The Dominance Drive Deconstructed
Updated: Mar 16, 2022
Why do we behave as we do? That question has preoccupied philosophers, psychologists, and researchers for millennia. Left unanswered, this question relegates all types of human behavior to a mystery. Sadly, organizational performance reflects this all too often. It happens when many workers think and act only from their own perspective and without an awareness and appreciation of individual differences among them. The inevitable result is degraded performance, infighting, disengagement, and turnover.
Fortunately, the question itself can be answered. Human behavior is no mystery, not even in our corporations and organizations. We actually know a great deal about why people behave as they do, and we can benefit from well-researched psychological theories and modern assessment science. We can harness these to better understand and motivate employees, build stronger and more cohesive teams, and help others reach their full potential. As such, knowing the origin of personality and some specifics regarding key workplace-impacting drives can give us a sort of unfair competitive advantage.
According to Trait Theory, a unique combination of genetic and environmental factors—think the classic Nature vs. Nurture debate—contributes to the development of our personalities. Traits are best considered habits of behavior, thought patterns, and emotions. A trait produces a drive to behave in a certain way.
Another key characteristic of traits is that they are relatively stable over time. For example, if you’re a naturally extraverted person, you’ll likely be social in a variety of situations, and you probably have been for quite some time. Knowing that you are strongly extraverted doesn’t tell us how you will specifically behave in a given situation, but it does provide us with a predictable range of behaviors that we can expect you to exhibit.
The theory goes on to posit that different configurations of these traits account for our unique personalities. Picture diverse personalities bumping into one another in a dynamic and complex work environment having millions of variables and you’ll quickly understand the apparent mystery of human behavior. (Like a co-worker who washes out a cereal bowl in the kitchen sink but not the spoon. Hmmm.)
While social scientists have developed countless personality assessments for academic, clinical, and Buzzfeed entertainment purposes, The Predictive Index (PI) developed one of the first behavioral assessments specifically designed to measure and interpret behavioral preferences specific to the workplace.
The PI Behavioral Assessment measures and provides interpretation guidance for four personality traits, or as we call them, Primary Factors. These primary factors are:
In this blog post, we cover the dominance drive.
The Dominance Drive
Dominance is the drive to have control over or make an impact on one’s environment.
Understanding the High Dominance Employee
A person with high dominance has many ideas and opinions, and he’s keen to share them with those around him. He is hands-on and focused on producing results. He values independence and autonomy above all. In most day-to-day situations, he will be competitive and will challenge himself and those around him to put his ideas into action to aggressively pursue his goals.
The high dominance employee is a “get it done” type of person. He is technically-oriented, preferring the world of things and facts rather than that of people and relationships. Naturally innovative and venturesome, he can be critical of the status quo and “the way it’s always been done”. His way is better. Just ask him. On second thought, you might not have to ask him; he’ll likely offer his opinion anyway. As Carol Warhurst, HR director at Murfin Drilling puts it, “They often speak first and think later. They flounder in situations where they don’t get their way or they have to listen to others perspectives and ideas instead of simply sharing their own. They interrupt people a lot.”
In the extreme, a high dominance worker will be fiercely individualistic. This may be exactly what’s needed in venturesome, uncertain, or risky situations. He is undaunted by criticism, although this can create a barrier to his accepting and acting on external feedback at times. His communication style can be frank and direct. “High dominance people take initiative quickly, seek control, and are independent and bottom line oriented. They like strategic level conversations, when they can take the lead,” says Ann Jadown, who heads up HR at Mario Tricoci.
Working for a high-dominance boss
There is a very strong possibility that you will find yourself working for a high dominance boss at some point in your career, as people with that personality trait tend to ascend to the top of organizations. The high dominance manager has an intense need to deliver results in her own way and on her intended timetable. She’s an innovative problem solver who has the tenacity to persevere when faced with opposition. Never one to back down from a challenge, the high dominance boss is quite comfortable in the face of interpersonal conflict. Over the course of her life and work experience, she’s faced resistance to her interactive style before.
The high dominance boss is not a consensus builder, so don’t expect her to take the time to make sure you’re comfortable with her decisions, opinions, or actions. Even so, you should work to understand her perspective of the problem at hand and the opportunity she sees to affect change. This will help you better understand the “why” behind her behavior and her stated direction. Armed with this information, you can help her troubleshoot any obstacles that arise in the pursuit of her plan.
Managing the high-dominance employee
If you manage a high dominance employee, remember that she is exceedingly self-sufficient. In fact, most of the “self-“ descriptors apply: self-starter, self-confident, self-motivated. Ironically, self-awareness may not apply for a younger worker if it refers to “Are you aware of exactly how your behavioral style is impacting those around you?” You may find you need to coach this type of awareness from time to time. When you do, be sure to connect any opportunity to adapt back to the high dominance employee’s self-interests.
High dominance employees are naturally action-oriented, so you won’t need to worry about having to push them along. In fact, the opposite may be true on occasion. To help your high dominance employee succeed, challenge him early, and give him the opportunity to win. Even if you’re setting the overarching direction, there must still be an opportunity for him to make his own mark. Otherwise, you risk losing his attention, his engagement, and eventually his employment status.
Low dominance at work
As the dominance drive is all about making an impact and doing so one’s own way, it’s not surprising to learn that workers with a low amount of this drive are cooperative and accommodating by nature. Low dominance workers are unselfish, and they’re quite willing to allow those around them to set the agenda. They readily accept the authority of others, including situations when directives are set by company policies, procedures, or systems.
Low dominance people can fall into the trap of allowing “less knowledgeable people to hijack the discussion and outcome,” warns Morten Lokkegaard of Humanostics.
Low dominance workers are typically more interested in the team or group win; a “we” before “I” sort of thing. They don’t relish the trappings of success—public recognition, the best parking spot right up front. What they do need is office harmony. Low dominance workers are uncomfortable in the face of interpersonal conflict. They may attempt to defuse or avoid tense situations or try to bring balance in favor of general agreement among the group.
Working for a low-dominance boss
If you report to a low dominance supervisor, appreciate that he will take extra care to make sure everybody is bought into the direction—not just going along because he says so. He will be very focused on the team’s success and welfare. He’s also likely to be modest about his experience, knowledge, and capabilities.
During times of organizational change, he’ll do what he can to act as a buffer between executive order and its impact on his team. If you’re also a low dominance person, you’ll likely appreciate his collegial management style. If you’re a high dominance person, by contrast, know that you’ll need to find a way to make your mark without creating too much upward discomfort.
Managing the low-dominance employee
Low dominance reports need a working environment that is harmonious and relatively stable. If you’re a high dominance manager, be careful not to think that just because you’re excited about a new initiative that everybody on your team automatically will be, too. You run the risk of overpowering your people, and every leader needs followers.
Give your low dominance reports a bit more time and a less intense indoctrination to the best extent possible. As one practitioner put it, low dominance workers may “flounder in situations requiring them to step outside of their comfort zone.“ In group settings, make sure that your higher dominance reports aren’t drowning out their lower dominance counterparts. Create safe spaces for your lower dominance employees to share their valuable observations and expertise. “Stress the we, listen, give more support and reassurance,” advises Jadown.
Mix and match
Organizations need a combination of high dominance and low dominance people. One comprised of exclusively high dominance people would likely incapacitate itself through instability and inattention to the necessary “glue” required in most endeavors. One made up of exclusively low dominance people would lack the competitive drive to innovate, take chances, and bring about a better tomorrow. We’re better together.
Consider the needs of Kimball Construction, a company that looks for high dominance in candidates for their project manager positions. This is a position “where people will often need to fight for change orders, and not be afraid to disagree with superintendents,” explains Becca Pennington, Kimball’s HR manager. Conversely, low dominance people are well-suited for Kimball’s accounting positions.
Clearly, it’s critical to identify the amount of dominance required in a given job function and at every level of the organization. With that behavioral target in mind, it’s then equally important to find people who naturally match the required amount of dominance or who can adapt sufficiently to meet the need.