million in ad spend in Dallas, LA and Chicago?”

Simple, direct language builds trust because there is nothing to hide behind. It’s clear and straightforward. You can trust someone who speaks simply and clearly.

4. Move beyond “Agree to disagree” 

Perhaps you were taught to say, “Let’s agree to disagree” when you reach an impasse with someone. I was.  

I was told it’s the polite thing to say. The problem is, “agree to disagree” doesn’t work. When we say that to another person, we can come across as dismissive, superior (I’m right and you’re obviously wrong). More  importantly, it’s a conversation ender.  That’s not good for business — we should always be continuing our conversations. 

 Here’s a better approach: “I see it differently.”  When you say, “I see it differently,” you’re not being antagonistic, superior or dismissive. You’re making a simple, declarative statement. And — trust me on this — the person you’re talking with will respond with something like, ‘Tell me how you see it.”  And then you’re having a conversation, not a debate.  It’s easy, respectful and a game-changer.

5. Use “I need your help”

These are four magic words that will change your life.  Stop saying, “Can you help me?” and say instead, “I need your help.”  

It works differently and it’s powerful.  When you say, ‘Can you help me?” the other person can say no. They’ll have solid reasons (“I wish I could, but I’m on a deadline for Matt.”) and they’ll be very apologetic, (I’m so sorry, but you know how he gets when he doesn’t get the sales numbers on time”) but you’ll still end up with “no.”

 When you say, “I need your help,” it’s not a question, it’s a statement. And this is a promise: the other person will respond with “What do you need?” or ‘What’s going on?”  or “How can I help?”  You’ll get a conversation, not a “no.”  

Even if the person can’t actually assist you, (for example, they don’t have the information you need or that’s not their department), they will help you.  They will say, “Actually, Carrie has that info — let me call her and tell her what you’re looking for.”   

We are wired to help each other.  Use these four magic words – “I need your help” – and you’ll be amazed how much business you can accomplish, working with anyone.

The bottom line

Successfully working with or leading people who have different backgrounds or perspectives doesn’t come doesn’t always come naturally. Allow yourself to go beyond your comfort zone, listen to what your colleagues are saying and resist putting up walls. 

Exercising empathy and communicating directly are always good tactics in the workplace. More than likely, both you and your colleagues will learn something from each other and, hopefully, apply that learning to greater success for your business. 

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