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I’ve never had the thought that “I’m surrounded by idiots.” Still, when my mentor recommended Thomas Erikson’s “Surrounded by Idiots” as a good resource for understanding how different personalities communicate and deal with feedback, it piqued my interest.
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I have a master’s degree in psychology, with a focus on social psychology and group behavior. Yet, I never spent much time learning the DISC system, which forms the basis for “Surrounded by Idiots.”
DISC stands for dominance, inspiration/influence, stability/steadiness, and compliance, which are the four personality traits posited by psychologist William Moulton Marston in his 1928 book “Emotions of Normal People.” “Surrounded by Idiots” uses the colors Red, Yellow, Green, and Blue, respectively, to refer to these four personality styles.
One shortcoming of the book is that it doesn’t provide a DISC assessment tool, but a Google search brought up a free, quick DISC test, which seemed accurate based on my reading “Surrounded by Idiots.” I recommend taking a DISC assessment before reading the book to get a more personal experience.
Fair warning: You will start mentally assessing everyone you come in contact with as you read this book.
Okay, so this isn’t a brilliant discovery, but Erikson gives specific examples of what you can do to quickly get a better understanding of the personalities of those around you. His simplest advice is to just “shut your mouth and start listening.”
A Yellow person will be easy to spot because they never stop talking. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a Blue person will remain quiet. Reds use their words economically. They will be quick to the point and stay on topic. They may even boss you around. And, Greens, the most common personality, will be friendly and laid-back.
Erikson covers how to spot personalities based on other behaviors as well. For example, the folks who take the time to read all of the instructions and supporting documentation are Blues. The person who takes charge of a group is usually a Red. Yellows are optimists, concerned about “good vibes,” and like the new and shiny things, while Greens tend to cautiously avoid rocking the boat.
This is the basis for the book’s title. Erikson observed a Red who ran a company that was “full of idiots.” The reason this Red person considered them idiots is that they didn’t work hard and quickly as he did. Yet, without them, the company wouldn’t succeed.
Each of the different personality types has its pros and cons. For example, while you wouldn’t want a Red’s abrasiveness anywhere near a sensitive situation, they are indispensable when you need help with a seemingly insurmountable problem since they love a good challenge and are relentlessly hard workers.
It’s natural to assume that others will receive and interpret information the same way you do. If a certain method is effective for you, you’d think it would be effective for everyone else. But, that, of course, is not true. A Blue will read through the entire user manual before playing with their new gadget. A Red will plug it in right away and learn as they fiddle around with it.
“Surrounded by Idiots” helps you figure out how best to deliver feedback and other information once you understand an individual’s personality. For example, Reds will want specific examples. Blues will want all of the details, facts, and figures. Yellows need concrete examples (and you may need to repeat yourself since they have a short memory). And, with Greens, you need to be gentle.
After glancing at the characteristics of the different colors on the inside cover of “Surrounded by Idiots,” I assumed I was a strong Blue. But, as I read on, it became clear I had elements of all of the colors, which is supported by my free DISC test results.
This is pretty common. According to Erikson, only 5% of people are solidly just one color. 80% of us are two colors. And, 15% are three — with virtually no one exhibiting an even split among all of the colors.
My obsession with keeping meticulous spreadsheets to record every aspect of my life is normal Blue behavior. My impatience with slow decision-making and the need for at least some control in every group I’m a part of are part of my typical Red behavior. And, my passivity, when it’s clear that another Red is in control or I’m just low on energy, is part of my Green behavior.
Erikson says it’s rare for challenging combinations (such as Blue/Yellow and Red/Green) to get along, especially when those traits are within one person. But simply learning about these personality types has helped me gain a better understanding of myself and quieted the self-critical voices. In other words, I’m less likely to see myself as one of the idiots I’m surrounded by.
We tend to get along better with people who are the same color as us. So, when Erikson was splitting people up into groups to work on a task at a workshop, he figured he’d put the same colors together. The results were disastrous: The Reds did the wrong task, the Yellows just talked, the Greens were indecisive, and the Blues were still analyzing the instructions when the time was up.
Erikson found that a healthy balance of the colors moves workgroups forward. I think this is a good microcosm of the world at large. It takes all of our personalities to make it what it is. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and it’s only through that understanding that we can work with and bring out the best in each other.
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