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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 Booking.com, 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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Community comments

  • Be careful - DISC model has many weaknesses

    by Mark Levison,

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

    Improving Psychological Safety is a good thing. Relying on the DISC model to do it is fraught with danger. Sorry people don't classify into colours.

    The whole measurement of personality game is fraught with landmines.

    InfoQ should consider doing a background check on scientific validity when publishing articles.

  • Re: Be careful - DISC model has many weaknesses

    by Daniel Bryant,

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

    Hi Mark,

    Many thanks for your comments, and I agree that folks don't typically classify easily into colours or other categories with these types of models.

    This does make me think back to other discussions I've had about MBTI and the like. I often got reminded that these are only hypotheses and/or models, and the associated organisational web sites do have to specify that these are based on limited or no scientific evidence.

    Although we do conduct due diligence on any leads we report on as news, we don't insist on background checks for full scientific validity -- much of the news we report on is in the innovator stage, and so this isn't possible. When we do report on something that has proven scientific validity we would always do our best to link to the studies or academic journal that reported this.

    We are always happy to highlight contrasting opinions or discussion too, and please do reach out if you were keen to follow up with a rebuttal or other content.

    Best wishes,

    Daniel

    InfoQ News Manager

  • Re: Be careful - DISC model has many weaknesses

    by Mark Levison,

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

    Daniel thank you for the courtesy of the reply.

    MBTI is another model that is nothing more than fluff.

    What bothers me many of us in the computing field claim to be scientists - yet we don't act them. Science includes checking the evidence.

    How long would it have taken Ben, Shane (as Culture Editor) or yourself to check the validity of DISC? It took me only five minutes to debunk.

    InfoQ wants to be taken seriously as a news source - part of that includes fact checking.

    I'm seriously tempted to offer an article top neuro-myths that Agile Coaches perpetuate. DISC, MBTI, Learning styles, ...

    Cheers
    Mark - a former InfoQ writer

  • Re: Be careful - DISC model has many weaknesses

    by Ben Linders,

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

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks for your comments, appreciate that you took the time to add your point on the validity of models which is indeed an important aspect.

    This Q&A shares one experience from using the DISC model. It's not a detailed explanation or guide on how to use it. Also, it doesn't intend to prove the model or state its validity. As the interviewee mentions, "no model is ideal and the DISC model will not provide you with a perfect answer or fit".

    Q&As aim to share knowledge and experience between people. As an editor, my intention is to be unbiased. I work with interviewees to help them share their story, what they did and how they did it, and what they learned, with peers. All experiences are valid as they help people to learn from each other.

    InfoQ articles and news are peer-reviewed by editors like me with the purpose to improve the quality. Where I am critical and do give feedback on all input from interviewees when we're working on a Q&A, my role is not to debunk any models or theories. Instead, I focus on having interviewees provide context on how they have used the models and theory, what worked for them and what didn't, any benefits that they got, challenges to be aware of when using the model or theory, etc.

    An article on neuro-myths could certainly be interesting for InfoQ readers. Happy to work with you on this! Could you send me a draft/outline to take this further?

    Best regards,
    Ben Linders

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