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How to Improve Your Team's Communication and Psychological Safety

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Mapping your team’s typical communication style can help improve communication and psychological safety, reduce friction within a team, and make conflict more productive. Paul Harding, agile coach at Lokulus, and Elly Griffith-Ward, agile coach at, gave a workshop about communication styles and psychological safety at A Day of Organisational Psychological Safety by Aginext.

We all have our own communication styles, however, Griffith-Ward and Harding have found that individuals are less aware of their own communication style, let alone the style of people they interact with regularly.

In their workshop, Harding and Griffith-Ward used the DISC method to create a map of communication styles:

  • Dominant (Red);
  • Influential (Yellow);
  • Steady (Green) and
  • Conscientious (Blue)

Attendees placed themselves on a quadrant based on the results of the questions. The map helps people understand where they are and where others are when communicating.

When we understand how we communicate and how we like to be communicated with, we not only have a better understanding of ourselves but also of others and can play to our and their strengths accordingly, as Harding explains:

For example, if you need time to digest information then working with someone that is firing away on all cylinders, it can feel a little overwhelming. Modifying the communication accordingly helps build psychological safety between the individuals. It’s about having a shared understanding.

The DISC model can also be used to reduce friction and make conflict more productive. According to Harding, the underlying conflict could be a symptom of not understanding how we communicate with one another, and mapping communication styles can help set expectations on both sides.

InfoQ interviewed Paul Harding about using the DISC method to improve communication and psychological safety.

InfoQ: How does the DISC model look?

Paul Harding: Let me start by saying that no model is ideal and the DISC model will not provide you with a perfect answer or fit. The results of the model are based on asking the participants a series of questions. The answers to these questions highlight the participants' communication style at the time of completion, and so may change over time. Typically, participants will have a communication style that will predominantly fall into one of these four areas: Dominant, Influential, Steady or Conscientious. Within each area, there are some traits and characteristics that people with that communication style do and don’t like.

There is a plethora of information on the internet on DISC and sites that offer DISC profiling tests. Here’s a high-level summary of What is DISC? More in-depth details can be found in the book Surrounded by Idiots by Thomas Erikson (2019).

InfoQ: What can the DISC model be used for? What benefits can that bring?

Harding: It’s all about understanding where you are on the quadrant and where other team members are and using this information when communicating accordingly.

For example, if your profile showed you as a Green person and you are having a conversation with a Red, then you can prepare yourself for the conversation. The Red is going to want the information to be provided in a direct manner, don’t beat around the bush; and the feedback from the Red is going to be fast and action-based. So as a Green, you can prepare for this.

This is where the benefit lies. As a Green you might feel that you are under attack by the Red and could be challenged by their direct approach. On the other hand, as a Red, you can start to understand why the Green is trying to make a connection with you and why they are not reacting as fast as you might personally like.

I was recently working with a product owner who’s behaviour sat in the Dominant (Red) area of the model. You could sense his frustration when actions were not tackled immediately and they could not understand why the engineering team, who were predominantly Greens (Steady) and Blues (Conscientious), weren’t responding as quickly as they would like. It was after seeing this mapping that he was able to better understand his frustration and help him set his own expectations.

InfoQ: What suggestions do you have for dealing with conflict in teams?

Harding: You can support the team so that they are able to give and receive "fierce feedback". Susan Scott refers to a fierce conversation as one where you come out from behind yourself. A fierce conversation is "one that is robust, intense, strong, powerful and passionate" (Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott, 2017). Encouraging your team to welcome feedback like this can mean that conflict is dealt with quickly, efficiently with both parties coming away with a positive outcome.

The more your team understands one another, the greater the psychological safety will be and along with this comes a reduction in conflict and an increase in team happiness. Doing activities like Personal Maps and Market of Skills can also help in this space.

InfoQ: How can managers or coaches support teams in improving communication?

Harding: There are times when managers and coaches can be too close to the team and might not be able to spot communication issues. Take a moment to stand back from the team. Ask yourself what can you see and what can’t you see? Can you see the wood for the trees?

This is much easier when teams are collocated as you can see the interactions and listen to the team rapport. When working remotely, keep an eye on your tooling. Are the team visibly and proactively working together, rather than private messaging, for example, open calls in a MS Team channel?

In meetings take a moment to listen to how the content is being delivered, rather than what is being said. Consider how the message is being sent and received. Invite an observer to your meeting; they may spot things you are not seeing.

If you have access to the team’s DISC profiles, this may give you some insight into the behaviours you are seeing. If you are seeing something that could be improved, use your coaching and mentoring skills and make your feedback timely. Your goal should be helping individuals adapt their behaviour to work better with others.

Elly is an Influencer (Yellow) whilst I sit in Steadiness (Green) and there are times that we have to consider how we are communicating between ourselves. Elly’s spontaneous, positive and outgoing traits clash with my patient, indecisive and accommodating traits. I’ll put a plan together and Elly will put her spin on it which can sometimes feel like she is ripping it apart. She’s not, but in the moment it can feel like it to me. Fortunately, we both recognise what is going on and adapt our approach. If you can get your team to recognise these behaviours, they’ll be heading in the right direction.

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