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.

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