Adaptability: The Secret of Successful Teams

4 in 10 people can’t work cooperatively with their colleagues, according to a survey of American employers.

Despite what we might think, success in the workplace is not just a matter of professional training and expertise. We must also excel at working alongside the people in our organizational teams, people who have different personality profiles with different attitudes and behaviors.

To successfully work as part of a team, we must know how to manage ourselves, and know how to manage our relationships with others. This is the essence of behavioral adaptability.

Let me illustrate with a quick story:

Diana’s awkward story: Meeting Barbara for the first time

Diana, a Human Resources Director, had just hired a new administrative assistant named Barbara. Diana saw Barbara sitting alone at a table in the company cafeteria on her first day at work. Diana is strong in the DiSC® style of Influence, or i style, so she is naturally enthusiastic, and enjoys interacting with others. Barbara seemed shy and reserved, so Diana decided to go over and have a chat to make her feel welcome.

Diana started by asking Barbara questions about her family, where she grew up, and what schools she attended. To Diana’s surprise, Barbara became flustered and her face turned red. As Diana asked, “What’s wrong? Are you OK?” Barbara suddenly got up and rushed out of the cafeteria.

A few weeks later, Diana was attending a DiSC® training session I was hosting. As I described the Conscientiousness, or C style, Diana recognized that Barbara fit all the descriptors of this style. Diana learned that people who are strong in the C style have a need for privacy. So she realized that by posing so many personal questions, she made Barbara feel that her space had been invaded.

Diana had assumed that Barbara would feel comfortable answering personal questions because that’s how Diana would have felt in her place. But Diana hadn’t considered that Barbara had a personal style that was very different to her own. Diana needed to adapt to Barbara’s style to put her at ease.

Why we need adaptability

Adaptability allows us to effectively work with others in a way to minimize unproductive conflict and maximize productivity. We acquire adaptability through emotional learning, not logical learning. Adaptability is an important part of emotional intelligence, which you’ll be aware of from the work of Daniel Goleman.

In the story above, Diana failed to consider that people are different. People have different behavioral styles,  that are neither good nor bad – just different. Each style has its strengths and limitations. Accepting that people are different is a crucial step in learning adaptability.

Diana’s assumption that Barbara was just like her is not unusual. It’s quite common for us to expect others to behave like ourselves. This can lead to feelings of irritation when others behave differently. Acting out feelings of irritation is seldom productive and will often be damaging to relationships.

How to manage feelings of irritation with others

Asking yourself what irritates you about other people is a good place to start when learning adaptability. We can all get irritated by people we work with. Perhaps they’re too talkative, too aggressive, too passive, too sensitive, too anal… and I could go on.

All too often, we blame the person we are irritated with: “If they weren’t so inconsiderate, I wouldn’t be so irritated with them!” But take a moment to consider that maybe that person is just being themselves – that’s just the way they are. So here we are getting irritated with someone because they are not like us.

I have heard people say, “Why shouldn’t I get irritated when someone does something stupid? They deserve it!” Well there are two good reasons why you need to manage your irritation. First, feelings of irritation, when acted on, are an indication that you are judging the other person for being who they are. This will undermine the trust that person has for you. Second, when you let someone irritate you, you’re giving them control over you by letting their behavior dictate your response.

The next time you feel irritated with somebody, stop and think: “How interesting, I’m getting irritated… What’s the best way of managing my irritation so that we can work together more effectively?”

Understanding and acceptance of others are the keys to adaptability

The next step in learning adaptability is knowing how to understand and accept others.

Many years ago, I learned a simple four-step process for building stronger relationships with people who are different from me:

  1. Awareness: I need to learn more about them – how and why they are different.
  2. Understanding: Through increased awareness I gain a understanding of why they do what they do.
  3. Acceptance: Making the decision that it is perfectly okay for them to be that way.
  4. Behavior: Learning to adapt my behavior so that I relate to them in a way that works well for both of us.

I want to zoom in on steps 2 and 3 here because they are the skills people need to develop before they will see the need to adapt their behavior.

Understanding: Awareness of others’ needs, values and life experiences, coupled with empathy for how they think and feel.

You do not need to have had the same experiences as others to understand them. When they speak, allow them the space to fully express themselves and listen with empathy. This will help you to appreciate their point of view and tune in to their feelings.

Acceptance: Being receptive and curious about others’ differences, building respect for them and truly valuing their differences.

From understanding comes acceptance. You can learn to perceive others without being judgmental. Recognize that despite your differences, they’re fundamentally good people with good intentions.  Be more mindful of the judgments you make about the people you work with – and live with!

The DiSC® model: Learning to be more adaptable

The Everything DiSC® model offers us a framework to better understand both our own behaviors and the behaviors of those on our team. One of the great strengths of the DiSC® model is that it does a great job of increasing “awareness” – step 1 in my process above.

It also provides some insight into step 2 – understanding – and yet I think we often focus more on understanding the behaviors rather than what is driving those behaviors.

My experience is that step 3 – acceptance – is often overlooked or given a superficial overview – “All styles are equal,” for example.

Since each DiSC® style has its own particular challenges in terms of learning to be more adaptable, I would like to explore each style here:

Dominance

Outstanding need: Achievement

Major fear: Loss of Control

People strong in Dominance (D style) have an outstanding need for achievement. As a result, they have a fear of losing control.

D styles have the drive and determination to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and succeed. They are guided by a clear, confident vision about how things should be done.

To be more adaptable, the D style needs to understand that they don’t always have to be in control. Other members of their team have talent and good ideas, and are very capable of managing projects.

If an immature D style manager believes they have to be in charge of everything or even micromanage their team, they become ineffective. Here is an example:

Several years ago, I was asked to do a 360 degree leadership profile on a manager in a financial services firm, because he was experiencing a high level of staff turnover. His feedback was amongst the worst I had seen in terms of a lack of emotional intelligence, and lack of awareness of the impact he was having on his team.

The feedback from team members was that they believed that he did not trust them. When confronted with that feedback, his response was “but I do trust them. I have some great people working for me.” My obvious next question was: “Then why do you feel the need to micromanage them, and in the process demonstrate that you don’t really trust them?”

He was shocked. He had not ever thought about the fact that he had deliberately hired very talented people, and then not trusted them to use their talent, because he had this underlying fear of losing control.

Learning adaptability gives us a more emotionally mature D style manager who will allow other team members to take charge of projects. This requires learning to be comfortable delegating responsibility as well as tasks. Delegation frees up the D style to focus on other projects.

To make the change, the D style will have to face their fear of letting go: “What if the other person screws it up?” They must learn to trust people in order to overcome this fear. These feelings of anxiety are natural for D styles. The key to adaptability is to acknowledge any feelings of anxiety but to not let them dominate your decisions.

Influence

Outstanding need: Recognition

Major fear: Loss of influence

People strong in Influence (i style) have an outstanding need for recognition. As a result, they have a fear of loss of influence.

i styles want to be liked by people and have a positive impact on them. They also have a very fertile imagination that generates a lot of ideas that excite them. Because they want to share their ideas with others, they are very talkative, enthusiastic, optimistic and energetic.

To be more adaptable, the i style needs to be aware of their tendency to talk too much. They must understand that to be more effective as a team member, they need to ask questions and listen attentively to the answers.

Let’s say an I style is going to see clients. The i style introduces themselves, and the client says, “So what have you got for me.” Now the less self-aware i style will go off into a lengthy spiel, saying lots of stuff not relevant to the client – because they’ve failed to ask the client any questions. The more self-aware i style will resist their natural tendency to talk. Even when the client says, “Tell me what you’ve got,” they respond, “Before I tell you what I’ve got, I need to be sure I’m telling you what is relevant. So let’s start with this: Can you tell me something about your business?”

Because of their enthusiasm, optimism and energy, the i style has a tendency to over commit themselves – with the result that they have trouble following through on all their commitments.

Learning adaptability enables i styles to manage their natural enthusiasm. They can learn to exercise more self-discipline before saying, “Yes.” It doesn’t come naturally, so it must become conscious.

When someone asks for their commitment, they mustn’t answer right away. Instead, they should stop. Take a moment to think. Check their calendars. Make sure they have the time and resources to spare – before they commit themselves.

Steadiness

Outstanding need: Acceptance

Major fear: Disappointing others

People strong in Steadiness (S style) have an outstanding need for acceptance. As a result, they have a fear of disappointing others.

S styles are very supportive people who love to help others. You will often find them in customer service roles, sales, support roles and inbound sales. Although they love dealing with people, they have a fear of conflict and of hurting people’s feelings.

To be more adaptable, the S style needs to be very aware of their need to be accepted by others, coupled with their fear of being judged. This combination often leads to them seeing the needs of others as more important than their own. As a result, their own needs may not get satisfied. So they need to find the courage to stand up for themselves.

Because of their fear of disappointing others, the S style can be very hesitant in the way they communicate. They need to think through what they’re going to say before they say it, to make sure that they don’t say anything that will upset the other person. This can be very frustrating for other styles, especially the D style who prefers direct, straight to the point communication.

A good example of this would be when an S style person has to deliver some unpleasant news to their D style manager.  Their likely approach is to start by saying “Bill, there’s something I need to tell you, but first I need to give you some background.” And then they go into a long roundabout story about what happened to lead up to the current situation. They do this because they want their manager to still like them, after they’ve delivered the bad news. But if their manager is a D style, this approach will drive them nuts. Their manager is likely to respond with, “Just get to the point, will you!”

So the S style really needs to learn to be more straightforward and get to the point, get to the punchline – and then, if they need to, give the background afterward.

Conscientiousness

Outstanding need: Correctness

Major fear: Criticism of what they do

People strong in Conscientiousness have an outstanding need for correctness. As a result, they have a fear of criticism of what they do.

C styles are not only focused on getting things right, but also doing the right thing. Typically you will find C style people to be diplomatic, polite and tactful.

Because of their fear of criticism of what they do, they put a significant amount of energy into making sure that everything they do is correct, logical, and done to a high standard. Because they are so focused on logic, they tend to avoid getting into discussions about emotions and will avoid emotionally charged situations. They are very self-controlled and have difficulty dealing with people who lack emotional control.

An example of C style decision making that I came across recently, was when an organization decided to take away an insignificant employee benefit to save money. For several years the company had a free bowl of fruit in their kitchen for employees to snack on, which was replenished every day. One of the managers, who has the C style, reasoned that the bowl of fruit was costing the firm too much money. So they stopped the fruit bowl. They did not consider that the message they were sending to their employees was, ”We don’t care about you.”

To be more adaptable, C styles need to be aware that although facts may be important, the emotional needs of others are just as important. They need to be conscious of their own discomfort about talking about feelings, then put their discomfort aside and actually find out what people are feeling.

As a result of their fear of criticism of what they do, C styles also have a strong need for certainty. Their need for certainty can lead to an avoidance of risk at all costs.

Striving for total certainty and predictability can kill innovation and lead to a mire of rules, policies and procedures that stop people making decisions and taking action. To succeed in business, a willingness to take calculated risks is essential.

To be more adaptable, C styles need to be aware that they can over analyze before acting. Therefore C styles need to manage their natural caution, and be more open to seizing new opportunities without excessive deliberation.

It doesn’t matter what your DiSC style is – you can be successful

There is nowhere on the DiSC map that is better than anywhere else on the DiSC map. No style is better than any other style. The most successful people are those who understand their style and their natural strengths and fears – and have learned to adapt to use a wide range of behaviors and develop a wider range of strengths.

Putting your energy into overcoming your fears, and moving outside your comfort zone, will make you more successful regardless of your chosen field.

Keith Ayers- April 2018