Poor communication causes workplace gridlock and unnecessary stress. The DiSC® behavioral style assessment can help you decode and manage others’ interactions—and your own

Biomeds have a reputation for not being the best communicators. According to the common stereotype, they are introverts who are fabulous at communicating with equipment, but when it comes to people, not so much. Whether or not you agree, the reality is that when you are in the service industry, your job is as much about managing people as equipment—maybe more so. In this article, we will explore how understanding human behavior can reduce the stress and conflict often experienced in working relationships.

As a corporate trainer focused on the areas of communication and customer service, I use a tool known as the DiSC® model of human behavior to help people learn about their own behavioral styles and how others perceive them. After 15 years of working with people in the clinical engineering field, I have found that this type of understanding not only leads to self-awareness, but also becomes the catalyst for behavioral modification. When people learn to listen and observe behavioral styles, and are willing to take positive action, it leads to positive results. Through using this tool, we have seen more effective communication between coworkers and customers, greater departmental productivity, and an enriched work/life balance.

A Model of Behavior

Human behavior has long been studied to help us understand why and how people do and say the things they do. In 1928, William Moulton Marston, PhD, published Emotions of Normal People, in which he identified four primary emotions associated with certain behavioral responses. Today, those tendencies are identified as Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, and Conscientiousness. They make up what we now call the DiSC model of human behavior.

Marston did not intend for these categories to be a way to label people, but rather a means to identify the frequency and intensity with which people behave in a particular style. He felt that by understanding how people react to the different demands of others, situations, and societal expectations, we could learn to modify our own behavior to be more effective in our communication, which would lead to a more harmonious life and workplace. His model was later updated by John Geier, PhD, and is used today to help us gain insight and awareness of ourselves, others, and situations that we encounter. From these insights, we can respond and adapt to people and situations in a more effective manner.

To understand the DiSC model, we first need to understand the role of perception. When we communicate, particularly in the workplace, the listener’s perception of our communication is more important than our intent, because perception is what that person walks away with. For the listener, perception is reality. It stands to reason, then, that it is in our interest to pay attention to the way people perceive us. Knowing our DiSC style can be the first step in modifying our behavior to get better results from our interactions with our colleagues.

Our behavior is formed from the inside out. At the center, of course, are our genes. We can’t change those. People who have a creative gene will excel in creative activities; people who are mechanically inclined will excel at mechanics. We are born with these tendencies. But our environment and life experiences contribute to our personality as well. When we talk about the DiSC styles, we are not referring to our personality, but rather to the behavior we display on the outside, which others observe and interpret.

DiSC Figure 1

Figure 1. DiSC® is a registered trademark of John Wiley & Sons Inc. All rights reserved.

According to Marston and Geier, each of us falls into one or two of the four behavioral styles in the DiSC model seen in Figure 1: Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, or Conscientiousness. This model is only meant as a tool to explore how our behavioral style has a direct impact on our communication. No style is better than any other, and we all have some portion of each style within us. We can even adapt when needed, and call upon our inner D or S if a situation calls for it. As we delve into the specifics of each style below, we will also explore how each style’s strengths, when over-used or expressed under stress, can be perceived negatively by others.

The Four Types

First, let’s define each quadrant of the DiSC model. The D in the upper left quadrant stands for Dominance. People in this quadrant are decisive, independent, results-oriented, and straightforward. But when they come under stress or when they overuse these qualities, they can come off as intolerant, aggressive, demanding, and insensitive. Ds don’t have much patience for long-winded conversations. They are bullet point people. As a service provider, when you sense someone has turned off, take note and consider that person’s potential style. If she seems to be bored or are looking at her watch, she may be a D—and your technical explanation of the inner workings of a piece of equipment might be killing her on the inside. Ds just want to know how a situation affects them (in this case, how quickly you can get the equipment up and running again). Consider sending a quick text or email instead of holding a 15-minute conversation.

The I in the upper right quadrant stands for Influence. I types are enthusiastic, talkative, spontaneous, and demonstrative. They are often sales people, entertainers, and the like. They love a party and want to win you over. If you’re not smiling or responsive, they think they’ve failed and they’ll only try harder. These overextensions can sometimes make them appear phony, insincere, unreliable, and unbelievable. When you have to deliver feedback to I types, you better keep it interesting. Look them right in the eyes to keep them focused. They like to be involved, so make sure you let them speak. Take time to ask them what they really need, but don’t think this is going to be a quick conversation. When you respond to a service event for an I, be prepared to hear about exactly what happened from the time the equipment alarmed, including where they were when the alarm sounded, the patient’s response, what the last two technicians told them about this situation, etc.

The S in the third, bottom right quadrant stands for Steadiness. People with this tendency are warm and friendly. They come across as very supportive, cooperative, and agreeable. On the down side, they can sometimes seem passive, docile, indecisive, and timid. They care deeply about what people think and want everyone to be happy, so often it’s hard for them to make a quick decision. They favor a lot of input from all stakeholders. When you need to get your point across to an S, be patient and build trust. Show how solutions will benefit the department or the patient. Involve them in the planning when changes are necessary.

Many technical folks fall into the last quadrant, C, which stands for Conscientious. These types are orderly people who are persistent, detailed, and serious. They care very much about quality; they are the i-dotters and t-crossers. It can be very difficult for Cs to move from one task to another if they feel the first job is not completely done. To others, they can seem picky, resistant, and fussy. If you move too quickly, they feel uncomfortable because all factors may not have been considered, which could result in an error. They also don’t like conflict due to its unpredictability, so they are more apt to tune you out than continue to argue a point. When working with these types, it’s best to use data and facts and then document that information in writing so they can refer to it later. They are not bullet point people; they want extensive details about the equipment. They want to know how you came to your solution or suggestion. Make sure you can back up what you say with the facts. If you are recommending a piece of equipment be taken out of service, for example, be prepared to explain the mean time between failures, the cost of service ratio, and the potential cost savings the new equipment would offer. Of course, if you are a C, you already have all that information.

DiSC in Action

When people are formally assessed, they receive a report with their behavioral type plotted somewhere on the circle based on the way they answered the questions. The placement of the dot indicates not only your style, but the intensity with which you display the tendencies of that style. You may recognize some of these tendencies in yourself. It’s possible to read others using the DiSC tool, even without the benefit of a formal assessment.

When trying to ascertain the behavioral style of a colleague, break the model down into hemispheres. For example, the D and C styles are part of the DiSC western hemisphere. They tend to view their environment as unfavorable (a pessimistic view), whereas the I and S styles in the eastern hemisphere generally perceive their environment more positively (an optimistic outlook). In the northern hemisphere, the D and I types tend to feel more powerful than their environment. As a result, they may behave more assertively or proactively than their counterparts in the southern hemisphere. The S and C types generally feel that they are less powerful than their environment, and therefore they may be less assertive.

To understand how these favorable or unfavorable views of the environment can affect people’s behavior, consider this everyday scenario. A group of people walks up to a new local restaurant and sees a line out the door. The D and C types’ perception may be that this place must be mismanaged. The I and S types will tend to think, “This must be a great restaurant!” You might observe the difference between assertive and passive tendencies when the D and I types say, “Hold on, I’m going to speak to the manager and get us seated.” The C and S types are more apt to say, “Let’s just go someplace else. We’ll never get a table.”

DiSC Figure 2 cr

Figure 2. DiSC® is a registered trademark of John Wiley & Sons Inc. All rights reserved.

When trying to see where someone falls in the model, use the hemispheres in Figure 2 to answer these questions: Is this person more active, fast-paced, assertive, and bold, or thoughtful, moderate-paced, calm, and careful? Depending on the answer, the person will fall either into the top half (D or I) or bottom half (C or S). Then consider if the person is more questioning, logic-focused, skeptical, and challenging, or accepting, people-focused, receptive, and agreeable? The answer puts them either on the left (D or C) or the right (I or S). The ease or difficulty it took to decide will indicate how intensely the person exhibits those tendencies. If it was obvious to you, the person could be a high D or S, for example, and their dot would be placed toward the outer edge of the circle. If it was not that easy to decide, they are probably closer to the middle of the circle, and they have a little bit more of each style in them. Once you know which style they fall into, then you can really focus on how to communicate more effectively with them.

People often make the mistake of thinking that others like to be communicated with in the same manner they do. For example, if you have Dominance tendencies, you may think people don’t want you to waste their time with the nitty gritty details. But other styles need all those details to feel comfortable. Great communicators think less about their own needs and more about how the listener wants to receive information. In the workplace, people are more productive when they learn how to communicate effectively with all styles.

Finding Common Ground

When people are truly communicating, they get better results and stress levels are reduced. When they are not communicating effectively, both parties experience undue anxiety. In the second case, simple conversations turn into conflicts over and over again, because everyone is focusing on what they want to say, rather than what they need to say to move the other person toward the desired action.

DiSC can help people find common ground and build relationships that can hold up under all conditions. A clinical engineering department can be a very hectic place. Equipment and people are coming and going all the time. Even though it may be a fast-paced environment, moving too fast can cause some types to slow down. When people foresee a conflict, they will often do anything to avoid it, especially C and S types. They may avoid work consciously or unconsciously, rather than deal with the anxiety caused by having to race through a repair. If the objective is to get broken equipment back up on the floor quickly, a clinician rushing through an explanation of the problem can lead to a longer turnaround time. The technician may not ask all the questions he needs to because he can sense the communicator’s urgency, but that will still not allow him to proceed through the repair any more quickly. With C and S colleagues, it would be better to slow down, take the time to explain, and then let them do their jobs.

Likewise, when a technician is questioning an end user, she needs to understand the emotions that person may be experiencing and step a little out of her own comfort zone. The technician needs to focus on gathering the essential information from the end user and assure that person she is going to get the repair done as quickly as possible.

In dealing with different types, it can be helpful to remember a few tips.

When communicating with the Dominance style, remember to be direct, brief, and to the point. Use a results-oriented approach, and don’t waste the person’s time. Use phrases like be the best, challenge, and bottom-line results.

Approach the Influence styles informally. Keep them focused by providing clear expectations, but be relaxed and sociable. Let them verbalize their thoughts and feelings. Use phrases like fun, exciting, you look great!

With the Steadiness style, be sensitive about feelings. Listen and be prepared to discuss. Give explanations, reasons, and timelines. Use phrases like take your time, can you help me, and I appreciate your dedication.

The Conscientious style will need to you explain things carefully. Avoid personal issues. Disagree with the facts, not the person. Allow time for the best and correct answer. Use phrases like here are the facts, proven, guarantee, I appreciate your attention to quality, and what do you think the problem is?

Through the DiSC model, we can learn how to better read our coworkers and managers. It can provide the framework for a deeper understanding of how others perceive us, but it’s only the beginning. We also have to be willing to keep an open mind and modify our own behavior. Teams and individuals that learn to communicate effectively then reap the benefits of a harmonious and productive work environment.

Abbe Meehan is president of the TEC Resource Center. For more information, contact chief editor Jenny Lower at [email protected].

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