Book Summary: Surrounded by Idiots by Thomas Erikson

A book summary of the key ideas from Surrounded by Idiots: The Four Types of Human Behaviour, along with informal notes and the view from the blog.

Book Summary: The Key Ideas

#1: Communication happens on the listener’s terms. Information is rarely received as the sender conceived it. To communicate effectively, we must adapt our style to the listener’s.

#2: The four types of behaviour. The DISA model suggests there are four core types of behaviour, denoted by four colours (Red, Yellow, Green and Blue).

#3: Adapting and giving feedback to different behaviour types. Reds want direct, respectful communication and space to lead. Yellows want friendly communication and space to innovate. Greens want slow change, recognition and space to recharge. Blues want accurate detail and a focus on facts.

#4: Complementary and challenging combinations. The most challenging combinations are the behavioural opposites (Blue & Yellow and Red & Green).

#5: Stress factors and response of behaviour types. Each behaviour type has different stress triggers and handles stress differently.

Book Notes: The Key Ideas in Detail

Premise of the Book

Thomas Erikson is a behavioural expert from Sweden. Having spent two decades helping organisations and teams understand their behaviour through the DISA system, the book is a comprehensive look at the practical application of this model.

DISA stands for Dominance, Inducement, Submission and Analytic Ability. These four terms are the primary types of behaviour, and each is associated with a colour (Red, Yellow, Green and Blue, respectively).

The aim of the book is to help readers get past the mentality of assuming we are surrounded by idiots and instead become fluent in the language of behaviour.

Key Idea #1: Communication happens on the listener’s terms

When we communicate a message, the recipient filters it into a message he understands. A message will very rarely be received entirely as you conceived it.

In other words, we need to adapt our communication based on the behaviour type of the recipient.

“You help other people understand you by creating a secure arena for communication – on their terms. Then the listener can use his energy to understand rather than to consciously or unconsciously react to your manner of communicating.”

There are just two situations where you can communicate effectively without adapting:

  1. When you are alone in the room.
  2. When all the other people in the room are exactly like you.

The rest of the time we should consider other’s behaviour, embracing the power of diverse teams over singular behaviour types.

“Behaviour patterns are like a toolbox. All types are needed. Depending on the occasion, a tool can sometimes be right and sometimes be wrong. A thirty-pound sledgehammer is great for tearing down walls, but it’s hardly the thing you want to hang a picture in the foyer.”

Our behaviour types are the result of heredity and environment. This idea can be visualised as an onion of several layers.

  • Core Values: Deeply embedded beliefs for which it is almost impossible to change, often embedded by parenting.
  • Attitudes and Approaches: Things we’ve formed opinions on based on our own experiences.
  • Core Behaviour: Core values and attitudes form our core behaviour, which is how we act when there is no external influence.
  • Moderated Behaviour: People around us tend to see our moderated behaviour, however, whereby we adapt to the situational context.
  • Environment: These adjustments are all influenced by the outer layer of our environment.

The trick of communication is to figure out what is under the surface to understand core behaviour types.

Key Idea #2: The four types of behaviour

The DISA model is a popular and simple way of assessing types of behaviour, breaking out behaviour types into four colours as per the below image: Red, Yellow, Green and Blue.

Red Behaviour

Core Traits: Reds are highly ambitious and driven, competitive and comfortable taking the lead. They speak their minds and prioritise speed and efficiency. They have a strong conviction in their version of reality.

Perception: Reds can be seen as dictatorial, controlling and tyrannical. They might not seem interested in trivial conversation and tend to be focused on the topics that matter. Often this blunt communication can come across as aggressive.

Body Language: Reds exhibit clear and distinctive body language. They keep their distance from others, have powerful handshakes, often lean forward aggressively, make direct eye contact and controlling gestures, and speak quickly with a strong voice.

Yellow Behaviour

Core Traits: Yellows are relentlessly optimistic and often the most popular of the behaviour types. Their focus is on developing relationships and they are highly persuasive. Yellows generally exhibit a high level of energy and curiosity.

Perception: Conversations with Yellows are often one-sided streams of unprocessed thoughts. Yellows typically turn conversations to themselves and are very poor listeners. They are often seen as careless with projects that require longer spells of concentration and significant follow-up.

Body Language: Yellow body language is relaxed and tactile, eye contact is friendly, and gestures are expressive. Yellows often come close, smile a lot, and talk quickly and empathetically.

Green Behaviour

Core Traits: Greens don’t stick out like other behaviour types. They are calm and tolerant to singular behaviour, friendly, and considered strong team players. They often struggle to say no and are less direct and upfront.

Perception: Greens are obstinate once a decision has been taken. They can also be considered enthusiasm killers through indifference, and their behaviour can appear passive and disinterested. Greens may also be less precise and more non-committal with words in order to preserve relationships.

Body Language: Green body language is relaxed and close. They often tend to lean backwards, make very friendly eye contact, small gestures, and less flamboyant movement. Green voices don’t tend to be strong, but instead soft and slower talking.

Blue Behaviour

Core Traits: Blues are logical analysts, cool headed, risk-averse and detail-oriented. They are more willing to work on predictable tasks and are usually introverted.

Perception: The ultimate perfectionists, blues are not keen on small talk and can appear cold and dismissive. Their fixation on details and checking may also suggest they don’t trust others, as well as leading to slower decision making.

Body Language: Blues prefer distance. Their body language tends to be closed, with direct eye contact, speech without gestures, and a subdued and slow voice.

Key Idea #3: Adapting and giving feedback to different behaviour types

In a perfect world, we can all exhibit our core behaviours. But the reality is that we won’t always get through to others unless we adapt, as well as adjusting our feedback style.

Adapting to Reds:

  • Be quick and brief
  • Cut the small talk
  • Focus on the essentials
  • Don’t sit on the fence – have a clear opinion
  • Demonstrate hard work
  • Confront if behaviour crosses a line
  • Remind that speed doesn’t always produce the right results

Giving Feedback to Reds:

  • Be upfront and honest – don’t sugarcoat feedback
  • Give concrete examples
  • Stick to facts over feelings
  • Be prepared to calmly handle conflict
  • Repeat what was agreed

Adapting to Yellows:

  • Create a warm and friendly atmosphere around them
  • Strip away unnecessary detail and focus on the big issues
  • Empathise with gut-based decisions
  • Give them space to work on new projects
  • Become approachable (e.g. through open body language)
  • Check they have listened

Giving Feedback to Yellows:

  • Prepare a feedback agenda and stick to it
  • Don’t let them eat up the time
  • Give concrete examples
  • Be aware that they might not be fully listening
  • Ensure they don’t take it personally – behaviour not person
  • Get them to repeat what you’ve agreed

Adapting to Greens:

  • Be prepared to listen to what they are anxious about
  • Allow them periods of peace and quiet to recharge
  • Clearly explain the steps of a plan
  • Deliver criticism in private
  • Take command to get things done where needed

Giving Feedback to Greens:

  • Give concrete examples
  • Adopt a gentle approach – Greens can take things very badly
  • Explain the behaviour is the problem, not the person
  • Get them to repeat what you’ve agreed

Adapting to Blues:

  • Do your homework
  • Stick to the task and small talk
  • Stick to the facts and avoid daydreaming
  • Provide the necessary detail
  • Remind them that sometimes speed is the priority

Giving Feedback to Blues:

  • Provide specific and detailed examples
  • Avoid getting too personal
  • Stick to facts
  • Be prepared for counterquestions in great detail
  • Get them to repeat what was said and follow up

Key Idea #4: Complementary and challenging combinations

In a perfect world, we’d have a team that is a blend of all the colours, but there are cases where this inevitably won’t be the case. Here it’s important to understand the natural and complementary combinations, as well as the challenging combinations.

Natural Combinations: Blues and Greens have some natural synergies. Both are introverted and so feel secure with one another. Reds and Yellows have natural synergies for opposite reasons. Both have the same type of energy and enthusiasm for working quickly.

Complementary Combinations: Reds and Blues are both task-oriented, with one results-focused and one detail-oriented. Yellows and Greens are more relationship-oriented, with Yellows being great talkers and Greens great listeners.

Challenging Combinations: Opposite colours tend to be more challenging. Reds and Greens can be a difficult combination. The directness of Reds may frustrate Greens, while the passivity and slowness of Greens may frustrate Reds. The most challenging combination, however, is Blue and Yellow. There is typically friction from the outset, with one focused quietly on detail and the other talkative and shooting from the hip.

When it comes to the optimal combinations, Erikson has some simple advice. If it’s not clear what behaviour type you are working with, sometimes it’s best to listen for a while. Often, acting Green is the best default strategy if you’re unsure.

Key Idea #5: The stress factors and stress response of behaviour types

The colours can also give us a good idea of what causes stress for people and how they typically respond to stress.

Red Stress Factors: Taking authority away; achieving no results; no challenge; wasting time and resources; mundane and repetitive tasks; making stupid mistakes; lack of control.

Red Stress Responses: Work even harder; hide themselves away; identify scapegoats.

Yellow Stress Factors: Feeling invisible; scepticism; structured work; isolation from the group; “overthinking”; public humiliation.

Yellow Stress Responses: Seek attention even more; excessive optimism; new ideas.

Green Stress Factors: Uncharted territory; unfinished tasks; lack of private space; rapid change; being in the spotlight

Green Stress Responses: Cold, closed body language; uncertain and insecure; internalise blame for mistakes.

Blue Stress Factors: Having knowledge challenged; spontaneous decisions; uncertain and risky decisions; mistakes; emotional people around them

Blue Stress Responses: Excessive pessimism; lethargy; slowing down to avoid mistakes.

You can buy the book here or you can find more of our book notes here. For further related reading, try How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.

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