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Role and Operation Style: How Styles Shift

Primary and Secondary Styles

As you probably already can see, few people use only one style. However, for most of us, there is a particular style that we use more frequently than the others. We call this style a person's primary style. The style toward which a person drifts most frequently when not in primary style we call the person's secondary style. So, although a person may have a primary Decisive style, that same person may have the Integrative style as a secondary. For most people, there are two styles, a primary and a secondary style, that are used quite frequently. For some people, there is more than one secondary style that they use quite frequently when not using their primary style. What this means is that any one person's behavior can shift dramatically as a person moves between primary and secondary styles. This is why we call our decision style framework the dynamic decision style model. A person's styles can change both in the short-run and long-run.

We find that shifts between primary and secondary styles are not random; they follow a predictable pattern related to the amount of pressure that a person is experiencing. Figure 4 shows the relationship between information use and environmental load for two people. "Environmental load" simply refers to anything in a person's immediate environment that creates a sense of pressure.

Figure 4

As Figure 4 indicates, people use the most information, or see more options, under moderate load conditions. In the figure, the curves show this to be true for both Person A and Person B. In both cases, the curve follows an inverted-U pattern. So, when load or pressure is moderate, people are inclined to use their most complex style. Maximizer styles are more complex than satisficer styles; multi- focused styles are more complex than uni- focused styles. So, maximizer/multi- focused styles are most complex. The styles proceed from the least complex to the most complex in this order: Decisive, Flexible, Hierarchic, Integrative, and Systemic.

When pressure is very high, however, people tend to shift toward their less analytic, more focused styles. In high pressure situations, such as crises, emergencies, or just before a critical schedule deadline, people tend to hit overload conditions when the "circuits are jammed." Analytic and multi-focused thinking becomes virtually impossible.

On the other extreme, very low load conditions simply are not stimulating enough to support analytic thinking. Very low load involve relatively simple, routine decisions that have little importance such as routinely ordering supplies, or completing forms. Moderate load conditions prevail when the issues to be decided are important, but time pressure is low. Many planning or policy making functions have these characteristics, and many corporate staff positions remain relatively constant in moderate load territory, except before board meetings and when quarterly reports become due. Executive and senior management positions in operating units tend toward high load (high importance, plus time pressure), and this becomes even more the case for positions that are faced with constant crises.The relationship between style and environmental load provides an important key to understanding how people develop various primary and secondary style combinations.

For example, if you work in a highly pressure packed situation where '"fighting fires" is the norm, the chances are that you will develop a simpler style (e.g., Decisive or Flexible) as your primary style. Even so, you might have an analytic secondary style, say Systemic. Your Systemic style will come to the forefront on those days when you are able to step back from the hectic pace to work on some plans for the future. When you return once more to the front lines, however, your plans will tend to fade into the background as the press of events requires you once more to make on-the-spot decisions. At this point, your load curve might resemble that of Person B in Figure 4. Suppose now that, because of your excellent performance on the front lines, your superiors decide to promote you into a higher management position at corporate headquarters. Now, the pace of events shifts to a somewhat slower speed and you are given responsibility for conducting studies and proposing plans relative to your company's future business strategy. Assuming that you survive this abrupt shift in roles, we would expect that your primary and secondary styles would begin to change. Most likely, you will find yourself using your Systemic style more often, and your Decisive style less frequently. In effect, your analytic “window" will gradually open to the point that you may find yourself using the Systemic style in situations where formerly you surely would have been in Decisive mode. This process probably would be noticeable even off the job, as you find yourself giving more and more consideration to factors you would never before have taken into account when, for example, you shop for a new car, or plan a vacation.Understanding the dynamics that move you between your primary and secondary styles can contribute very significantly to your success in your career. Most of the time, we are unaware of how we are making decisions. As we pointed out earlier, styles are habits. Habits are unconscious for the most part. This means that in most situations we will make no judgment about how to go about thinking and deciding. Instead, we will be on automatic pilot. Consequently, we often will walk straight into situations that will push our decision making and thinking one way or another without our realizing what is going on.However, knowledge of style dynamics can put you in control. If, for example, you realize that you have a critical decision to make that will have long-term effects on you and on others, you now can begin to take steps to assure that pressures will not push you unwittingly into a highly Decisive style. You can also take advantage of this same knowledge in dealing with others. You will begin to see when others around you shift styles. This will help you anticipate others' behavior. For example, suppose that occasionally, but infrequently, a particular person comes up with ideas that are truly creative and innovative. You would like to see more of these ideas. So, you could begin by taking steps to explore new ideas with the person when you know that he or she is not feeling a lot of stress or pressure.Role Styles and Operating StylesSizing up a person's decision style often is made difficult by the fact that the style a person uses in more formal situations differs from the style that the person is likely to use in day-to-day work situations. This is one of the reasons that employment interviewing is such a notoriously inaccurate way to evaluate job applicants.When people are conscious of the need to present a favorable image, they usually behave in a manner that reflects what we call role style. For example, a person will be in role style when making a speech, when making an important formal presentation, or when delivering a briefing in a staff meeting. This is when the person will attempt to behave as he or she believes one should behave.A person's operating style, on the other hand, is the style that a person is most likely to fall into naturally when going about a task or when making a decision without being aware of how he or she is thinking or behaving. It is the style that a person uses when least self-aware, when a person's attention is focused on a decision that must be made or on a task immediately at hand. When people meet other people for the first time, or when they deal with other people in formal circumstances, they quite naturally want to create favorable impressions of themselves. Even though the impression that they project at these times may not be representative of them when they are less aware of the signals that they are sending to other people, you should not conclude that they are consciously forcing a “phony image.”Most people are quite unaware that their behavior often changes markedly as they shift their attention from interpersonal relationships to other issues. All that is required to prompt a shift from role style to operating style is for a person to lose sight of himself or herself, or to feel unconcerned for the moment about how his or her relationship with another person is faring. So, even though a person is thinking and behaving quite differently than a short time earlier, the person probably is completely unaware of that fact. It's not that people think they are behaving the same way as always when they are in operating style. The fact is simply that they are not thinking about how they are thinking. So, for example, it isn't unusual to find that a person who comes across as Hierarchic (strong opinions backed up by lots of facts and logic), on a first meeting, will begin to show a more multi-focused side as your relationship develops over the course of time. Eventually, you may find that the person actually has a Flexible primary operating style.The same thing may be true for you. You may project a much different image of yourself, when you are conscious of the fact that other people are paying attention to you and your behavior, than you do when attention moves from you to other things, people, or issues. Probably, you are more aware of how you behave when the spotlight is upon you -- when you are in role style -- than when yours and others' attention is focused elsewhere -- when you are in operating mode. However, people who are familiar with you and work with you often are likely to clearly see your operating style.The fact that many people misperceive their own styles was made clear to us once again recently when we statistically analyzed the relationships between primary role and operating styles for a sample of people whose styles we had assessed during the preceding two years. As usual we found almost no correlation between role and operating styles. What this means is that if you have identified a person's role style, you still know virtually nothing about that person's operating style.However, the small correlation that we did find between operating and role styles showed some surprising patterns. When we asked, "What role styles do people with different operating styles have?" here is what we found:

Individuals with primary Decisive operating styles were most inclined to describe themselves as Integrative;

Individuals with primary Flexible operating styles were most inclined to describe themselves as Decisive;

Individuals with primary Hierarchic operating styles were most inclined to describe themselves as Flexible;

Individuals with primary Integrative operating styles were not quite sure which style best described them, but most often saw themselves as having any but Integrative!

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