Nutshell: Behavioural flex beats vex in the workplace

Written by
Lisa Pember

03 Feb 2020

03 Feb 2020 • by Lisa Pember

How understanding how to flex our behavioural, social and communication styles can make for a happier and more productive working environment.

Communication is the conduit through which we share meaning. But try as we might, we all have colleagues who just don’t ‘get’ us or to whom we struggle to relate. 

Often, this is due to a clash in behavioural styles. The things we take for granted as innately ‘right’ are sometimes only right for us. So gaining a better understanding of our own default behavioural style, and the style and preferences of our colleagues, can shed useful light on what makes them tick (and not in a time bomb kind of way). 

With greater understanding, we can hang up the shoes we previously used to dance around one another and instead have more assertive conversations. This helps to prevent misunderstandings and reduces the risk of conflict. In addition, understanding how to flex our behavioural, social and communication styles can make us better leaders and ultimately bring a host of benefits to the workplace – from improved recruitment practices to enhanced productivity.

A good place to start is by taking a look at the main behaviour styles. And (thunderbolts of Jove!), who better to have on our side in this quest than the creative brain behind Wonder Woman.

Same DiSC, different tune 

Aside from co-creating a kick-ass fictional superhero – and an early version of the polygraph lie detector test -–Harvard psychologist William Moulton Marshall can also lay claim to a significant theory of human behaviour, known as DISC.

In his 1928 book, Emotions of Normal People, Marshall (writing under his pen name of William Marston) proposed that people illustrate their emotions using four behaviour types, on which the following quartet is based:

  • Dominance (D), Influence (i), Steadiness (S), Conscientiousness C)

He also suggested that these ‘types’ are influenced by whether a person views their environment as favourable or unfavourable and whether or not they perceive themselves as having control.

While Marston didn’t go on to develop an assessment tool from his model, he did apply it in the real world when he consulted with Universal Studios in 1930 to help it transition from melodramatic silent pictures to movies with audio; something which required more ‘natural’ gestures and facial expression from the actors.

So, how can all this help us?

In 1956, the ball was picked up by industrial psychologist Walter V Clarke, who used Marshall’s DiSC theory to design a self-assessment tool for vetting potential job candidates. Having proved its worth, Clarke then initiated its journey through various stages of evolution; today The DiSC® Model is a widely used as a tool for discovering more about our behavioural style, how we typically communicate and how we might modify our style to communicate with others more effectively.

As well as classifying behaviour into these four core types, the tool also looks at our preferences on two scales: task versus people and fast-paced versus moderate-paced. These preference scales form the axes of the DiSC model, with the behavioural types in four quadrants:

Becoming better connected

Our individual score in any DiSC assessment gives an indication of our preferences relative to others and places us squarely within one quarter of the chart.

D styles are fast-paced and task oriented 

styles are fast-paced and people oriented

C styles are moderate-paced and task oriented 

styles are moderate-paced and people oriented 

If we learn, for example, that we are people oriented, this can highlight the need to use a more task-oriented approach in certain situations; for example, to build a better rapport with task-oriented members of our team. Or if we can see we tend to go at things like Usain Bolt, slowing down to match a colleague’s pace might help to get a better product or service across the finishing line. 

Here’s a quick summary of the four behaviour types and how we can best communicate with them:

Dominance behaviours: 

  • These people can be egocentric, talk more than they listen, are opinionated, strong-willed, forceful and determined.
  • They prefer directness and respect from others and to be allowed to lead and to be independent.

Influence behaviours

  • These people may talk more than they listen, are emotional, convincing, political, very animated and persuasive.
  • They prefer friendliness, honesty and humour from others and to be allowed to tell people how they feel.

Steadiness behaviours

  • These people may ask rather than tell, be steady, consultative, patient, reserved and dislike change.
  • They prefer a relaxed manner in others, agreeableness, appreciation, and for change to be introduced slowly

Conscientiousness behaviours

  • These people tend to adhere to the rules, be structured, careful, cautious, exacting and diplomatic.
  • They prefer minimal socialisation and accurate detail, dependability and high standards from others.

Like that other famous diagnostic, Myer-Briggs (MBTI) the DiSC assessment allows for finer differentiation among the four core styles; as well as D or C for example, there is Di or CS.

Here’s a quick overview:

  • D: forceful and direct
  • Di: convincing and daring
  • DC: resolute and strong-willed
  • i: highly sociable and lively
  • iD: animated and inspiring
  • iS: upbeat and light-hearted
  • S: pleasantly calm and accommodating of others
  • Si: supportive and agreeable
  • SC: modest and unassuming
  • C: analytical and private
  • CD: unsentimental and matter-of-fact
  • CS: quiet and self-controlled

As leaders, knowing each team member’s style, as well as our own, can be especially useful, not just in informing us how we might moderate our own behaviour but in preventing misunderstanding and conflict between others.

When pride meets prejudice – and other potential mishaps

Let’s take the example of Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in Jane’s Austen’s classic commentary on miscommunication, Pride and Prejudice

We’ll assume that Darcy is a D (strong-willed and forceful), but can come across to other personality styles as arrogant or haughty – especially to the sociable and lively Elizabeth, who is probably an i (a type that can be read by D-style people as naïve and overly optimistic).

Being forced to pay attention to the emotional needs of others can be stressful for the Darcys  of this world. But charming, enthusiastic i-people such as Elizabeth need to have these needs recognised to feel well-liked and appreciated. They require us to at least show a willingness to engage in friendly small talk before getting down to business. Ds should never try to dampen an i-style person’s natural enthusiasm.

A personal DiSC profile gives focused guidance on what we can do, specifically, to become a more effective communicator with each of the other three dominant personality styles, as well as tips on what to do when things get tense. There’s no need to remember every last permutation; only what’s most likely to work for us.

And if Elizabeth Bennet’s story teaches us anything, it’s to persist, listen and adapt, even when we don’t hit it off with another character style right away. Where we put in the effort, we can might still end up with the biggest prize – be it Pemberley or a promotion. 

Even in bubbles, we’re social creatures

Alongside DiSC, there are other theories that also help explain the tensions that arise between people with different style.

For example, 30 years ago, psychologists David Merrill and Roger Reid set out their theory of social styles. They identified four dominant categories, each with its own language, thought processes and approach to business: Drivers, Analyticals, Expressives and Amiables.

It’s easy to see how tensions might arise between, action and goal-orientated Drivers and friendly but awkward Amiables; or between exacting, industrious Analyticals and enthusiastic but undisciplined Expressives.

While the terminology is different to that used in DiSC, the principle is the same: flexing our own style can help bring out the best in others, so both parties win. And knowing where our personal weaknesses lie can also help ensure that our contribution is invited, heard and recognised. 

Consider the traditional boardroom. Managing directors have typically been Drivers, finance directors and chief technical officers Analyticals and sales and marketing directors Expressives. That’s not to say that Amiables can’t reach the top, but those of us who fall into this category may need to brush up on our assertiveness skills to ensure our talents are recognised.

One-size-fits-all is not a measure of good leadership

In building a clearer picture of how we relate to others, the last thing we imagine might trip us up is a burgeoning sense of self. But we’d all be well advised to keep up our guard. “The hardest victory is over the self,” said Aristotle.

Organisational behaviour professor Herminia Ibarra, in her article, The Authenticity Paradox

warns against the dangers of sticking too rigidly to a fixed sense of self. She notes that the moments that challenge us are most often the ones that can teach us the most about effective leadership. And she advocates “viewing ourselves as works in progress” and “evolving our professional identities through trial and error” in order to keep pace with changing needs.

The key to successful leadership therefore comes not only from understanding which behaviours and which social and communication styles to adopt to best serve the goal in hand, but from having the courage to see this through – even when it means pushing outside our comfort zone.

For example, sometimes good leadership is about taking charge and leading from the front; sometimes it’s about being the cheerleader and lifting everyone's spirits; sometimes it’s about slowing things down to achieve a higher level of quality. What it’s never about is staying only in the place where we’re most at ease.

Similarly, the most successful organisations embrace many different styles of leadership, and are able to use them like gears in a gear box to keep moving forward. 

Coming full circle

Whichever quadrant of the DiSC circle we are most firmly planted in, being able to flex our style should bring us a range of benefits.

 For example, we should find we are better able to:

  • build a rapport with team members
  • help each team member to play to their strengths and work productively
  • improve engagement and performance
  • prevent conflict.

And seeing these improvements in the workplace should encourage everyone to develop better relationships with clients and other stakeholders

It may take a bit of practice, but this is how we overcome barriers, build bridges, include others, learn, make progress and ultimately become more fully-rounded leaders. And that’s so much better than simply going around in circles. 

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