Thinking Clearly about a Person’s Substance Amidst Stylistic Differences

How easy is it to separate your experience of someone’s style from their substance?

By “style” I mean a person’s personality, work habits, communication patterns, and so on.

By “substance” I mean a person’s overall effectiveness, performance, intelligence, etc. in the workplace.

Many professionals assert they can work with and respect the performance of people across the stylistic range — so long as the person is substantive. Successful people who work in teams like to think of themselves as flexible on style, inflexible on substance.

But how often is this actually true in the workplace?

In my experience, our rank of people’s substance is heavily influenced by the other person’s style. People, me included, tend to think more highly of the substance of professionals who happen to share our style. In this way, style similarity or differences hinders our ability to think clearly and fairly about the substance of the people we work with.

Why, then, do so many people think they’re immune from this bias?

Because in the vast majority of interactions at work, there’s a clear power dynamic that resolves stylistic tension. If you’re the person with more power, it’s easy to steamroll over the stylistic annoyances of the other person, or to force the person to adapt stylistically to you. For example, if an ultra detail oriented boss is supervising a not-so-detail-oriented subordinate, it’s obvious who in that relationship is going to have to make some stylistic tweaks to their behavior in order for the collaboration to work. The natural difference here eases tension, clears the mind, and allows for an accurate rating of substance.

However, in situations where two people are closer to power parity, style matters hugely because the stylistic differences do not get easily resolved. Which creates friction. Which affects your ability to fairly evaluate the person’s substance. Persistent stylistic friction clouds one’s judgment of substance; it makes it harder to see reality clearly.

Take two people of roughly equivalent power levels. Both super substantive in their own respect. But introduce a significant stylistic difference: perhaps one person is extremely humble by nature and the other person extremely boastful. Or perhaps one person is highly collaborative by nature and the other person highly decisive, even authoritarian. Both are substantive, successful, thriving professionals. But these stylistic differences, impossible to fully resolve due to their equal power positions, will cause them to likely rate each other differently on substance — more so than what would be advised based on an objective, god-view of the “facts” about each person’s performance.

Bottom Line: You can more easily separate stylistic differences from an objective evaluation of substance when you’re relating to someone meaningfully more or less powerful than you. When you’re relating to a peer or partner, stylistic differences metastasize and infect your ability to objectively and honestly evaluate substance. So, be really attentive to how stylistic differences may be affecting your view of true peers.

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