You know when Malik enters a room. He’s lively, friendly, and thrives when he gets a chance to entertain. He’s a performer by nature—even happens to be in a Tears for Fears cover band. He has strong verbal skills, so much so that he never seems to stop talking. And, he has an opinion on everything. 

Julianna, Malik’s coworker, sets up a brainstorming meeting for the operations staff at their small company. The brainstorm later commences. Although Malik throws forward the most ideas among the group, Julianna feels that he derails the meeting by regaling the team with stories about the show his band did over the weekend. 

Afterward, Julianna recaps the meeting to another coworker noting, “I set aside 30 minutes but half of that must have been taken up by Malik’s stories. He’s such a Persuader, talking too much, not staying on task, and not being able to stick to business.” 

[Read “What to Do When Working with Persuaders“]

Behavior Style Is What We Do

Here, Julianna is referring to Malik’s Behavior Style—in a rather negative way, in fact. Behavior Style refers to patterns of behavior a person tends to exhibit depending on their situation or environment. Unlike personality, which can’t intentionally or temporarily be modified by conscious choice, Behavior Style can be. It’s what we do, rather than who we are. It includes all of our observed conduct. 

There are 4 Behavior Styles: Persuader, Controller, Analyzer, and Stabilizer. Each of us tends to exhibit one of these as our primary mode of interaction with others, while having a secondary style which colors our behaviors as well (e.g. Persuader-Controller or Persuader-Persuader). Understanding the strengths, driving needs, and blind spots that accompany each of these Behavior Styles can unlock profound insights into our relationships. 

Unfortunately, we’re prone to reducing a person to their Behavior Style, making it their identity. In doing so, we erase their individuality, pigeonhole them, and cut them down to a caricature. We most often tend to do this when we are frustrated by another person. We experience tension in our relationship, and either as a way to justify our ill feelings toward them or to appease our inclination to do nothing to improve the situation, we respond like Julianna: “He’s such a Persuader…” 

Why is identifying as a Behavior Style so unwise? It’s easy to be righteously indignant toward somebody when we turn them into a trope or an abstract concept. Sadly, this hinders us from addressing the tangible tensions in our relationships. We resign ourselves to thinking this is just the way it is—and we begin to resent it. 

[Read “How to Best Work with Analyzers“]

Behavior Styles Are Like Lines on a Map

Similarly, when we identify too rigidly with a Behavior Style, we limit our own ability to grow or adapt—essentials for meaningful relationships. Behavior Styles have the same function and reality as minutes, music genres, or lines on a map. They serve to facilitate conversations as helpful heuristics for navigating the world. We have Behavior Styles due to social conventions; however, the error we make is when we treat these abstractions as if they are real or physical. 

If Malik were to identify too fiercely with being a Persuader, he’s likely to eschew his own blind spots, justifying weaknesses common to Persuaders (i.e. not following through on instructions well or missing finer details on projects), thus becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. He then believes he can’t be faulted for this if they’re somehow part of his essence. Or, he might become so assured in his strengths as a Persuader, that he doesn’t realize he’s sometimes not “the life of the party” and can fail to energize a group. Acting as if his Behavior Style is in his DNA might incline him to think he holds a host of traits by default of having a new label for himself. This disregards the performative nature of Behavior Styles. 

Further, attaching our sense of self to a Behavior Style can produce unintended effects on our emotional well-being. If Malik were to maintain in his mind an image of himself as a Persuader, he’ll soon find himself upset when he falls short of its mimetic ideals or fails to behave accordingly. He’s going to be hit that much harder by anxiety before presenting to a group wondering if he’ll be Persuader enough to keep them entertained. He’s also more likely to be visited by feelings of depression on the occasions he doesn’t have a quick or witty response to a question, as a good Persuader should

[Want to know what your Behavior Style is? Take our Behavior Style assessment.]

What Should We Do Instead?

Instead, one might view Behavior Styles like fashion and fit in clothing. Clothing and style play important roles in our social lives, as performative and functional items we adjust to fit the appropriate contexts—be they working in an office, picnicking at the park, paddle-boarding on Lake Washington, or attending a wedding. It would be silly to reduce another person to one of these activities or particular items of apparel, as if seeing this snapshot of them means you know their person-hood—or know them very well at all. 

One might say that people tend to have a consistent sense of style informed by values, life experiences, and a sense of self, so we can surmise a fair bit about a person from any one of these outings. That is likely true, in some ways. However, a tour of old high school yearbooks or Facebook timeline photos reminds us of how often our style can change. 

Just as a person’s style of dress might reveal to us their varied interests or what they value, their patterns of behavior can inform other tendencies they might have. A person that uses limited hand gestures when speaking and tends to focus on tasks is likely to be very deliberate about their work. That may depend on the social context, such as being in a traditional office setting versus a business-casual start-up company. And their Behavior Style may even change depending on what type of project the person is working on or the relationship dynamic held among the group members. 

Although we have preferences, we adjust our behaviors all the time. 

In other words, Behavior Styles are mental models we use to guide our interactions with others, but the more we see people as the embodiment of these behavioral forms, the more our relationships are going to suffer. 

Returning to Malik and Julianna: as long as he continues building a sense of self around his perception of being a Persuader or she continues to perceive him as an obnoxious manifestation of that Behavior Style, their personal and professional growth will be hindered.

Behavior Styles are effective tools. And we can benefit greatly from becoming more familiar with them, but if we’re too focused on them, we’ll mistake the finger pointing at the Sun for the Sun. 

[More detailed Behavior Styles Quick Reference Cards are available here.]