I remember a particular conversation I had years ago with a corporate coach. She was lamenting how difficult it was for her S style clients to get respect and recognition as leaders. The conversation probably sticks with me because I fall squarely in the S camp. Like me, these S leaders weren’t particularly active about self-promotion and were willing to watch as others swept in to fill a power vacuum. But perhaps more important, many of them simply lacked a strong dominant instinct.
One of the huge advantages of DiSC® over other models of behavior and personality is that it directly measures the dimension of dominance vs. submissiveness. We may not always discuss this topic directly with our clients—perhaps because explicit discussions of power can threaten to expose the core of our relationships a little too clearly. But even when these power issues are in the background of our coaching and training, they reveal a great deal about our interactions.
When I was growing up, we always had pairs of dogs. Although each pair got along, I never had any trouble figuring out who was in charge. And just like them, we are wired to perceive and respond to dominance and submissiveness signals without even knowing it. And probably more important, we are often completely unaware of the signals we give off.
This is where leaders who lack a dominant instinct often get into trouble. On the surface, they don’t necessarily need an assertiveness course. They’re experienced enough to know that they need to speak up with their opinions or address an insult when it happens. They give away their power, however, in dozens of small ways every day without ever realizing it. They may laugh to make another person feel comfortable. They may qualify their opinions with “I think…” or “kind of…”. These signals are subtle, to be sure, but they add up quickly. And in the end, these leaders often have difficulty capturing the credibility and recognition that their skills merit.
Now, of course, helping someone to recognize and adjust such ingrained habits can be a long process. Therefore, I thought I would offer just one starting tip based on a recent study. Participants in the research were asked to stare at a screen on which an image of a face was shown. The faces had one of three emotions: angry, happy, or neutral. When the face disappeared, the researcher measured how long the participant kept staring at the now blank spot on the screen. It turned out that when the angry face was shown, those with dominant personalities spent longer staring at the blank screen than other participants. In other words, they instinctively engaged in a stare down when they were confronted with aggression. They were hard wired to push back.
Now, when we imagine our S leaders , they are much less likely to having this staring reflex. In fact, their instinct is to break eye contact. As the author of the study puts it, this sends the message, ‘Do what you want, I won’t fight back’. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we coach our leaders into staring contests, but part of maintaining respect in any social circle is demonstrating that you can and will stand firmly behind your ideas and values. These S leaders may not instinctively know that eye contact is about more than building connections; it is about showing strength and conviction.
Obviously, this is just one small example of a coaching tip. I use it, however, to show that as DiSC practitioners we are in a unique position to have a conversation with our clients about this very crucial aspect of human nature.