Your own worst enemy

Part 2 of management for geeks.

The first step in my quest for managerial self-improvement was a bit of self-assessment: a DISC assessment and a 360-degree review. These delivered a pretty big message: I’m working against myself here, my very own personality:

  • Personality characteristics beneficial to a programmer are not necessarily the same as those beneficial to a manager. My job has changed and I need to change with it.
  • As a long-time programmer, I’m pretty good at learning and practising new technical skills and abilities. I have absolutely zero experience at trying to work on behavioural patterns – I don’t even know what’s possible in this arena.
  • I’ve rarely (possible never) reflected on my personality in depth. I may well have been drawn to programming because of personality preferences, but I never thought about that explicitly. Evaluating my own personality has been surprising and discomforting in itself.

This is really the main place I can see the “for geeks” part of the series title being particularly relevant (and a little flippant, for sure). As when it comes to dating, geeks, we’re our own worst enemies!

Tattoo of binary number


Let’s start with DISC – an acronym for Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Conscientiousness. The assessment’s pretty quick and you can find a number of places to do it online. There are some free versions (such as this) which give you raw D, I, S and C scores. There are also paid versions which give a more in-depth report, drawing a load of conclusions from these scores – something like this sample.

Supposedly, I had something resembling a typical engineer’s profile (higher in S and C than I and D) – associated with adjectives like mild, factual, skeptical, deliberate, unemotional, careful, systematic – nothing to be ashamed of, but unfortunately, I’m told the ideal management profile looks somewhat different, with higher D and I scores, associated with adjectives like driving, demanding, forceful, convincing, enthusiastic, persuasive and magnetic.

DISC profiles of managers and engineers

Alert! Alert!

I hope your bullshit detectors are working overtime by now – mine certainly are, as I write through somewhat gritted teeth. If you have any kind of scientific background, then the whole area of psychometric testing seems to be pretty dubious, starting with the very notion of measurement. A classic social science definition of measurement is “the assignment of numerals to objects or events according to some rule” (Stevens, 1946) whereas a physical science definition is narrower, to do with estimating the ratio of two quantities (Stevens called this ‘ratio measurement’). I’m uncomfortable that the former definition seems to admit astrology as a valid type of measurement – more on astrology later!

They’re also clearly working to a different definition of the word “theory” than the physical sciences. Just take a look at the Wikipedia page on personality psychology – the “theories” are so many, so arbitrary, and so convoluted. A physical science theory includes critical elements such as falsifiability, predictive ability and simplicity. This is a different use of the word theory – they’re just crude, arbitrary approximations to complex phenomena.

It gets worse when you look at the detailed DISC reports, with their extra conclusions and “analysis” of your personality. We’re getting into horoscope territory here.

Girl reading horoscope

To be fair, unlike horoscopes, the underlying data (answering questions about how you describe yourself) is somewhat relevant to the predictions. But the resulting report reads much like a horoscope, and relies partially on the Forer effect (or Barnum effect) after B.R. Forer’s experiment, where he gave a personality test to his students, and gave them all the exact same report, regardless of their answers:

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.

His students gave the report an average score for accuracy of 4.26 on a scale from 0 to 5. Derren Brown repeats a similar experiment on video.  I must admit, my DISC report seemed spookily prescient on a first reading, but more careful examination reveals some classic horoscope tricks (also present in Forer’s report):

  • Incredibly generic statements, mostly positive, that are true of most people (or that people want to believe of themselves): ‘quick to detect errors’, ‘deliberates before making decisions’, ‘makes favourable impressions’, ‘exhibits patience’, ‘capable of influencing others’, ‘develops specialised skills’, ‘often defensive when challenged’ … I could go on and on. Oh go on, one more – my favourite – ‘possessive about personal effects’.
  • Covering all bases by distributing contradictory statements across time: ‘relaxed, diplomatic and easygoing … This congenial attitude may change quickly … when intensely focused’. Take your pick!
  • Using cautious wording so that the incorrect bits don’t stand out too much: ‘possible limitations … may be too lenient … could over-estimate … can be inflexible’.

As well as horoscope tricks, there are some elements which could fairly be deduced from my answers to the questions. But there’s nothing insightful about these sections – they’re just things I know to be true of me, and they’re downright obvious from the answers I gave. On top of that, there are a number of things which are badly, badly wrong: under-estimating my own ability and competence, lacking depth in problem-solving, unwilling to share information … and just so I’m not being defensive about negative traits, I can’t really say I have much patience or ‘respect for tradition’.

I wouldn’t read too much into these reports. To be fair to psychologists, it may be that these reports are not  good examples of their work – there’s money to be made from selling these reports and it could just be sharp business practice rather than representative of the field of psychology.

Why it’s useful

Despite the bullshit, I think it can still be worthwhile trying something like a DISC assessment if you’ve never done one before. However bogus it may be, simply reading up on the background theory is going to give you a language to think, talk and reflect on your personality. Whatever you think of the DISC model itself, the adjectives involved form a fairly comprehensive list of work-relevant behavioural patterns, and it’s very useful to think about your behaviour in all these dimensions. I realise it’s a bit like saying

Horoscopes are great because they get you reflecting on your finances and love life

but this probably only sounds stupid because everyone reflects on these things anyway. If you’ve never really reflected on your personality before, DISC may just give you the wake-up call you need to realise that this is important to your new management role. This is definitely what it did for me, and I needed this wake-up call: although your behavioural patterns matter as a programmer (for example, attention to detail – “high C” in DISC terms – is clearly essential), you’ve probably had quite a few years to develop them before getting a job, and the computer let you develop at your own speed without embarrassment (just frustration). If you’ve just moved to management, you need to develop new patterns, you need to do it in a hurry, and you’re doing it in full view of other people. The sooner you realise this, the better 🙂

If you take this to its logical conclusion, you may not need the assessment at all – maybe reading this was enough? Doing the test may be helpful if you’re having trouble getting started with the reflection part, though – and it’s always a bit of fun to get a score out of it. If you’re still sceptical about these psychological models, I’d suggest thinking of them as very approximate models of human behaviour: way coarser than the truth, but providing some kind of manageable way for us to think and talk about personality in the absence of full scientific understanding. The 360-degree review is going to be far more useful data (I’d go so far as to say the 360-degree review is essential – if you can’t ask the people who work for you what they think of your work, you don’t stand much chance of managing them successfully), but the DISC profile provides another data point and may help you to think about the underlying reasons for the review feedback.

Can you change?

The million-dollar question here is what you can do with this information. I’m not sure if there’s a right answer, or who’d be qualified to give it. It boils down to some fascinating questions about the fundamental nature of personality:

  • Do you have free will? Do you have rational control over your behaviour or is your personality in control?
  • Are your personality traits genetic, were they established at an early age, or are they still up for modification?
  • Are they low-level, hard-wired behaviours or just habits that you can change with diligence?
  • Are they fixed or do they change based on other environmental and situational factors?

I’m fundamentally optimistic about this. I believe I’m in control of my behaviour and that any weaknesses are simply bad habits or a lack of practice. I think it may take some time, but I’m confident I can use this information to my advantage. I should probably report back at some time in the future about how I’ve fared 🙂

So far, I don’t think I’ve changed anything fundamental about my make-up, but I do think I understand myself better, and I’m beginning to recognise some lower-level, previously-subconscious patterns in my behaviour and decision-making. For example, I’ve had a couple of awkward people problems to deal with at work which are definitely outside my comfort zone. For some time, I’d been shutting these out of mind, hoping they’d go away, or dealing with them indirectly, getting other people to help out. I’d often be able to rationalise and justify my actions (it’s hard to admit that you’re wrong to yourself). Recently, I’m finding that I can recognise the first signs of discomfort, and elevate my thought processes to a more explicit, rational level. Here, I can figure out my best shot at the “right” approach. It hasn’t yet made me comfortable with dealing with these issues directly, and hasn’t necessarily made me any more effective at carrying out the right approach, but I’m definitely better off than before. I’m hoping that in time, with repetition and practice, I will become more comfortable, and the right decisions will become more automatic, but for now I’m happy to say that I’ve won the first battle with my inner self, if that doesn’t sound too schizophrenic 🙂

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4 Responses to Your own worst enemy

  1. Sue Massey says:

    Great Blog post. I am going to bookmark and read more often. I love the Blog template … if you need any assistance customizing it let me know!

  2. Cynthia says:


    I like your report and writing style, thanks! Problem is however that you report on DISC which any real psychologist or psychometrician will tell you has very dubious properties. Psychologists will stay away from it – you are right, very horoscope in reporting…what more can you do when you only have 4 very general scales!

    I disagree that anybody with a scientific background will find psychometric testing dubious…I am VERY scientific and what I know is that well developed tests do work. Look at the Saville Consulting range for example. Their tests are more predictive than any other test on the market and they predict job performance time and time again. That is science and something that works better than the traditional job interview and certainly reference checks!

  3. Grippo says:

    What font is that in that tattoo

  4. RaiulBaztepo says:

    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language 😉
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

Comments are closed.