The Cactus and Snowflake at Work by Devora Zack Book Summary

The Cactus and Snowflake at Work, How the Logical and Sensitive Can Thrive Side by Side by Devora Zack


Devora Zack claims everyone falls along a personality continuum that reveals how they think, behave, speak and make decisions. Knowing where you, your colleagues, friends, and family fall on the Snowflake-Cactus spectrum can help you temper your tone and words, thereby improving your relationships, and consequently, your effectiveness in work and life. Snowflakes and Cacti appear in every profession. Men lean toward Cactus and women Snowflake, but significant numbers land in between. Zack’s not entirely subtle observances boil down to good advice: Treat others the way they want you to treat them.


  • Everyone falls somewhere on the Snowflake-to-Cactus continuum.
  • Determine where you and others land on the continuum, but don’t try to change others’ styles.
  • Avoid demeaning or stereotyping people because of their personality.
  • Snowflakes and Cacti will perceive the same event differently.
  • Work on yourself to improve your interactions.
  • Cater your language to the personality of the people you speak to.
  • Know your triggers to avoid triggering others.
The Cactus and Snowflake at Work Book Cover

The Cactus and Snowflake at Work Book Summary

Everyone falls somewhere on the Snowflake-to-Cactus continuum.

Only you – and nobody else – fit perfectly into any category, but you – and everybody else – do possess innate proclivities and predispositions that associate with one of the two broad personality categories of Snowflake and Cactus. Neither term is pejorative. In general, Snowflakes “feel.” They possess greater sensitivity and lead with their hearts. Cacti rely more on rationality and logic than on emotion; they lead with their brains and can come across as prickly.

About 70% of men lean toward Cactus and about 60% of women toward Snowflake. This means you cannot make blanket assumptions based on gender about where a person may fall on the continuum. Both categories contain introverts and extroverts. Introverted Snowflakes might have deep feelings and Cacti might have strong opinions, but both tend to keep them to themselves. Extroverted Snowflakes and Cacti express feelings and opinions more freely.

“Thinkers are logical, value analysis, and default to directness in conversation. Feelers are sensitive, value empathy, and diplomacy reigns supreme.”

Based on seminal psychologist Carl Jung’s typology, everyone falls somewhere between Cactus and Snowflake extremes. Your place on the spectrum may shift throughout your life. No place on the continuum proves superior to any other.

Society and workplaces need strong Snowflakes, Cacti and everyone in between – including “Cactusflakes” and “Snowcacti.” Some professions might appeal more to one category, but Snowflakes and Cacti appear in every job and career type. For a variety of reasons, both types enjoy everything from religion to yoga to vegetarianism – elements of most pursuits, after all, appeal to the head and heart.

Determine where you and others land on the continuum, but don’t try to change others’ styles.

Estimating where someone else lands on the Snowflake-Cactus continuum doesn’t give you insight to change them, but it can guide you in building better relationships with them. Assess other people’s drivers through the prism of the continuum by listening to them carefully, observing their actions, decisions and behaviors, and by simply asking why they do what they do. Test your own and others’ propensity toward Cactus or Snowflake by analyzing the answers to the following questions:

  1. Would you prefer to get through your daily to-do list or to make someone else’s day?
  2. If you know you’ll never see a person again, would you care whether they liked you, or would you still strive to have a good encounter even if they didn’t like you?
  3. Do you work better with direct, informed people or those you connect with?
  4. Are you more direct or more diplomatic?
  5. Do you place greater value on your intellect and skills or on your empathy?
  6. Do you lead with your head or with your heart?
  7. Do you believe teams that follow rules and procedures or teams that feel safe and valued work more effectively?
  8. Do you believe the best leaders demonstrate ability or caring?
  9. You would rather contribute directly to your firm’s profits or contribute through your dealings with people? 
  10. Under pressure, should leadership emphasize attention and firmness or caring and consideration?
  11. Do you rely more on reason or compassion?
  12. Do you give bad news plainly, stating the facts, or do you try to ease bad news to lighten its impact?
  13. Would you describe yourself as more analytical or appreciative?
  14. Do you tend to base your decisions on impartiality, logic and fairness or on kindness and feeling?
  15. Which do you value more: the plain truth and objectivity or peace and belonging?

Count the number of responses in which you chose the first option versus the second. The greater the number of the former, the more Cactus-like you are; the more of the latter, the more you incline to Snowflake. 

If you land strongly on the Snowflake end of the continuum, you likely value empathy, peace and relationships. You feel the sting of snubs or rejection for days – whether deliberate or inadvertent. You probably dole out and desire regular praise. If you land nearer the middle but still on the side of Snowflake, you probably lead with your heart, yet seek balance by making decisions with feeling and fact.

“A strong preference does not indicate you have a stronger character than others, and a slight preference does not indicate any type of deficiency.”

Those almost in the middle exhibit characteristics of each and often assume the roles of peacemaker and bridge-builder. If you lean moderately toward Cactus, you rely on your head and pride yourself in making fair, logical decisions. You value relationships and offer praise. If you lean heavily to Cactus, people probably find you a bit aloof; you don’t reveal your feelings and may believe emotion has no place at work.

Avoid demeaning or stereotyping people because of their personality.

Cacti might dismiss Snowflakes as illogical, wimpy or flaky. Snowflakes might label Cacti as superficial jerks. Avoid these stereotypes by acknowledging and valuing the different thought processes each brings. Combining caring and logic can accelerate progress faster than either on its own. Personalities and people prove infinitely complex, but by gaining insight into your type, you can better understand your natural reactions and behaviors and the reactions and behaviors of others.

“Snowflakes proficient at leveraging a range of behaviors are flexible snowflakes; they do not spontaneously transform into Cacti. And vice versa.”

Foremost, show respect for Snowflakes and Cacti. Both require respect and react negatively to real or perceived slights. Unfortunately, you can’t make assumptions about how people perceive the world or how they perceive you.

Instead of applying the Golden Rule by treating others as you would have them treat you, apply the Platinum Rule: Treat others as they would like to be treated.

Snowflakes, for example, may feel snubbed if not greeted appropriately in every encounter, even if you only pass them in the corridor. For Cacti, the sheer volume of interactions this necessitates might drain and/or frustrate them. Take the perspective of the other to find the best balance. Seek common ground on which you can agree. Learn to adapt your style to those with whom you interact. Doing so doesn’t diminish you; it differentiates you from the majority of people who don’t possess this valuable skill or the will to help others feel comfortable.

Snowflakes and Cacti will perceive the same event differently.

If you feel someone snubs you or otherwise disrespects you, don’t automatically assume intent. Give them the benefit of the doubt; everything isn’t about you. Something you, as a Snowflake, for example, find greatly disturbing may barely even register with a Cactus. Failing to greet a person on the elevator might not impact a Cactus but distract a Snowflake for hours. 

“Focus your attention on fine-tuning yourself rather than futilely attempting to fix others.”

Snowflakes and Cacti who experience the same event will perceive it differently. This gap can leave either group perplexed and disrespectful of the other’s reaction. For example, a spirited exchange between colleagues may give a Cactus energy but leave a Snowflake feeling dismayed. The Cactus interprets the discussion as debate, the Snowflake as conflict. Awareness of the drivers behind your reactions to events and those of your colleagues – depending on where they land on the continuum – helps you understand, pause, put the situation into its proper perspective and interpret events more evenly.

For a Snowflake, guilt can impede clear thought. Cacti, on the other hand, often suffer from a lack of tact, particularly regarding the tone they might take with a Snowflake. Cacti should realize that how they deliver a message to a Snowflake matters almost as much as the content of the message. This requires a willingness and ability to place more gentle emphasis on certain words, for example. A Cactus can inadvertently wound a Snowflake with the same words or tone, that if directed at her, she would not even notice. Email and text can present challenges in conveying the right tone as well.

Work on yourself to improve your interactions.

You control your thinking, what you say and do – but nothing else. This means you don’t have to worry about everything others say and do. Your past experiences impact your thinking and behaviors. Acknowledge, for example, that childhood trauma can influence you decades later, just as reconnecting with an old friend can lighten your mood and influence your actions in the short term. Don’t dwell on what you may have said or done that you regret. When such thoughts occur, accept them, but re-imagine them in a better light. When others say things that irk you – so long as they mean well overall – write off their annoying comments as harmless instead of offensive.

“When people radiate positive reinforcement, this nearly always correlates with craving it themselves.”

Snowflakes more readily mimic the emotional state of people they encounter. If you bring nervous energy into a meeting, Snowflakes sense it and tend to adopt it. If you project sadness, your Snowflake colleagues may get depressed too, even if they misread your signals. Whether you lean toward Snowflake or Cactus, avoid sabotaging yourself by unnecessarily blurting out past failures or shortcomings; for example, during a sales meeting or a job interview. Think before you speak, whether to yourself or others. Focus on the positive.

You make better decisions when you ground them in your natural style. If you lean toward Snowflake, trust your feelings. If you bend toward Cactus, leverage your logic. Try to balance your teams and groups with Cacti and Snowflakes. Don’t isolate yourself among your type; intermix with others to gain a wider perspective.

Cater your language to the personalities of the people you speak to.

Take note when you hear people remark that they “think” or “feel” something. Listen for other reveals, such as words related to sensitivity or practicality. This enables you to learn someone’s language and discern who leans toward Cactus and who leans toward Snowflake, so you can adapt your encounters effectively.

For example, in meetings, you might sprinkle your input with words that appeal more to Cacti and others that matter more to Snowflakes. In performance reviews, you may begin with praise when dealing with a Snowflake, knowing that will soften the blow when you discuss areas for improvement. With Cacti, you might speak more about processes, knowing they perk up in discussions about systems. 

“There is no single way to administer feedback. Finding a style that enables the receiver to hear and process what you have to say is vital to a successful conversation.”

You gain influence when you cater to others’ preferred language and beliefs. You don’t have to connect deeply to influence people – or even get along with them. Even if you don’t understand a person, you still must work with them. Flexing your words and actions helps you collaborate with others no matter where they fall on the continuum. Practice makes perfect – and builds empathy.

Know your triggers to avoid triggering others.

Overwork, significant change and stress can throw anyone into a negative state. Under normal conditions, Cacti will exercise logic and dependability. Snowflakes will treat people well and stay calm. Under duress, the Cactus might fly into a rage, as the Snowflake freezes you out. Either may express volatility, blame others or isolate themselves when facing negative conditions.

“The shadow facet of our personality is the hidden part of ourselves with which we do not consciously identify.”

When people argue small points tenaciously or behave out of character – such as a Snowflake acting out the worst traits of a Cactus or vice-versa – consider whether they may have strayed outside their natural personality into their “shadow state.” Don’t diminish their feelings with platitudes. Awareness of yourself and others allows for interventions that might prevent a shadow state from dominating. In these crisis situations, acknowledge people’s feelings, ask how you can help and work on coping strategies with them.

About the Author

Devora Zack

Graduate of Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania Devora Zack consults with the Smithsonian Institution, Pfizer and Delta Air Lines.

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