In her new book, The Cactus and Snowflake at Work, leadership consultant, speaker, and best-selling author of Networking for People Who Hate Networking Devora Zack defines the cactus personality type as leading with their head and the snowflake type as leading with their heart. “The cactus tends to be more logical, analytical, and direct in their approach, and the snowflake tends to be more sensitive, empathetic, and diplomatic,” she says. And while the former tends to make decisions based on reason, the latter tends to gravitate toward feelings.
“The cactus tends to be more logical, analytical, and direct in their approach, and the snowflake tends to be more sensitive, empathetic, and diplomatic.” —Devora Zack, leadership consultant
The key word here is “tends,” though, as it’s very possible to fall somewhere in the middle of this cactus-snowflake continuum. Or, alternatively, you might encapsulate both types: Say, you’re naturally more of a cactus but embody snowflake characteristics when it serves you, or vice versa. This chameleon-esque quality can be helpful for getting along with someone on the opposite side (more on that below). Essentially, the distinction between when you'd take on the qualities of either type just reflects the difference between temperament and behavior, says Zack: The first is how you inherently are, and the second is how you might act.
Even so, most folks do naturally resonate with one of these personality types at work more so than they do the other. While neither is better or worse than the other—a point Zack emphasizes—because of their fundamental differences, the cactus and the snowflake do have distinct strengths and weaknesses. And finding ways to thrive alongside folks in either category requires both being aware of and leveraging those unique aspects to your benefit. Below, Zack dives deeper into the qualities typical of each personality type, and offers advice on how you can mesh with a coworker who falls in the opposite camp.
Key traits of the ‘cactus’ and ‘snowflake’ personality types at work
Accuracy and consistency rank high on a cactus type’s list of work values, which tend to revolve around the bottom line, says Zack. The most cactus-y of cactus types, in fact, will view anything that doesn't contribute to this success metric as superfluous fluff. In that vein, the cactus also likes to draw a firm line in the sand between their personal or private life and their professional one, says Zack: “They’re more likely to embody the belief of leaving your feelings at the door when you come to work.”
In order to spot a cactus, look out for “I think” phrases (as opposed to “I feel”) and any expression of goals or motivations centered around problem-solving or achieving a big return at the end of a project. When they’re at their peak, a cactus will be an ambitious, get-it-done leader—but if they’re operating at a lower octave, that rush of productivity could come at the expense of others’ feelings.
Though a snowflake can chug along at work just as productively as a cactus, they put a much higher value on harmony and empathy in the workplace. “They’ll prioritize a positive work environment, and will take it upon themselves to ensure that folks are having a good rapport with each other,” says Zack.
As a result, the snowflake tends to enjoy meeting and collaborating with new and different people more than the cactus does, and often does so with more emotional wherewithal. Being naturally attuned to feelings, they’re also more likely to use the words “I feel” (instead of “I think”). In the best of circumstances, the snowflake is also the one who’s adept at corralling a group and navigating tricky scenarios without stepping on any toes. But they can also resort to taking things personally whenever their own feelings aren’t carefully considered by others.
How to collaborate with someone who has the opposite of your personality type at work
1. Resist the urge to force similarity
Your first step is to avoid shoving a square peg into a round hole: A logic-motivated cactus and a feelings-motivated snowflake likely will not—and do not need to—see eye to eye, says Zack: “It’s important to acknowledge that you don’t need to approach things in the same way even if you’re ultimately working toward the same goal.”
And, in fact, trying to do so can be counterproductive. To explain how, Zack compares it to the effect of telling someone what not to do, as in telling a snowflake, “Try not to get your feelings involved,” for example. “The brain just hears what you said it shouldn’t do, and it ends up turning its attention to something that wouldn’t have been a problem—but now is,” says Zack.
Instead, find the common ground (which might just be seeing a project to success), and then lay out a system that gets you there by utilizing rather than diminishing your differences. For instance, a cactus might be better at cutting through the red tape of the project or getting down to the brass tacks of what the final product should look like, whereas a snowflake would be best at making sure you don’t alienate any competing parties along the way, says Zack.
2. Speak their language
To be invested in a project and committed to collaboration, folks need to be motivated by something that resonates. And framing the success of the project in terms that cater to their respective personality type at work can help.
“For a snowflake, you might express how the final result will ultimately help so many people or improve their lives in some meaningful way, but if you’re talking to a cactus, you might say something about how the project will generate media attention or increase your bottom line,” says Zack. Essentially, the result can be the same, but what’s driving various team members to achieve it is different, based on their personality types at work.
3. Watch out for non-events
So much workplace tension between different personality types is one-sided, says Zack, who calls these situations “non-events.” That means one person feels hurt while the other person had no intention to hurt them, doesn't realize they hurt them, or both.
For example, consider two people in an elevator: One of them is looking over some notes for a presentation they’re giving later that day, and then simply walks out when they arrive at their floor; the other is shocked that they weren’t even acknowledged. “This person might be thinking, ‘Wow, they don’t even remember my name,’ or ‘They must think they’re better than me,’ so they get upset, while the other person was just experiencing a total non-event,” says Zack. To avoid that disconnect and eliminate unnecessary stress, try entertaining the possibility that any work conflict may be rooted simply in personality differences rather than antagonism.
4. Employ the platinum rule
Think: the golden rule, reimagined. Rather than treating someone how you want to be treated, treat them how they want to be treated—which will be notably different for the two personality types at work. If you know that you’re working with a snowflake, you could tailor your actions toward supporting their feelings; for a cactus, you might keep the focus on tangible goals.
Zack gives a potent example for how you might treat a co-worker returning from a personal leave: “A snowflake might appreciate you saying something like, ‘Oh my gosh, we all missed you so much. Welcome back. Is everything okay?’ Whereas, a cactus might think that’s disrespectful and prying, and would rather you just treat them as you normally would.”
5. Step into their shoes before offering feedback
The two personality types tend to receive feedback in vastly different ways, making it all the more essential for a person giving it to adopt the perspective of the employee on the other end.
The snowflake tends to soften the blow of anything critical, which might be irritating to a cactus who would much prefer a clear list of areas that could use improvement. By contrast, the cactus tends to dish out straightforward critique, which could easily rub the snowflake the wrong way. “Flexing your style to be less effusive and more direct in the case of the former, and to be more sensitive to feelings in the case of the latter could make all the difference,” says Zack, “even if you’re essentially delivering the same message.”
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