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Q&A on the Book Surrounded by Idiots

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Key Takeaways

  • Self-awareness is important. The more you understand about yourself, the less you risk acting in a way that might be stressful.
  • It is important for a modern leader to have the competence to deal with many different people.
  • With the basics of the DISC-model you can begin to see other people in a different light.
  • There are common communication issues between people with different color styles.
  • If you follow advice on how to interact with people of different colors- red, yellow, green and blue- you won’t suffer so many conflicts.

The book Surrounded by Idiots by Thomas Erikson provides a method for assessing behaviors of people we communicate with. This method can help to increase our understanding of how people communicate and to better communicate and collaborate with people. It will also give you a better self awareness.

InfoQ readers can download an extract of Surrounded by Idiots.

InfoQ interviewed Thomas Erikson about what drives our behavior, how people can wear different masks, the DISA/DISC method, how people from different colors behave and the communication problems that can happen, setting up diverse teams, and how leaders can deal effectively with people of different colors.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

Thomas Erikson: I had written crime novels about a management consultant and behaviorist, Alex King. He helped the police in putting crooks away by using a behavioral assessment tool based on four colors: red, yellow, green and blue. While the readers seemed to appreciate the stories, many asked me: the tool Mr King uses in the books looks interesting. Where can I learn more about that?

As a consultant myself, I had used the DISA/DISC-method for years. But at the time, I didn’t know of any books on the topic, so I decided to write one myself. That book turned into Surrounded by Idiots. And for some reason the readers seem to appreciate it quite a lot.

When I did research for the book, I found that Robert Morris University had estimated that approximately 50 million behavior assessment analyses based on the DISA/DISC tool had been conducted all over the world. You can find them in 100 countries and in about 50 languages. Quite a lot of people have and will continue to come in contact with them. So, I thought it might be good consumer information. And the interest was clearly there.

The main value the book brings is the insight that the best team is the team that can co-operate, which requires effective communication. You will be a good communicator if you have strong social skills. For me, social skills are about understanding how your own actions affect the actions of others. So you need to understand yourself. Social skills are therefore built on self-awareness. When organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich did a study on self-awareness, she found that even if 95 % of us think we have good self-awareness, only 10 – 15 % really do. Here there obviously is a huge potential.

InfoQ: For whom is the book intended?

Erikson: For those who are interested in themselves and those who occasionally might think they are surrounded by – idiots. It is a book about different behaviors and a variety of communication styles, and I have tried to use examples both from work situations and from people’s personal life. We communicate all the time, so I think it is useful for anyone who thinks their communication could improve. It is so easy to always use yourself as a reference point, but the sad news is, regardless of how fantastic you are, you will always be in the minority.

One important point: the book is not written in a scientific way. I have deliberately used an easy-to-read approach, as I want as many as possible to regard the message in the book. But afterwards – read another book. And another. Attend a seminar; do a training on the topic. You can never be competent enough when it comes to human behavior.

InfoQ: What drives our behavior?

Erikson: Our behavior comes from our personalities, which are formed from a combination of heritage and environment. We get, of course, a lot from our parents, but probably less than 50 %. The rest mostly comes from how we grew up, how they raised us, where in the line of siblings we are, our first years in school, and so on.

Interestingly enough, when we reach 24-25 years of age, we tend to not develop our personalities very much anymore. Psychologists debate why that is, but apparently, we get more fixed the older we get. That is not the same as saying no development takes place. But it gets harder every year. The one who likes to evolve throughout their life has be on his toes to make it happen.

InfoQ: You mentioned in the book that people can wear different masks. How does this work, and what effect can it have?

Erikson: You basically have two different behavioral styles. The natural one, a.k.a the true you, is when you are wearing no mask. Then you have the adapted style, which usually is what you show at work. Your adapted style is based on your own interpretation of how you should act to fit in a specific environment. That is what I call a mask. But, many of us have other masks too. Another mask can show up when celebrating Christmas with our spouse’s relatives, for instance. But underneath the surface, there is always the true you.

The challenge here is to be able to be as much of yourself as you can so you do not have to wear a mask. Even though it sounds like a cliché, it will always be best to be you. If you adapt too much and too long to people around you, it will violate your true personality. That might give you physical stress reactions. It can in the long run actually make you sick.

InfoQ: What does the DISA/DISC system look like?

Erikson: It is based on extroversion vs. introversion and task orientation vs. people orientation. This gives us four main ingredients in an individual’s behavior style. Red for dominance, yellow for inspiration, green for stability and blue for analytical behavior.

What’s important to have in mind is that the DISC tool describes behaviors and not personalities.

Reds are very goal-oriented and competitive. Achieving results is their number one game. They have no problem with ‘telling the truth’. Some people might describe them as bullish or even aggressive.

Yellows are open, happy, positive, and see opportunities where others see problems. They enjoy life and are always looking for a good time. Others might see them as too talkative and as not taking things seriously.

Greens are friendly, calm, caring and sharing. The best listeners! They will always take care of others and strive for good team co-operation. Others, mostly reds and yellows, see them as imprecise, dishonest and too conflict-avert.

And the blues are detail-oriented, and need a lot of facts and proof in dealing with basically any topic. They strive for perfection and high quality in everything. Some people consider them way too dry and stone-faced, always stuck in their excel sheets.

Statistically only five per cent of the population shows just one color. The most common is two. Close to 80 per cent of the population in the industrialized world shows two colors.

InfoQ: How do people with red behavior act when something needs to be decided on?

Erikson: Quick and decisive. They don’t hesitate much. Pedal to the medal. That is how it should be done! And then they start to run. Other people might actually have some difficulties keeping up with them. In a team, there is the obvious risk of the reds leaving the others behind, which, of course, is not a good way to co-operate.

InfoQ: How do people with yellow behavior inspire people?

Erikson: With charm and a friendly smile. These people are excellent communicators and will make everybody feel fantastic. And the rest of us gather around them, because they have a certain kind of attractive energy about them. They are excellent at talking the talk, but are maybe not as good at walking the talk.

InfoQ: How do people with green behavior respond to problems or conflicts?

Erikson: They’d prefer to hide in a corner, to be honest. Conflicts are for troublemakers. Greens don’t like that at all. They will pretend they didn’t see or hear anything. Their way of saying "yes" while meaning "no" poses a bit of a challenge for people around them.

InfoQ: How do people with blue behavior prepare and perform activities?

Erikson: Thoroughly and with much focus on details and the invisible risks that might or might not be in there somewhere. Control of the process is the priority. There is a clear risk that they will never leave the starting blocks, because they have to check things over again. And again.

InfoQ: What communication problems can occur between people from different colors? How should the be dealt with?

Erikson: Extroverts, meaning reds and yellows, clearly understand each other pretty well. The same goes for introverts, greens and blues. The two sides represent different kinds of energy.

The biggest challenges are when you combine the opposites. Reds are task-oriented and extroverted, which is a huge challenge for greens, who are people-oriented and introverted. The reds will run them down, if there is no adaption. And the greens will close their fist in their pocket, and will never forget any injustices. Reds consider greens much too slow and soft, and greens might see reds as cold-hearted dictators. They have to meet somewhere in the middle. The reds have to slow down and consider that the greens are relation-oriented, and the greens have to speed up a bit and realize that the reds are not relation-oriented.

The biggest challenge though, is between blues and yellows. The blues are introverted and task-oriented, and are very much into details and fact. Stone-faced, they refer to their Excel graphs. They also have a historical time frame. But the yellows, they do everything by gut feeling; they loathe details but love anecdotes and having a good time. When these two try to work together, an interesting friction will occur … Blues will find yellow as just talk and no walk, not to be trusted at all as they can’t even find their papers. And yellows think the blues are emotionless robots with no imagination what so ever.

These two characters also have to make an effort in the others’ direction. The blues just have to understand how a yellow individual is wired, and speed up, use a more vivid body language and allow the other person to talk about her or himself for a little bit. And the yellow individual has to slow down a bit and check the details and facts before rushing into a meeting with the blue. And show a lot of patience. And not interrupt. And not give detailed information about how he or she is feeling exactly in this moment …

InfoQ: What's your advice for setting up diverse teams with people of different colors?

Erikson: Every efficient organization needs different behavior and communication styles in order to view a situation from every possible angle. That’s a no-brainer. Different people, obviously, see things from different perspectives. We know this; there’s nothing new here, but we tend to forget about it in the heat of the moment. When we have different kinds of colors or behaviors in the room, we will always get a variety of points of view. The management won’t have to ask for it; it just comes naturally.

But – and this is crucial – the leader of the team must have the competence to deal with all these differences. How the group is led will be the key to success.

InfoQ: How can leaders deal effectively with people of different colors?

Erikson: Leadership is a communication process, and efficient communication is based on strong social skills. The more a leader understands about him or herself and their co-workers, the better the leadership.

Adapting to each color is basically the same for everyone: speed things up with the reds, but be able to set some boundaries; inspire the yellows while also following them closely so they won’t forget tasks; be friendly and supportive of the greens, but don’t let them get away because things become a bit unpleasant; and act in a fact-based and controlled way with the blues even though you have to speed them up a bit to reach goals in time.

In my opinion, the leader has the bigger responsibility to make it work. The best place I would suggest to is to gain a very strong self-awareness; the best leaders have the most self-awareness. The most efficient way to interact with the team is to understand how they perceive you, and that way you know what adaption might work with which individual.

About the Book Author

Thomas Erikson is an expert on communication from a leadership perspective. He has trained more than five thousand executives in leadership skills. Erikson has written several popular science books on communication and human behavior. Surrounded by Idiots is a best-selling non-fiction book with over 1,5 million copies in print in more than 40 languages. Surrounded by Psychopaths will be released in the fall of 2020.

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Community comments

  • Dangerously inaccurate, oversimplifying pseudoscience

    by Jesper Nope /

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    While the goal to see things from other people's perspective is reasonable, DISC is an overly simplistic model that does not carry water in actual psychology, and assuming that people can be pigeon-holed into one of four corners is naive at best and counterproductive at worst. I have taken a variant of a DISC evaluation where more attention was paid to nuance and thoroughness, and was told I featured heavily in two or three of Thomas's "colors", and moved across the various axes depending on mood, comfort, pressure and drive. Even proponents of DISC accept that many people "have no color at all". Simply dipping people in a primary color affords no nuance, and acts as an impediment to understanding instead of a tool to bring about it. Having a mental model is not a vice, but collapsing the extreme corners of it to quadrants is.

    I encourage readers of the review to cross-reference Thomas's claims with the current state of the art in the actual field of psychology. The English literature directly addressing the book is limited, but here in Sweden, the book has come under strong fire from the field of psychology for using ideas that are far behind the state of the art, out-of-date and lack scientific rigor, and point-by-point debunkings and criticism of the central concepts are readily available. InfoQ's feature is analogous to a psychology website recommending a book gleefully summarizing how all programmers can be thrown out or ignored because everything of merit can be losslessly formulated and executed in Excel/VBA.

  • Re: Dangerously inaccurate, oversimplifying pseudoscience

    by Charles Humble /

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Thank you for your comment. I do want to somewhat take issue with this statement:


    InfoQ's feature is analogous to a psychology website recommending a book gleefully summarizing how all programmers can be thrown out or ignored because everything of merit can be losslessly formulated and executed in Excel/VBA.

    For one thing in the Q&A the author states

    One important point: the book is not written in a scientific way. I have deliberately used an easy-to-read approach, as I want as many as possible to regard the message in the book. But afterwards – read another book. And another. Attend a seminar; do a training on the topic. You can never be competent enough when it comes to human behavior.

    In other words he (and InfoQ) would always recommend readers read around a subject.

    Secondly DISC is a widely used method that, like any model, is imperfect but sometimes useful.

    From my own experience with DISC I would say that it serves a purpose quite effectively despite it’s well documented shortcomings - which include the fact that it represents a point in time. We have used DISC on the senior team at InfoQ working with an experienced coach, and found the insights it provided us helpful.

    You state that yourself to some extent when you say “I have taken a variant of a DISC evaluation where more attention was paid to nuance and thoroughness, and was told I featured heavily in two or three of Thomas's "colors", and moved across the various axes depending on mood, comfort, pressure and drive.”

    I’d be interested to know more about this. What particular method was this based on?

  • Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    nice post

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