The DISC Behavioral Model

I vividly remember a situation in which I gave adjusting (i.e. negative) feedback applying everything I knew about communication – I-messages, stating observable behavior, outlining negative consequences of the behavior, actionable wish – and still not getting my message through. The recipient was just like “So what? What’s so bad about alienating the other teams?”

For the longest time I didn’t understand what went wrong. I couldn’t grasp how he could not care about something, I care about so much. The developer in question is someone I have high regard for. Therefore “He doesn’t get it, because he’s an idiot” was an unlikely explanation.

Last week I finally figured it out: I listened to this podcast on feedback and got to know the DISC model. According to this model people’s behavior is dominated by one of 4 different styles:

DISC model

  • Dominance: High “D”s are comfortable taking decisions with less than complete information. They are forceful, bordering on rude and want to get the job done. Archetype: “CEO”
  • Influence: High “I”s are the ones who greet everyone personally. They enjoy small talk and tend to be emotional. They are persuasive, enthusiastic and warm. Archetype: “Marketing guy”
  • Steadiness: High “S”s don’t like sudden change. They prefer a steady pace and security. They are calm, patient and consistent. They don’t often show emotion but care about yours. They ask “Are you okay with this?”. Archetype: “Grandma”
  • Compliance: High “C”s enjoy order. They adhere to rules and processes and it drives them crazy, when others do not. They are reserved, meticulous and want to get it right the first time. Archetype: “Mr. Spock”.

Everybody has traits of all 4 styles. When you are aware of your behavior you can mimic each of the styles. Your dominant DISC-style is the one you exhibit when you don’t pay attention.

The styles are evenly spread throughout the population. Only about 25% of the people you meet do care about the same things, you care about. (IT departments are swamped with high Ds and Cs, though.) Ideally you want all 4 styles in a team to achieve great results.

Coming back to the opening situation: I care about relationships and the general vibe of a group, so I outlined negative consequences in this area. But the recipient is a strong C. Inwardly he probably rolled his eyes about my “touchy-feely” concerns.

I ignored something crucial (paraphrased from the podcast):

“Feedback is not about delivery, it’s about reception.”

I should have outlined consequences he cares about such as people being less likely to follow the process because of his behavior. Had he been a high D (instead of C) I might have concentrated on how his behavior is harmful to achieving good results. Both would have been just as true my original concern of alienating the greater group but more meaningful to a high C or D respectively.

If you, too, want to tailor your feedback to your counterparts, I strongly encourage you to listen to the podcast. The two podcasters portrait the different styles rather exaggeratedly and it’s a hoot! Also, there’s a DISC-Cheat-Sheet linked at the bottom of the cast’s page.

PS: If you don’t find yourself clearly in one of the styles, here’s an online test. (They map the letters to birds but it’s the same as DISC.)

Related article: Talk about what matters: Content, Pattern, Relationship