Nutshell: Flex beats vex: why communication at work is so often a matter of styling it out

Written by
Future Talent Learning

03 Feb 2020

03 Feb 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

Knowing our default behavioural styles, as well as those of our colleagues, can help us to relate to, and communicate with, our colleagues better.

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. We’ll be looking at three theories that will help us to understand our own – and others’ – default styles and how we can use this awareness better to relate to, and communicate with, our colleagues at work, flexing our style as circumstances demand:

  • DiSC Styles
  • Social Styles
  • Sova Team styles

And thunderbolts of Jove, who better to start us on our 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 Marston can also lay claim to a significant theory of human behaviour, called DiSC.

First published in his 1928 book Emotions of Normal People, 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 that 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 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 – as shown below:

Helping us become 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

i styles are Fast-Paced and People-Oriented

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, such as when we need, 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, and 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, and are emotional, convincing, political, very animated and persuasive.

  • What they want from others is friendliness, honesty and humour, and to be allowed to tell people how they feel.

Steadiness behaviours:

These people may ask rather than tell, be steady, consultative, patient and reserved, and dislike change.

  • What they want from others is a relaxed manner, agreeableness and appreciation, and for change to be introduced slowly.

Conscientiousness behaviours:

These people tend to adhere to the rules and be structured, careful, cautious, exacting and diplomatic.

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

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

Social Styles

Thirty years ago, psychologists David Merrill and Roger Reid set out their theory of social styles. They also identified four dominant behavioural styles, each with its own language, thought processes and approach to business. These are:

  • Analytical
  • Driving
  • Expressive
  • Amiable

As with DiSC, the four categories are plotted against two scales:

  1. Responsiveness: how we choose to show our feelings and emotions: from low responsiveness (controls emotion/task-oriented) to high responsiveness (displays emotion/people-oriented) and 
  2. Assertiveness: the way in which we influence the thoughts and actions of others: from low assertiveness (asks) to high assertiveness (tells).

Analyticals are low on both assertiveness and responsiveness.

Drivers are low on responsiveness but high on assertiveness.

Expressives are high on both responsiveness and assertiveness.

Amiables are low on assertiveness but high on responsiveness.

It’s easy to see how tensions might arise between action- and goal-oriented Drivers and friendly but safety-seeking Amiables. Or between exacting, industrious Analyticals and enthusiastic but impulsive 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 own contribution is invited, heard and recognised.

Take the example of a traditional boardroom. Managing directors are often seen as Drivers. Finance directors and technical directors most likely Analyticals. And sales directors and marketing directors nearly always Expressives. Stereotypical, perhaps, but we get the picture. The Social Styles model doesn’t 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.

DiSC and Social Styles: proceed with caution

The potential for – and dangers of – this kind of stereotyping or labelling is just one of many criticisms aimed at diagnostics such as DiSC and Social Styles.

When Thomas Erikson used DiSC as the basis for his bestselling book, Surrounded By Idiots, he was given the 2018 Fraudster of the Year award by Swedish Skeptics, an association dedicated to calling out “pseudoscientific statements and claims”. And perhaps with some reason. As we’ve seen for personality tests such as Myers-Briggs, DiSC-style tools should come with a serious health warning.

The Swedish Skeptics’ claim of pseudoscience is one often made of tests and tools that are not based on the rigours of the scientific method, that shared objective methodology for scientific experimentation that underpins how we interpret the world and build knowledge. It might be hard for the average DiSC questionnaire, for example, to meet the scientific method standards of verifiability, predictability, falsifiability and fairness.

Instead, the tool has been criticised for everything from poor, generic survey design (which leads to inconsistency in responses) and a lack of cross-cultural sensitivity to a mismatch between claims made and actual, measurable results.

That doesn’t mean these tools are without value, but we need to accept that they can only ever be a guide. They are intended as an aid to understanding, connection and communication. They’re not meant to label people. No one is a Social Style; we humans are simply too complex to be compartmentalised so neatly.

Not all tools are equal: Sova Team Styles

While no behavioural styles model will ever be able to offer comprehensive insight into our personalities and behaviours, not all tools are created equal. They are only as good as the people who develop and use them, and the underpinning on which they’re based.

It follows that tools based on a more nuanced and diverse approach to personality and behaviour – such as the HEXACO six-factor model of personality traits – offer a more up to date and reliable basis for assessing behavioural styles. That’s why Future Talent Learning uses the Sova Team Styles Model.

As with DiSC and Social Styles, the Sova Model helps us to identify personal behavioural style preferences and approaches when working collaboratively. The model incorporates eight different team styles across four quadrants:


These are styles linked to strengths in taking a creative/innovative role and the extent to which they draw on contacts and networks outside of their immediate team.

Connectors are great at building, developing and harnessing networks and useful resources.

Catalysts are always looking for creative and innovative solutions and ideas, offering new insight and approaches.


These are styles related to being comfortable co-ordinating the team and ensuring decisions are made, and the extent to which someone is likely to drive and shape the team and their actions.

Directors tend to co-ordinate any group, clarifying needs and goals, making decisions and delegating accordingly.

Energisers makes things happen, bringing energy and motivating others.


Delivering styles are all about making things happen, helping us to move forward in a cohesive and collegiate way. Deliverers are often keen to be part of planning and implementation activities.

Architects turn ideas into workable and efficient actions and plans.

Harmonisers consider the needs and feelings of others, helping to bring people together.


Critiquing styles make sure that activities are completed effectively, on time and on plan.

Analysts consider and critically assess all options and approaches, ideas and plans.

Auditors are those conscientious, keen-eyed attention-to-detail people who can spot errors and omissions and focus on delivering on promises.

A Sova Team Styles report tracks how strongly we default to this range of styles, ranking them in order from those we’re most likely to adopt to the ones we’re least likely to use. No one style is better than any of the others, and, as the Team Styles Implications table shows us, there are potential strengths and limitations associated with each type. For example, Harmonisers are great at promoting teamwork, but they can also struggle to say "no" or to put boundaries on what can realistically be achieved.

We can imagine, too, the potential for miscommunication between someone who is strongly Analytical and always wants to subject new ideas to rigorous levels of critique and a Catalyst who feels their ideas and creativity are being crushed as a result. Toning down our Analytic tendencies is much more likely to result in meaningful communication and connection with our Catalyst colleague.

The model encourages us to look at the patterns of our default styles and how this might impact on others, giving us a baseline from which we might look to flex our style as and when circumstances demand. Yes, we might be a natural Auditor or Connector, but we might have to channel one or more other styles in the interests of creating meaningful communication and meeting those goals.

When pride meets prejudice – and other potential mishaps

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

Let’s assume Darcy is a Director (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 a Harmoniser. By turn, Harmonisers can be read by Directors as naive and overly optimistic.

Being forced to pay attention to the emotional needs of others can be stressful for the Darcys among us. But Harmonisers like Elizabeth need us to recognise that successful communication depends on understanding other people’s viewpoints and feelings. They remind us that we should 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, Directors should never try to dampen a Harmoniser’s natural sense of empathy.

On the other hand, Harmonisers need to understand that a Director’s clarity of purpose and direction can be a real asset too. Once we’ve done with the small talk, we might need to get down to business, make those decisions and get things done.

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.

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

We’ve already seen that, as leaders, knowing ourselves and our preferences and being our ‘authentic’ selves is important – but it can only take us so far. In the words of Herminia Ibarra, we need to see ourselves as “works in progress”, to keep “evolving our professional identities” to keep pace with changing needs. Emotional intelligence is not just a matter of recognising, understanding and managing our own emotions; we also need to recognise, understand and influence the emotions of others.

Just as we may need to adopt different management styles in certain situations, we also need to flex our communication style when we want to influence or create better relationships with people whose styles and preferences are different to our own.

One key to successful leadership, therefore, comes from understanding which behaviours and which social and communication styles to adopt to best serve the situation we’re in – even when it means pushing outside our comfort zone.

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

We also need to look out for the cues from others that will tell us that communication has backfired or not hit home. That means listening actively, using questions effectively and becoming an observer, picking up both verbal and non-verbal signs that all is not well and a change of approach might be in order.

Coming full circle

Whichever quadrant of whatever model we are most firmly planted in, being able to flex our style will accrue a whole host of useful benefits. It will help us to build a better rapport with members of our team and other colleagues, even Dave in Accounts. It will better equip us to play to people’s strengths and improve engagement and performance. And it may even mean fewer workplace dramas and conflicts. Flexing our style takes practice, but it’s also 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.


Test your understanding

  • Explain why Sova’s Team Styles is potentially more useful than the DiSC or Social Styles models.
  • Identify the two scales used to assess social styles.
  • Describe why a Sova Team Styles Auditor might not always see eye to eye with an Energiser.

What does it mean for you?

  • Think of a situation where your own communication style clashed with that of a colleague. What happened? How might a better awareness of both your default styles help you to communicate better in future?


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