Agile Coaching – Working with the 4 Social Styles

Posted By on Août 30, 2011

As an Agile Coach, what’s the first thing you do when you walk into the meeting room?

Well,  I observe and listen. I pay attention to individual behavior and the interactions before, during and after the meeting. Then I start labeling! Sounds horrible doesn’t it? But it really isn’t. It might also seem as if I’m judging. But I’m not. It’s simply a quick way to get a feel for the team and serves as first step to better understanding its dynamics.

The Labels

I don’t have the luxury of time (nor the brain power) to perform a MBTI psychometric assessment of each team member in real-time. Although we might complete a MBTI assessment at some point during the project, at first I rely solely on four high level social styles : Analytical, Driver, Amiable and Expressive. Here’s what I look and listen for :


Why do you need to know this

What I’m exposing here is stuff that’s been around for ages. I believe I first studied social styles in college about 25 years ago and then into more hard core stuff in University. The reason I’m blogging about this now is simply because nearly all the ScrumMasters I’ve coached over the years (mostly project managers and tech leads) never heard of this.  (Maybe it’s time for the computer science department to enrich its curriculum, but that’s a whole other post…Stay tuned 😉 )

So even if you are (or were) a programming guru, are able to recite the 12 principles of the Agile Manifesto by heart or can book three conference rooms for a Scrum of Scrum Sprint Planning meeting with one arm tied behind your back – That’s just the the snowflake on tip of the iceberg.

Gerald M. Weinberg sums it up well when he writes “It’s always a people problem” in his book, The Secrets of consulting

Tim Lister and Tom DeMarco in Peopleware write:

«The main reason we tend to focus on the technical rather than the human side of the work is not because it’s more crucial, but because it’s easier to do. … Human interactions are complicated and never very crisp and clean in their effects, but they matter more than any other aspect of the work.

If you find yourself concentrating on the technology rather than the sociology, you’re like the vaudeville character who loses his keys on a dark street and looks for them on the adjacent street because, as he explains, «The light is better there.»

By understanding the basic social styles and being able to identify the tattletale signs given off every minute of every day by the individuals that surround you, you’ll acquire extra tools to deal with those «complicated and never very crisp and clean» human interactions.

These tools will allow you to :

  • Better interpret verbal and non-verbal communication
  • Improve your global listening
  • Better resolve conflicts and insure better outcomes
  • Offer more powerful feedback
  • Better target your powerful questions
  • Improve team member collaboration
  • And the list goes on…

Who are you?

The starting point is knowing who you are. What is your predominant social style? You can perform a self-evaluation but do invite others to help out. Get some input from differente sources such as colleagues, your community of practice and why not a few beer buddies? You should also take the time to fill out a MBTI psychometric questionnaire. The results will astonish you!


Elasticity starts when you have a better understanding of your own predominant social style and are able to identify the social styles of folks around.  Only then can you start avoiding or adopting certain behaviors that might not be natural to you or your colleagues. You practice elasticity when you able to “stretch” and reach out to the other social styles. Above all, it’s about being respectful of your team members styles. It starts with you, the coach. Then you can help the individuals on the team to “stretch” and adjust their own behavior to allow a more productive and healthy environment.

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The scenario

Let’s say that…

  1. Diane is definitely the Driver style
  2. Andrew is big time Analytical
  3. Allen is the Amiable style
  4. And the Product Owner is the Expressive style.

Allen likes to start every meeting with a magic trick.

Andrew is already modeling a state machine on the whiteboard.

The Product Owner wants to change the world and is off in every possible direction,

And Diane in increasingly becoming impatient and tries to take control.

And you are…?

(If only it was that easy 😉 )

If everyone in the room sticks firmly to their own social style, you’ll start observing distinctive signs of frustration…

  1. The Driver might become more controlling and start finger pointing
  2. The Analytical might become aloof and start fixating
  3. The Amiable might continue to try to find a peaceful resolution but then retire completely
  4. The Expressive might become more agitated then finally become distant
  5. You might also notice an increase in volume, a change of pace (faster or slower) and long silences.

(I use the word «might» because, as you know, human interactions are complicated and never very crisp and clean)

Transforming the energy

How do we transform this dysfunctional meeting into a valuable one?

To achieve any kind progress, you first find need to be actively listening to whats happening. Since you are not involved in the specific content of conversation, you can pay attention to body language and go beyond what people are saying and start picking up on the energy in the room.

You can then work on team member elasticity by asking powerful questions.  You might ask the following questions to our Expressive Product Owner who is going off in every possible direction :

  • What is the essence of what you are telling us?
  • What is the first thing you would like to accomplish?

If with these questions you manage to funnel our Product Owners energy, maybe…

  1. Diane The Driver will get the feeling that things are finally moving forward.
  2. This will help Andrew The Analytical to start modeling something simpler.
  3. With reduced tension and conflict, Allan The Amiable will feel more comfortable in joining in.
  4.  Our Expressive Product Owner will feel more focused all the while being listen too.

You might want to take it one step further and…

  1. Offer to the Driver a chance to lead when defining clear options
  2. Roll in a white board and encourage the Analytical to structure and detail high level talks.
  3. Ask the Amiable if the decisions we are making map out well to our core values
  4. Create a well defined timebox for free expression and brainstorming. The Expressive social style will love it!

It takes practice!

You can start practicing by simply observing dyadic conversations at work and try to identify those Social Style tattletales. Look at who’s driving the conversation and observe the other person’s non-verbal communication. Then try to imagine how more valuable that conversation could have been if elasticity came naturally to both of them.

Understanding the driving force behind each team member and their natural differences can open up brand new opportunities to increase collaboration and improve the overall process. Know yourself, your team members and the surrounding collaborators and you’ll suddenly have additional tools to help create a healthy environment of transparency, collaboration and creativity.

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  1. Very nice post. I like it a lot since I only knew MBTI and it might be a little too heavy for the day-to-day need of a scrummaster.

    I started trying to identify my colleagues (all of them, not just my teams) using these criteria and it was a little too hard based on the information you provided. I think I needed the weaknesses of the types in order to proper identify them, so I lurked online for new details.

    Further interesting reading on the subject is on

    And this website also gives us some tips and tricks on how to adapt our communication toward these types. Thanks to your enlightenment my friend, I will now try to put this into practice.


  2. Thanks for the comment and the link!

    There’s a ton of information on Social Styles out there. Feel free to share any other
    link that are valuable to you.


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