Nutshell: Behavioural flex beats vex in the workplace

Written by
Future Talent Learning

03 Feb 2020

03 Feb 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

Knowing our own default behavioural styles as well as those of our colleagues, tells us how to moderate ourselves and prevent conflict between others.

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 who we struggle to relate to.

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. 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 an impatient time bomb type 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, called DISC.

First published 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 them 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 an industrial psychologist called 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 their 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 – as shown below:

Helping you become better connected

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

D styles are Fast-Paced and Task oriented

i styles are Fast-Paced and People orientated

C styles are Moderate-Paced and Task oriented

S 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 – e.g. 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.

  • What they want from others is directness, respect, to be allowed to lead and to be independent

Influence behaviours:

These people can talk more than they listen, are emotional, convincing,           political, very animated and persuasive.

  • What they want from others is friendliness, honesty, humour, 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.

  • What they want from others is a relaxed manner, 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.

  • What they want from others is minimal socialization, accurate detail, dependability and high standards

Like that other famous diagnostic, Myer-Briggs (MBTI) the DiSC assessment allows for finer differentiation among the four core styles – so 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

For leaders, knowing each team members’ 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.

Let’s assume Darcy is a D (strong-willed and forceful), but can come across to other styles as arrogant or haughty - especially to the sociable and lively Elizabeth, who we’ll assume is an i. By turn, i style people 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 among us. But charming enthusiastic i styles like Elizabeth need us to find ways to recognise them so they 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. And while it’s fine to get our own shirts wet, D’s should never try to dampen an i style’s natural enthusiasm.

A personal DiSC profile gives focused guidance on what we specifically can do to become a more effective communicator with each of the other three dominant styles as well as tips on solving problems 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’s character tells us anything it’s that even if we don’t hit it off with another character right away, if we persist, listen and adapt, we can 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 and models which also set out to explain the tensions that arise between people with different styles.

Social Styles

30 years ago, for example, psychologists David Merrill and Roger Reid set out their theory of social styles. They also identified four dominant categories, each with its own language, thought processes and approach to business. These are 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 own perceived weaknesses lie can also help ensure that our contribution is invited, heard and recognised.

Take the example of a traditional boardroom. Managing directors have typically been Drivers. Finance Directors and Technical Directors, most likely Analyticals. And Sales directors and Marketing Directors, nearly always 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.

Sova Team Styles Model

The Sova Team Styles Model similarly plots personal behavioural preferences to likely style and approach when working collaboratively. The model incorporates eight different team styles across four quadrants:

Exploring: styles linked to someone’s likely strengths in taking a creative/innovative role and the extent to which they are likely to draw on contacts and networks outside of their immediate team.

Directing: styles related to being comfortable coordinating the team and ensuring decisions are made, and also the extent to which someone is likely to drive and shape the team and their actions.

Delivering: styles that explore the extent to which someone is likely to move the team forward in a cohesive and collegiate manner and also how likely they are to be keen to be part of the planning and implementation activities.

Critiquing: styles relating to ensuring the team’s activities are completed effectively, and also ensuring they are completed on time and as promised.

The model encourages us to look at the patterns of our default styles and how this might impact others, giving us a baseline from which we might look to flex our style as and when circumstances demand.

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

In building up 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 self.’ - Aristotle

In her article, The Authenticity Paradox organisational behaviour professor, Herminia Ibarra, warns against the dangers of sticking too rigidly to a fixed sense of self. She notes that the moments that most challenge us are 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 whatever model we are most firmly planted in, being able to flex our style should accrue useful benefits.

 For example, we should find we are:

  • Better able to build a rapport with members of our team
  • Better equipped to enable each team member to play to their strengths and work productively
  • Better able to improve engagement and performance
  • Better equipped to 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 round in circles.

Register for insights and updates or implement one of our levy-funded leadership programmes by clicking on the buttons below.