Tag Archives: Psychology

The Four Personality Types: Initiators, Blockers, Supporters, and Observers

I just finished reading Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, which explores the psychological influences that can lead us to make bad decisions. One section of this book proposes that only four types of people exist in any group:

  • Initiators who always have ideas, propose new projects, and are optimistic about the outcomes
  • Blockers who are likely to question and block new initiatives
  • Supporters who side with either the initiator or the blocker
  • Observers who don’t take sides but prefer to just comment on the matter at hand

You would think you’d like to fill up your team with plenty of initiators and few blockers to help drive innovation. But, that would be risky. Initiators tend to be highly optimistic about any new idea. Without a sobering second thought by a blocker, energy can be wasted on bad ideas.

The risks are significantly higher in the airline industry. Research indicates that a large percentage of plane crashes have been caused by pilots who, as confident and optimistic initiators, attempted dangerous maneuvers. The other members of the cabin crew, too respectful of the captain’s authority and swayed by the captain’s optimism, remained silent. As the author describes it:

“A strong initiator can quell a blocker.”

To address this risk, airline cabin crews are being provided with Crew Resource Management training to learn to become potential blockers when faced with bad or overly optimistic decisions by those in authority. This training program was designed by NASA and is intended to catch bad decisions before they result in loss of life.

“When pilots spot a departure from safety procedures, they are trained to challenge the captain.”

Teams in any workplace should learn these skills. Those in charge need to learn to tolerate dissent. Blockers need to be given the freedom to voice concerns without reprisal and need to be encouraged to provide feedback.

"Cavemen With Briefcases"

Cave drawing

Compared to many other species, humans have a long lifespan. Whereas geneticists can study more than 50 generations of fruit flies in a single year, the human species is more difficult to study from an evolutionary standpoint. Since a new human generation comes into being every 20 years or so, our rate of evolutionary change is significantly slower than that of fruit flies.

Evolutionary psychology aims to explain human behavior by considering the fact that the human brain has not changed very much in the last 10,000 years. Although technology is advancing at an exponential rate, we are, as Alan Kay, co-founder of Xerox PARC describes, “just cavemen with briefcases.”

Evolutionary psychology does a great job of explaining human behavior, from marriage, divorce, competition, war, etc. We may feel we are enlightened compared to past generations, but, in reality, we are still driven by the same urges that influenced our behavior 10,000 years ago.

Looking at humans from an evolutionary psychology viewpoint may explain why telling and recording stories is becoming an important part of formal knowledge management and learning strategies within many organizations. Telling and listening to stories has been at the very core of human communication since the dawn of time. As technology has advanced, our stories are now more likely to come from books, television, film, and the Internet, rather than from fellow tribe members seated around a campfire. But, stories still remain central to human life.

According to Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, organizations such as the World Bank, NASA, and 3M, among others, are implementing “organizational storytelling.” Mr. Pink reports that:

“Xerox—recognizing that its repair personnel learned to fix machines by trading stories rather than by reading manuals—has collected its stories into a database called Eureka that Fortune estimates is worth $100 million to the company.”

Organizations have for years been wondering how to capture the knowledge of their employees. Unlike traditional knowledge management solutions, organizational storytelling may be the most human approach to solving this problem.

Time to turn on the video cameras.