Beware the assumption that everyone else thinks like you do.
Axiom’s Miles Henson argues that leaders and managers need greater skill in tuning into others – and gives some tips for influencing your colleagues right now
However hard we try to get through to someone, sometimes it just doesn’t happen. Usually, that’s down to a mismatch between our default style and the style of the person we’re talking to. Too much detail, too much excitement, too much command-and-tell, not enough reflection – all these can lead to mis-communication and failure to bring about the change we want. For leaders and managers, it’s often the biggest barrier to getting results through others.
The key is to adapt our approach to the preferences and needs of the other person so we can talk in a way that engages and motivates them. Sounds simple enough, right? But for most of us some hard yards are needed before we are able to communicate in the self-aware, attuned and flexible way that’s needed.
Over many years working with outstanding leaders, managers and salespeople, I’ve come back again and again to an accessible and unerringly accurate model that helps people become skilful influencers.
DISC is a behavioural and communication assessment tool that examines people’s traits and how they act in a work setting. Its main output is a profile that categorises people based on four traits: dominance (D), influence (I), steadiness (S) and compliance (C). DISC has been used by more than 40 million people worldwide and is scientifically validated and recognised by the likes of the British Psychological Society.
Not surprisingly, most of us are a blend of one main trait and one or more subsidiary traits. Legendary Manchester United football manager Alex Ferguson is high on dominance – they seek and hold onto authority, they are driven, competitive and decisive. Entrepreneur Richard Branson, meanwhile, is primarily an influencer who works with and through others and empowers them to deliver, although he also has a streak of dominance that gives him his competitive edge. Tennis star Andy Murray mixes steadiness and conscientiousness – he’s precise, rigorous and focused on and off court.
The point is not that any one style is better than the others. Each has strengths – and of course corresponding pitfalls and blind-spots. Those high on dominance can be too impulsive and leave other people feeling pushed around or even bulled. Influencers can come across as over-optimistic and insincere. Those with a lot of steadiness in their profile might be slow to change and might be stuck with limiting beliefs. Compliant types can seem aloof and, from a need to ‘get it right’, can end up using 1,000 words when 100 would do.
Influencing and leading
The real value of the DISC model is that we can use it to become self-aware – to identify our own habitual ways of behaving and communicating – and then to read those we work with. That’s the foundation for being able to adapt how we communicate to tap into the other person’s needs and motivations.
DISC was a big help when I was coaching the UK chief exec of one of the global carmakers. The executive team he led was operating well below optimum, mostly because of an atmosphere of mistrust and misunderstanding. We explored and applied DISC to open his eyes to how his default style of dominance was causing him to be seen by some of his board colleagues as a table-banging bully.
From there, he learned to see how others’ needs and perspectives were different. His marketing director, an influencer, responded better to a softer approach. My client learned to find out more about him and his life, to ask how he was from time to time and, crucially, to listen to the answers he got. His finance director, who had quite a lot of compliance in his profile for someone who’d made it to such a senior role, needed more than just headline goals – he needed my client to get more involved with him in the detail.
Based on our work, the chief exec became a more effective influencer. He didn’t change his basic personality – he was still decisive, results focused and would dish out the ‘hairdryer’ treatment now and then. But he was more adaptable and subtle. Over time, the board started functioning better as a group rather than being a collection of talented individuals who rarely saw eye to eye.
Accessing the benefits of DISC
At Axiom, DISC is the centrepiece of a one-day workshop we run in-house for companies’ leaders and managers. Knowing Me, Knowing You helps participants gain greater self-awareness and hone their ability to attune to others. It challenges their engrained thinking and ways of interacting with others. Crucially, it provides practical tactics for effective influencing of a wide range of personality types – and plenty of chances to practise.
DISC has many benefits in employee engagement – including influencing others to support and contribute to a new strategy or initiative resolving conflicts and enhancing collaboration in and between teams.
We recently used DISC in work with leaders from the UK branch of international insurer Generali. Before the event, participants completed a DISC self-assessment questionnaire and received a personalised evaluation of their natural communication style. On the day, they explored ways to adapt their style to meet the needs of others with different DISC profiles. The workshop was just one element in an on-going package of support for Generali that seeks to drive up employee engagement by first building leadership capability.
And what about for those of you who can’t get onto one of our programmes any time soon? There’s no substitute for proper training in applying DISC, but even so it can be useful to think about the concept in the context of your day-to-day interactions. First of all, what might your profile be? And how does that compare with the profiles of those you work with? That simple step can help you avoid the trap of assuming that the other person thinks like you do.
Using DISC in your communication today
And some practical tips for communicating to someone in your team based on their likely profile:
- If they’re primarily D (dominance), then keep your communication pacey and at headline level. Try to avoid challenging them in public; do it privately. And don’t be offended by short sharp responses – it’s all about the task remember.
- If they’re more of an I (influence) type, they need to know you value the relationship so don’t make it all business. Talk ideas and opinions and not too much detail as they will get bored. Be enthusiastic and above all check that they are listening.
- If they’re mostly S (steadiness), then they will always need time to reflect. They are relationship people but don’t impose your views as they will become stubborn or, worse, stop listening. Change needs to be given its proper context.
- And if they’re C (compliance) by nature, it’s all about the detail of the task. They will see you as superficial if you’re always big picture or always smiling. Get into the nitty-gritty, make it logical and present your arguments with facts.
Above all, the old adage holds true: the meaning of the communication is the response you get. That’s why awareness and flexibility are so important.
Miles Henson is an Axiom consultant and communication and behavioural change specialist