Tofu and grapefruit

Business delivery by Paul Glen

Paul Glen is the founder of the GeekLeaders. com Web community and author of the award-winning book Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology.

When constructing project and management teams, I’ve always found it’s important to pay attention to more than just the tasks that need to be accomplished. The personalities of the people who would accomplish those tasks influence the success or failure of the team as much as the skills that they bring. But in times of emotional stress, personalities become even more important than they are during ordinary times.

For managers just trying to get things done in this difficult environment, it might be tempting to pay attention to skills alone, assuming that pressures on budgets and schedules will persuade people to put their personality differences aside and focus on completing the tasks at hand. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. During times of stress, most people fall back on old patterns of behaviour, their comfortable, natural styles, rather than putting all their attention on the work to be done.

So, long ago, I developed a simple but useful way of looking at personalities to try to figure out how people will work together. I do it by evaluating people’s personalities on a simple linear scale. At one end of the scale is tofu, and at the other end is grapefruit.

Tofu, while a very healthful food, doesn’t bring a lot of flavour to a dish. It adds a bit of texture, but it readily accepts the flavours of everything around it. If you douse it with soy sauce, it will taste like lumpy soy sauce. If you sauté it with garlic, it will taste like lumpy oil and garlic. In other words, tofu gets along with everything.

So it is with the tofu people. They are good and helpful people, hardworking and diligent, and they don’t try to impose their work habits or personalities on those around them. These are the people we sometimes forget are there, but they are always plugging along productively. They don’t cause problems, and they don’t demand attention.

Grapefruit, on the other hand, while also a very healthful food, demands attention. It has a very strong flavour, and you either love it or hate it. It insists that everything around it starts tasting like grapefruit. In other words, grapefruit is an imperialist fruit, insisting that everyone around it bend to its will.

So it is with the grapefruit people. They are good and helpful people, hardworking and diligent, but they demand that everyone around them work in the manner that makes them – the grapefruit people – comfortable. They have trouble adapting to other people’s styles but work well with those who can adapt to their own.

So when constructing a team, you need to figure out the right blend of tofu and grapefruit. Too many varieties of grapefruit will fight with one another, but a team with no grapefruit at all may be like a bowl of tofu – bland and directionless. The key is to find the right recipe of skills and personalities that will blend well together.