In this international bestseller, communication expert Thomas Erikson set about trying to understand why certain types of people rub us the wrong way and what to do about it.
Behavioral psychologists have come up with various models to classify human personality types. At their best, psychometric tests can help team members understand and appreciate each other better. At their worst, these personality assessments lead to baseless generalizations and, if applied incorrectly, limit opportunities unfairly.
In the workplace, the Myers-Briggs model is the most widely applied. The Enneagram offers another framework for classifying different personalities. Both models, however, make it hard to keep different personality types straight. Myers-Briggs classifies humans into 16 different personality types; the Enneagram into nine.
Make It Four
In his international bestseller, Surrounded by Idiots, Thomas Erikson uses the DiSC personality assessment, developed by psychologist William Moulton Marston in his 1928 book, Emotions of Normal People. The model’s big advantage: You only need to keep four different personality types straight.
The DiSC model, which stands for (D)ominance, (i)nfluence, (S)teadiness and (C)onscientiousness, puts people into four rough categories and assigns a color to each: red, yellow, blue or green. Erikson explains that people inherit aspects of their type from their parents and other relatives; the rest develops from early life experiences. Only 5% of the population falls completely within one color. Fully 80% combine two colors and the rest three.
There is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum. (Carl Jung)
In a tongue-in-cheek style, combined with a dozen or more warnings against reducing complex people to narrow types, Erikson renders his advice enjoyable and valuable.
Red and Yellow: The Talkers
Reds and Yellows are the world’s talkative extroverts, Erikson informs us. Reds are hard-charging and ambitious, and come across as supremely confident. To get your point across with this type, speak with passion and certainty in broad strokes, not details. Don’t back down when Reds challenge you, though, or you may lose their respect.
Let’s be honest – Reds are the ones who always believe they are surrounded by idiots.(Thomas Erikson)
Erikson describes Yellows as optimists who talk constantly and make lots of friends – but don’t listen. They hate structure and details and get bored easily – especially of you and what you have to say. To get Yellows to listen, address the big picture, not the details, Erikson advises. Ask them how they feel, not what they think. Share personal details, laugh at their jokes, flatter them and indulge their long streams of consciousness.
Greens and Blues: The Listeners
Greens and Blues, Erikson explains, are more introverted types. Greens avoid responsibility, go along to get along, listen well and resist change. Their introversion, shyness and risk/conflict avoidance make them passive and slow to come around. Greens take a lot of convincing to embrace change, Erikson cautions, so make sure to acknowledge their fear and concerns. Thus, gently nudge Greens toward making decisions and accepting responsibility.
Blues dive into details, decide slowly, work methodically and aim for perfection. They often come across as distant and cold, preferring not to speak about personal matters. Blues want to gather all possible information and keep asking questions before making decisions. If you hope to persuade a Blue, Erikson suggests that you prepare extensively, avoid small talk, stay on task and work through problems methodically.
Erikson advises you to constantly match people’s personalities, or “colors,” to create optimal workplace chemistry. With all this switching and changing, you might wonder how to peg a person’s true personality. Still, Erikson insists that knowing the types broadly can help you better understand “difficult” people – which will allow you to meet them halfway.
The best teams feature a balance of people across the color spectrum; Reds and Blues or Greens and Yellows tend to work best together, Erikson explains. He also cautions against putting too many of the same color into one team.
You Won’t Win Over Others by Always “Being Yourself”
Erikson helpfully reminds you that when you talk, you may control the narrative – but it’s the listener who determines the message. People only hear what they want and filter out the rest. So if you want to convince others, you must adapt your communication style to your listener’s personality type. To be heard, Erikson insists, bend your presentation to the listener’s frame of reference.
Erikson does not seem to think highly of the “be yourself” type of advice we often find in other self-help manuals. Pragmatically, he insists that you won’t succeed in life and business as well as the chameleon: someone who changes their approach to suit the personality and quirks of the people they must work with.
By adjusting yourself to how other people want to be treated, you become more effective in your communication.Thomas Erikson
Personality models are by their very nature reductionist. But to work together effectively, relatively simple frameworks like Erikson’s four-color scheme can be useful. Especially when working with team members remotely, knowing in broad strokes how others “tick” can help avoid misunderstandings and miscommunications. On the flip side, the superficial familiarity such models offer might obscure the need to get to know co-workers more thoroughly in natural ways.
Other influential books on personality types include Carl Jung’s seminal Psychological Types; The Wisdom of the Enneagram by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson; and Do What You Are by Paul D. Tieger.