This article provides a practical explanation of the Merrill Social Styles. After reading, you’ll understand the basics of this powerful communication management tool.
What are the Merrill Social Styles?
The Merrill social styles form a personality model that includes four social styles. These styles each have different properties and thought processes. This simple and practical tool can be used to understand differences between individuals within the organisation. Each employee has different qualities, and approaches his job in a different way. These differences can, if visible, be used to discover and utilise as much potential as possible.
Psychologists David Merrill and Roger Reid also recognised this potential in the eighties of the previous century. Following B. F. Skinner’s discoveries regarding behaviourism and James Taylor’s behavioural descriptions, these two psychologists discovered that people’s behaviour follows two continua, namely assertiveness and responsiveness. While they worked at a large insurance firm in the United States, they studied whether behaviour could predict leadership potential. If that were possible, so they reasoned, they could create a culture with only highly effective leaders.
As indicated above, the factor analysis the two used consisted of two scales: assertiveness and responsiveness. This resulted in a model with four quadrants that each represent a social style; the Merrill social styles. In practice, it can effectively be used by, for example, salespeople to find out what type of personality they’re dealing with.
Three Behavioural Dimensions
Three behavioural dimensions lie at the core of the Merrill social styles. These include a behavioural field in which people have various capacities and therefore can make different choices. Musicality is a behavioural dimension, for instance. Some people enjoy playing an instrument, others do not. Some people can hold a rhythm, others are unable to tap along with a simple beat. These behaviours create different levels, from highly musical to less musical.
The two behavioural dimensions Merrill and Reid focussed on when developing the four social styles were assertiveness and responsiveness. An additional behavioural dimension was added later: versatility. Each of the behavioural dimensions are explained below.
Assertiveness has a very specific meaning in the Merrill social styles theory. In the original study, it was defined as ‘the extent to which other people see you as a person who tries to convince others of your point of view’. People who are very assertive try to influence others with things that are important to them. People who are less assertive achieve the things they feel are important in a different way. They let others know what they think or create a solution to a problem that bothers them.
Merrill and Reid developed a horizontal line with four levels of assertiveness. From high to low: ABCD
In this model, responsiveness is defined as ‘the extent to which other people see that you control your emotions or reveal and share them’. People who ‘react’ very fast and share their emotions are very easy to read in their voice, body posture, facial expression, and choice of words. People who score less high on responsiveness are more difficult to read. They give away fewer vocal or visible signs, and don’t talk about emotions. These people prefer facts and circumstances.
Once again, Merrill and Reid divided the scale for responsiveness into four levels. From low to high: 1234
The third dimension used in the Merrill social styles model is versatility, which is defined as ‘the extent to which others experience you as a person who is willing to change preferred behaviour to make others more comfortable’. This is a very important dimension. There is no best position on the scales of responsiveness and assertiveness, high or low. It is definitely possible to score better on versatility. The scores here range from low to high: 1234
Four Social Styles
After Merrill and Reid created a grid or cluster by laying the two behavioural dimensions of assertiveness and responsiveness on top of each other. Each cluster consisted of a specific number of preferred behaviours. These clusters were referred to as social styles. The four behavioural styles from the cluster are explained below.
The top-left quadrant represents the group of analytical people from the Merrill social styles model. This group of people is thoughtful and cautious. They generally want to make sure they have all the information they need before getting into something. Their favourite approach to problems and issues is risk minimisation by considering all possible options. Others tend to view this group as cool, cautious, serious, precise, objective, rational, and sometimes distant.
Analytical people love facts. They work accurately, orderly, and methodically, and follow standard procedures, rules, and best practices in their activities. Other characteristics of this group include:
- Focus more on tasks than on people
- Like to be right and take the time to show this
- Are reflective, cautious, and precise
- Are good at evaluating and solving problems
- Are good at working alone, avoid group activities
- Are careful when making decisions
- Are critical and have low responsiveness
The right-bottom quadrant represents the group of expressive people from the Merrill social styles model. These people are adventurous and move fast in life. Expressives like to share new ideas and plans. Their favourite approach to a problem or issue is to create a vision for the future and seek support from others by emphasising the advantages. They are experts at making others feel energetic, working enthusiastically, using humour in work, and taking risks. Others view this group of people as impulsive, creative, and convincing. Other characteristics of the group of expressives include:
- Easily interact with others
- Are afraid of being rejected
- Love confirmation and praise
- Don’t like routine and complex matters
- Tend to generalise and exaggerate
- Use a sarcastic tone when they’re stressed
The top-bottom quadrant represents the group of amiable people from the Merrill social styles model. These people are thoughtful, kind, support others, and take their time to build a good relationship with others. They prefer to approach a problem or issue by reaching consensus. They often play a mediating role in such situations. Amiables believe that the best solution is a solution that brings all stakeholders on board. Others view this group as kind, friendly, and self-deprecating. Other characteristics of this group include:
- Listen attentively
- Excel at teamwork
- Want to be respected
- Want to be popular
- Want to be seen as nice
- Look for safety and stability
- Like organised workplaces
- Take their time to make decisions
- Prefer following orders to taking the lead
- Are afraid of change and uncertainty
The top-right quadrant represents the group of drivers from the Merrill social styles model. These individuals are highly assertive and have low responsiveness. The people in this category make decisions quickly, are impatient, and get angry when others can’t keep up. Their favourite approach is to act quickly based on the available and relevant information, and to course-correct later if necessary. These people are specialised in pragmatism, staying cool under pressure, and completing tasks quickly. Others view this group as task-oriented, efficient, and demanding. Other characteristics of this group include:
- Are competitive and want to want
- Always look for control and to take over control
- Are quick in their actions and reactions
- Are good at planning
- Being decisive
- Are result-oriented
- Are task-oriented
- Don’t like inefficiency and weak decisiveness
Social Styles in Practice
It was psychologists Merrill and Reid’s drive to utilise potential that gave rise to their initiating and completing study. Initially, they were looking for good candidates for managerial and leadership positions, but the study showed that there are four types of social styles that can be used in practice. It is particularly important that organisations and their human resource management establish the various competences and skills for each position, or the desired characteristics for everyone who will work at the organisation.
Diversity within an organisation is also important. Different personalities with strengths and weaknesses can raise an organisation up to great heights. In the most optimal situation, the team consists of at least one person from each of the Merrill social styles. The drivers and analyticals ensure that the others remain focussed on their tasks. The amiables and expressives in turn create a good group morale and a pleasant atmosphere in which problems can be addressed and resolved.
Now it’s your turn
What do you think? Do you recognize the explanation about the Merrill social styles? Which of the social styles do you use? Can you use this tool to better coordinate the way you approach others with the other person? Do you have any tips or additional comments?
Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.
- Aronson, E., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1968). Experimentation in social psychology. The handbook of social psychology, 2(2), 1-79.
- Du, S., Swaen, V., Lindgreen, A., & Sen, S. (2013). The roles of leadership styles in corporate social responsibility. Journal of business ethics, 114(1), 155-169.
- Merrill, D. W., & Reid, R. H. (1981). Personal styles & effective performance. CRC Press.
- Richmond, V. P., & Martin, M. M. (1998). Socio-communicative style. Communication and personality: Trait perspectives, 133-148.
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