Thomas Erikson is a behavioural scientist, lecturer and leadership coach. He has analysed thousands of individuals using the DISC profile tool, based on theories developed by psychologist William Moulton Marston. The four personality types are described in the colours red, yellow, green and blue. Most of us have a combination of the colours.

Thomas Erikson has written a thriller series about Alex King, a behavioural scientist and specialist at reading people. He also uses DISC in his work. Thomas Erikson’s latest book Surrounded by Idiots is a popular science book about communication.

How did you come by that title?

“I met a successful entrepreneur who called his employees stupid. It wasn’t just banter either. He genuinely felt that Department A was full of idiots, Department B was full of bunglers and Department C was not even worth mentioning. I asked him who employed all the idiots. Later he told me that at the time my answer made him so livid that he wanted to shoot me. He simply didn’t understand how people function. He’d never cared about people, just his business.”

When did you develop an interest in Marston’s people categories?

“I began working for a consultancy that used a similar tool. I learnt more and more and became fascinated by its ease of use. The tool is extremely useful, easy to use and to apply.”

Is the method scientifically proven?

“Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud both conducted research into people who were unwell. Marston studied this for decades and he was the first to conduct research into healthy people. He published a book in the USA in 1928 entitled Emotions of Normal People. Thomas Hendrickson developed a tool based on Marston’s findings around 1960. It’s called the DISC Profile, formed from the first letters of the four categories: Dominance, Inducement, Submission and Compliance. The tool is used the world over and has been translated into hundreds of languages.”

Why have the various people types been given different colours?

“For pedagogical reasons. A red or yellow person is easier to remember. A combination of letters is much more difficult.”

Who are your clients?

“I coach line managers, business leaders and sales people. They’re taught that a completely different approach is required when negotiating with a blue person compared to a red. A blue person wants everything neat and tidy. They have 150 Excel files on the project. A red person goes in and says: ‘We do as I say’, but is also impatient, so if you resist for a while they will change their mind over some things. A yellow person likes to be social, ‘How’s your summer been?’ If you miss that then it could cost you some business. If you put red and green together then it always explodes if they both think they’re right. Blue and yellow both think the other is an idiot. It’s all about meeting eye to eye and I gladly exaggerate to make it clear to them.”

“If you put red and green together then it always explodes if they both think they’re right”

Does it work on groups or is it for individuals only?

“At a well-attended lecture it’s mainly one-way communication. But if it’s 20 or so people then I try to communicate on all fronts and to keep a reasonably good pace to avoid the reds getting impatient. I also provide enough facts and background so the blues don’t consider me as being unreliable. I have to joke a little to keep the yellows happy and I have to look at the greens and ask their opinions.”

Could a teacher use it in the classroom?

“According to Marston you can’t apply it to younger people because their characters haven’t formed as yet. I’ve tested it on upper secondary students on a start your own business course. They were very receptive and understood exactly. You don’t need to deprogramme them, which helps.”

Are several facilitators required with knowledge of the people types that exist?

“Yes, every time I say what I do when asked at a dinner party, I get to hear: ‘Well, in my company …’, followed by a story. There is a great need.”

What does the group division look like in Sweden?

“Roughly 45 percent green as the strongest factor, ten percent are red, and the yellow and blue equally divided on the remainder. It’s the same division in other countries, but the cultural filter creates careful Germans, swaggering Americans, industrious Japanese, angry Italians and similar cliché images. Generally we’re quite similar in the world at individual level. Society is yellow in the USA, in Sweden it’s green. Here it’s consensus, friendly and pleasant, with the odd exception, of course.”

But not everybody with the same colour acts in the same way, surely?

“No, it’s important to remember that even if the colours are a large part of the puzzle, naturally it’s not the whole puzzle. Motivational factors, the things that get people out of bed to go to work in the morning, are also vital. Behaviour is what you see and what you hear. The motivational forces are under the surface, it’s the platform that creates certain behaviours. You can write a book to become rich, because it’s enjoyable or to teach people different things. We could do the same things for completely different reasons.”

Are there people with only one colour?

“Five percent have only one colour as a distinctly dominant factor. These people are easy to identify.”

How quickly can you determine the category a person belongs to?

“People with one colour are easy. Those with two colours are reasonably easy, but if they have three, which happens, it gets more complicated and I have to talk more with them. It only takes five minutes or so. Sometimes it suffices to hear them talking to somebody else.”

I was once at a lecture with around 1000 attendees. Nearly all of them put their hands up when asked if they were creative. Doesn’t everybody want to be yellow these days?

“That’s a very good question and it’s important to realise that not only yellows are creative, even if they are well placed. Quite a few want to be red these days. More driven, not brusque and boorish, and more results and goals-oriented. We live in a society driven by extrovert forces. Extrovert colours with strong egos are red and yellow. There’s a lot of ego and ‘I’ today. I’m saddened by all the ego focus, ego trips, confirmation needs, Facebook and Instagram. The introverts, blue and green, are not given space, and they don’t demand it either, despite being in the majority.

“The ‘I’ message is in line with the direction society is going. An American study from ten years ago showed a slight shift from the introvert to the extrovert in Europe. It’s a slow process but we can see that our children grab what they can a lot more than our parents do. But in the USA it’s going in the opposite direction; from extrovert to introvert. Interesting.”

Is it normal for an individual’s self-assessment to correspond with how others see them?

“Generally speaking, yes. The analysis asks respondents to rank twenty four statements and if they have a fairly good self-awareness then people recognise themselves. Three in a thousand say they don’t recognise themselves at all. We then redo it and the result is often more accurate.”

Which colours are best suited for collaboration in the context of meetings or putting together groups?

“The simple answer is the same colours. It facilitates smooth communication and they understand each other’s way of communicating. In a red group it could explode because they are conflict-inclined, but they’re not bothered by that. But if you mean achieving the best possible result then that’s something else. When everybody in a group is the same and talk about the same things there’s no development. You have to mix all the colours in the same group; yellow comes with ideas, red says ‘great, let’s do it’, green carries out the task and blue evaluates it. This creates good dynamics and puts demands on the leadership. It’s easier to lead a one-colour group than one with a coat of many colours.”

“Blue and yellow both think the other is an idiot”

This must put demands on line managers and top management.

“Leadership is absolutely vital in everything relating to people. This is why my main focus is on managers and leaders. Poor managers won’t necessarily give you poor employees, but you will get poorly functioning groups, and a manager with poor self-awareness could really put the cat among the pigeons, as highlighted in this old Norwegian joke: A man was out driving on the motorway when a voice came over the radio saying ‘Warning, a car has driven over to the wrong side of the motorway.’ The man turned to his wife and said: ‘One? There are several hundred!’ Not many people realise that ‘I’ is the problem. They’d rather think that all the others are idiots.”

Does this system have any disadvantages?

“The drawback is that you think you know all about it immediately. Some ascribe the same attributes to everyone with the same colour, and a person who is angry is seen as red and is treated as such. We must always have our tentacles out and should never be pre-judgemental. It’s also important not to be smug; I have this behaviour and it’s best. Or I have some yellow in me so I think I’ll fool about a bit and waste your time. I’m green so I’ll sit here and do nothing. Or I’m blue, as you know. If you don’t have any Excel files then I’m not taking part. If that’s the case then the coach has done a poor job.”

There’s a lot to learn. Where do I start and with what?

“Self-awareness. If you don’t know yourself then you won’t fully understand others. You should start with an honest assessment of yourself and put yourself in the mix. These are my strengths and attributes that I can further develop. These are my weaknesses and this is the flipside, the drawbacks, that come with this behaviour profile. We take red because it’s crimson clear. The drawback is that you’re seen as a boor, aggressive, insensitive and you stick at nothing. A red person who sees this might say: ‘Yes, I may be a bit tough and people don’t dare to contradict me.’ They can then make a decision – is that good or bad?”

Do people change when they discover that they are, for example, too red?

“The red behaviour has much strength, there’s no doubt about that. This is not a valuation because no colour is better or worse than any other. But it’s obvious that if you’re too forward then you should back off a little sometimes, and if you have another colour that dominates then there are other behaviours you have to deal with.”

“The meetings culture in Sweden is a total catastrophe”

If I’m working with Betty, Nils and Donald and we get stuck on something, what’s the next step?

“Sit down with them one-on-one. For example, you could say: ‘Things seem to have got into a rut between us, Betty. It’s difficult to progress. What’s causing it, do you think? Could it be that I’ve curbed you in some way?’ When you speak with Nils you would perhaps say: ‘You were more creative a year ago. Am I restraining you in some way?’ To Donald you would say: ‘You take too much space. You’re treading on Betty’s toes the whole time.’”

Am I a colleague or a manager when I say that?

“You can be both, but you can’t solve a problem that nobody else thinks exists. If you say to Betty ‘Our relationship’s not working’ and she replies ‘Yes it is’ then you’ll get nowhere. If you’re in charge of nineteen people you have to take a one-on-one with all of them. As a manager you can’t say ‘I don’t have time for this. I’ve got work to do.’ It’s your job to make sure the group functions. If you’re embroiled in a conflict with a group where everybody’s on the same level then you have to go to your line manager and tell them efficiency is suffering because of these things and ask for help to solve it. If they say no then change jobs. I give people a fundamental piece of advice: Choose your manager. Consultants can only change a manager to a certain degree.”

All too many meetings are poorly prepared, badly implemented and never followed up. Do you agree?

“Yes, many meetings are poorly prepared with no agenda or purpose. It’s just a meeting and it should take at least an hour. Why? The meetings culture in Sweden is a total catastrophe.”

Are some colours worse at meetings than others?

“Yellow people can be quite hopeless at meetings. They’re fun and charming, and you can’t help but like them. They look after me, make me feel good and I get attention. But if asked to put together an agenda they’ll give it to you on a post-it note. Even red are poor at preparing. Yellow and green are often relationship, not task-oriented. Blue people are good at preparing, but their agendas are invariably too long. Structure and orderliness is blue behaviour. Setting a goal and going for it is red behaviour. Innovation and finding new paths is yellow. Green usually has to implement it. Too many meetings are run by people who’ve not thought it through properly.”

“Yellow people can be quite hopeless at meetings”

Some people talk too much at meetings.

“Especially yellow, but red also talks a lot. Both take up space, but red only enters a debate when they have something to gain from it. And blue doesn’t talk enough, perhaps. I once attended a management meeting because the MD thought it wasn’t working properly. There were eight people, and the sales manager, who was bright yellow, spoke 63 percent of the time. One person out of eight took up more than half the time and only had one item on the agenda. Nobody could stop him. Such inefficiency.”

It’s not unusual for people to fiddle with their smart phones and laptops during a meeting.

“At longer meetings I usually say ‘If your phone rings, I’ll confiscate it. I’ve been given that mandate by your line manager.’ ‘Why is it so important?’ they ask. ‘Well, I want to give you everything I can and a good return on your invested time. It’s your time after all.’ ‘Quite right,’ they say, but not many take any notice. Then a phone rings. I take the phone and the guilty party looks at me aghast and asks what I think I’m doing. I reply that I’m doing what I said I’d do if a phone rang. I then give it back immediately and it doesn’t happen again. ‘Great,’ say the majority. ‘We can now focus on one thing at a time instead of checking our emails and text messages.’”

Is it because we don’t know enough about each other as behaviour types that so many meetings fall apart with no end result?

“Yes would be the answer to that. When a person gets stuck on an issue and is getting nowhere then somebody has to step in and tell them to drop it. Stop sawing sawdust, as somebody once said. Somebody has to put their foot down, but that isn’t really acceptable in Sweden. Therein lies the explanation as to why one person is allowed to speak 63 percent of the time, despite everybody else wishing he would shut up. Quite often the manager will say something that everybody repeats in their own words. Women are better at not doing that. Yellow men are hopeless. But it doesn’t need to be that way.”