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Too Stuck in Your Ways? The Upside and Downside to Being Compliant

The “High Cs”

They are always on time, never miss a meeting or a deadline, and invariably know what is the right thing to do in every situation; these efficient people-engines bring a sense of stability, certainty and orderliness into every workplace that is lucky enough to have them. Because at The Collaborative we rely on DISC quite a bit, we simply call them the “High Cs,” where the “C” stands for “Compliance” or “Conscientiousness,” a measure of personal behavior that outlines one’s typical response to rules and procedures set by others. High Cs can be described as exacting, systematic and unbending; they value the rules and believe in following them to the letter. On the other end of the scale we have the “Low Cs,” people who are more flexible, open-minded and unsystematic.

Employees working in the same environment can differ greatly from one another based on where they rate on a scale of 1-100 for their “C” score. Using a personal assessment tool such as DISC can help employees develop a deeper understanding of their compliance tendencies, as well as getting a better idea of how others tend to see them.

It’s beneficial to be aware of both perspectives, as oftentimes people’s perception of their own self doesn’t match that of others. For example, while a High C person may see him- or herself as cautious, careful, accurate, logical, thorough, well-organized or driven by good judgement, others can interpret the same behavior as worrisome, picky, fussy, perfectionistic, controlling, obstinate or defensive. The same principle holds for the Low Cs as well: one colleague can describe them as nonconformist, curious, flexible or unorthodox, while another may deem their behavior to be frivolous, irrational, impulsive, etc.

Genetics Has Nothing to Do With It

An argument exists that some people prefer following the rules (systematic High C types), while others are almost allergic to them, because it’s part of their nature. In other words, people don’t choose to be rational and systematic or flexible and diplomatic; these qualities are inherent to them. This long-held belief that people use either the rational or creative side of the brain, however, has been recently refuted by the University of Utah’s study. The study showed that our inclination to either challenge or comply with the rules is not caused by genetics; it’s a learned behavior that is heavily influenced by an individual’s character, various circumstances and lifestyle.

A 2013 study of 60 visual artists and 60 bank officers, published in the Creativity Research Journal, argues for this point as well. In this study, European researchers investigated the effects of temperament and divergent thinking on the creative potential of the participants. The results showed that temperament plays a major role in determining personal activity levels: a higher personal activity score leads to a more diverse lifestyle, which makes people more prone to divergent thinking.

In his interview for the Wall Street Journal, Brandon Mikel Smith, founder and principal of Worksmiths LLC, an Atlanta executive-coaching firm, corroborates the point that affinity to highly systematic thinking is an acquired trait. He explains that “many rigid people grew up in turbulent homes that made them long for stability, or with a hypercritical parent who taught them that anything less than perfect wasn’t good enough.” Altogether the scientific evidence points to a fact that even though “by-the-book” individuals are not born with systematic thinking, their behavioral style is built into them as firmly as their DNA; following the rules is a part of their mentality and therefore can be exceedingly difficult to modify.

Helping to Better Cope…

Despite the fact that High Cs make great contributions to their organizations, they can also become a target of their colleagues’criticism: While their rigor is absolutely indispensable for seamless and efficient running of the office, their penchant for perfectionism, occasional inflexibility and strict adherence to the rules often make them quite difficult to work with or for. A recent Wall Street Journal article, They Make the Trains Run on Time, but at What Cost?, highlights this issue and provides the readers with some advice for “dealing with inflexible people” in the work environment.

As a coach, my objective is not only to determine how to help employees better cope with the overly systematic behaviors of their colleagues, but more importantly figure out how to help every member of the team cope better. Regardless of whether one is a High or Low C individual, each type of behavior has its advantages and disadvantages. Recognizing and effectively managing the disadvantages can make the difference between success and failure.

Somewhat strained relationships with a few colleagues is one potential disadvantage of being a High C type. The other disadvantage is less obvious but just as dangerous: Sometimes when trying to do the right thing, strict rule followers miss certain important nuances and inadvertently limit their opportunities for professional growth and career advancement. The majority of High C employees are highly intelligent and talented people, and usually all they need is a touch of flexibility in order to move their careers to the next level.

Making Changes

Trying to change one’s behaviors or beliefs is never easy and can take quite some time. Effective transformation always includes three key elements:

  • awareness of the need for change,
  • acceptance of that need, and
  • ambition to make change happen.

Systematic High C types may not always realize that they need to change something about their ways, especially when their performance is nothing short of flawless. Simply “Be more creative” may sound quite ridiculous to them, as it doesn’t provide any logical explanation or instructions for what they need to do better or differently.

Personalized professional guidance is the most optimal solution in such cases. At The Collaborative we know that working with a coach or mentor helps significantly in advancing one’s career to the next level. As for the advice that High Cs can start applying immediately:

  • Be open to new experiences and try new things in life in order to strengthen your divergent thinking.
  • Always look at things from an alternative perspective in addition to your customary way of dealing with problems.
  • Remember that while there is “safety” in the facts and data, you are dealing with human beings. We are much more emotional than rational; develop your human side.
  • You have learned the rules, now you need to learn to use them effectively to get what you want to accomplish done, while winning over your team members (and the boss, too!).