Marcus Wylie: How to help ‘chalk’ and ‘cheese’ connect at work

The old adage ‘like chalk and cheese’ gets to the heart of the inherent differences between people. In the workplace this phrase can become especially poignant when working with colleagues who seem to approach things in a totally different way than you do. When teams contain an extreme mix of ‘chalk and cheese’ personalities, it can feel like an all-together uphill struggle to do simple tasks.

Building communication strategies among different co-workers – particularly those with very different interpersonal styles – can be a challenge, but it is worth the extra effort. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) estimates that business £33 billion per year and potentially loses up to 370 million working days. Imagine how productive an organisation would be, not to mention happy, if we got that time back!

What is your dominant ‘type’?

While no single category ever neatly describes one person, the chances are that there’s a dominant personality type that emerges for yourself and each of your team members within the list below.

  • Cautious, precise, deliberate, questioning, formal
  • Caring, encouraging, sharing, patient, relaxed
  • Sociable, dynamic, demonstrative, enthusiastic, persuasive
  • Competitive, demanding, determined, strong-willed, purposeful


If we’re all a unique combination of attributes and preferences, maybe even some of us ‘chalk’ and others ‘cheese’, how can we come together to get the best results for ourselves, our careers and our organisations?

Here are three steps that can help you connect more and collide less:

Lay the foundation

Often the most important place to start building understanding between seemingly different colleagues is to realise that people see the world differently. Making an in-depth assessment of both yourself and those you work with is a great first step to connecting and ultimately reducing unhealthy conflict.

An important aspect of using an assessment (and how to talk about personality in any context), is to acknowledge that just as we all are dynamic and ever-changing individuals, our personalities are multi-faceted. Assessments aren’t meant to pigeon-hole you, but rather to acknowledge there are some aspects of our behavior that come more easily or naturally to us than others.

One of the most common differences is between introverts and extroverts. Everyone falls somewhere on this attitudinal function – towards more extroverted or introverted tendencies. The key difference is that extroverts are generally energised by being around people and introverts are generally drained by it. Consequently, extroverts and introverts may have radically different preferences about everything from face-to-face communications vs email, to thinking aloud vs only speaking up when asked – resulting in some interesting ‘chalk and cheese’ dynamics.

Another option is to observe a person’s body language, verbal style, interactions and work environment – ask yourself “how can I match their preferred method of communication.”

Learning solutions that use personality assessment models can help identify your interpersonal preferences, which are a powerful and effective way to help everyone in the team understand its dynamics.

Speak other people’s language

When people with very different interpersonal preferences clash, it is usually when they are speaking to one another in a way they personally prefer, rather than in the other’s preferred style.

It doesn’t always come naturally to flex your style to appeal to different character types or ‘speak their language’, but this can be a great first step in bridging the communication gap. It can feel counter-intuitive at first, like you’re doing all the work. But it doesn’t mean being less authentic. In fact, it means you’re showing empathy.

We’ve all got to stay firm in who we are, while also having the ability to flex our styles. If you lead with an introverted energy you might need to try to be more open to impromptu conversations rather than escalating attempts to keep things orderly. While casual interactions might be out of your comfort zone, in some circumstances you’ll need to stretch yourself. Modelling this will help others flex their style to accommodate your style at times, too.

Keep working at it

Since we all have different degrees of introversion and extroversion within us, it is important to take time to figure out what works as a communication style with the different people you work with. What works best with one extroverted colleague may not work for another, so you’ll need to customise.

If someone is withdrawn, don’t automatically assume they are a non-contributor. They may just be an introvert and need some time to process. Then if someone is loud and bubbly, don’t assume they are rude or socially needy. They may just be more extroverted than you are.

Overcoming the ‘chalk and cheese’ dynamic is about recognising that people have different interpersonal preferences, taking the time to identify and recognise them and then being willing to adjust your communication style as needed.

Even if your dominant working style isn’t compatible with someone else’s, you may also still be able to connect with that person in a lesser-preferred but still comfortable working style. We all can usually find some areas or topics of compatibility, if we take the time to look for them.

Different interpersonal preferences

It’s less about labelling and more about working with the fact that everyone has a different, equally valid world view. Working together isn’t about changing who you are or about expecting someone else to change. It’s about recognizing and becoming more aware of everyone’s different interpersonal preferences. It doesn’t matter if you feel like oil and water, cats and dogs, or chalk and cheese, if you take time to understand some else and adjust your style, you will be on the way to a happier and more productive workplace.





Marcus Wylie is head of product and innovation at Insights Learning and Development, the global people development company with a presence in over 40 countries. Before taking up his current role, Marcus was Insights’ head of people engagement and has worked in the L&D industry for over 18 years. He is passionate about the employee experience and the critical role people development plays in achieving business success.