Surrounded by Idiots: The Red Personality Type

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Surrounded by Idiots" by Thomas Erikson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What does it mean to have a “Red” personality type? What kinds of traits do they possess?

In the book Surrounded by Idiots, Red personalities are considered to be extroverts, leaders, and competitive. Red personality types also like to stay busy and are happy to take risks—they’re the people you go to when you need to solve a problem.

Continue reading to learn more about the Red personality type, according to communication expert Thomas Erikson.

An Overview of the Red Personality Type

According to Erikson in Surrounded by Idiots, Red personalities are unapologetically ambitious and self-confident. They like to be in charge and are comfortable taking risks. People with this personality are extroverted and not afraid to speak their mind, even when it causes conflict. Erikson notes that Hippocrates calls this behavior type “choleric.”

A Red Personality’s Ambition Is Unmatched

Erikson explains that Red personality types enjoy competition more than the other personalities, and they are constantly pushing themselves to exceed expectations. In games, Red types can be sore losers and will usually ask for a rematch. In work, you will find them intentionally outperforming their peers. While this competitive spirit helps Red personalities achieve great things, Erikson warns that it can be aggressive and off-putting to the other personality types.

People who are dominated by Red traits are not afraid of challenges—in fact, they love them. Erikson says Red types are fearless in unchartered territory. He adds that most entrepreneurs are Red because they push through setbacks, where others may falter. 

Because Red personalities are so driven and have high expectations, they’re often in leadership roles. Oddly enough, Erikson points out, power and prestige are not important to them. He explains that autonomy is what they’re after—nobody is going to tell them what to do, because (in their minds) they already know how to do it better and faster.

Is Ambition Determined at Birth?

Erikson argues that people with the Red personality type are born ambitious. Whether or not genetics affect a person’s ambition is still undetermined, but psychologists do believe when you are born makes a difference.

Numerous studies point to birth order as one indicator of ambition. They’ve determined that first-born children are generally more ambitious in their careers than their younger siblings. The leading theory is that parents are the most strict with their first child, and this breeds high expectations. The parents worry about their first child reaching milestones on time (such as walking by one year), and will actively work with their toddler to meet them. With each child afterward, they relax and let the child develop at a natural pace. As a conditioned result, firstborns push themselves harder than their siblings.

Red Personalities Are Confident 

Red types make quick decisions and are annoyed by drawn-out deliberations. Erikson says that they are the first to become bored and frustrated if conversation drags on during a meeting. They prefer to make decisions quickly and get to work.

Red personalities want to lead the conversation if a decision is being made. Erikson says they are the first to answer a posed question and typically speak louder than everyone around them. If you disagree with them, they’ll try to convince you to see things their way—sometimes relentlessly.

Red personality types are honest and blunt, often lacking tact. Erikson says people with this personality call it like they see it and don’t sugarcoat anything. Some people appreciate and admire this; others are taken aback and intimidated.

How to Prevent Your Colleague From Dominating the Meeting

If a colleague is dominating every work discussion and derailing meetings, it can kill morale. One effective way to prevent this from happening is to not interrupt him when he is speaking. 

It may seem counterintuitive, but by letting your colleague speak for as long as he wants with no interruption, you’ll actually shorten his turn in the spotlight. If you respond point by point, the colleague will feel that his contributions are valuable discussion fodder rather than a disruption. So let him get everything out and then respond politely in as few words as possible. When you respond, acknowledge only the comments that addressed the core issue and ignore any tangents that he may have brought up.  

Red Personalities Enjoy Excitement and Risks

Red types stay busy. Erikson describes their schedule as being jam-packed—filled with social engagements, professional networking, and physical challenges. A Red personality type is likely to attend a music festival one weekend and climb a mountain the next. Erikson explains that they also get more done than others because if they have five free minutes, they will fill it with a task.

(Shortform note: For some, the desire to stay busy is an inherent personality trait. For others, it is a coping mechanism for anxiety, or a strategy to avoid feelings. One way to distinguish between the two is to evaluate whether this busyness is exhausting you or re-energizing you.)

Red personalities are comfortable with risks. Erikson says if you know an adrenaline junkie, she’s most likely a Red personality type. They’re not scared by risky ventures because they believe in their own abilities to handle whatever comes their way.  

(Shortform note: According to the Myers-Briggs personality model, “Intuitive Perceivers” (also referred to as NPs) are most likely to enjoy and embrace risks. NPs tend to enjoy career choices that are less secure but have a higher payout possibility, such as entrepreneurship.) 

Seek a Red-Dominant Person If … 

If you need help solving a problem, especially if it involves conflict, Erikson says to find someone with a Red personality type. For example, if the residents in your building aren’t adhering to assigned parking spots and you shudder at the idea of confronting them, ask a Red type to help. He’ll be happy to stand up at the HOA meeting and declare why everyone needs to stick to the rule. The caveat here is that Red personalities need to believe in the cause themselves; they don’t care what others think, and therefore they aren’t helping out of compassion for you. But if you can get them on your side, they’ll take care of it.

(Shortform note: If you want to become better at confronting others (rather than outsourcing the task to someone with a Red personality), start by choosing one small complaint to bring up to someone that you love and trust. Choose a complaint that isn’t personal and a person who you know won’t blow up at you. Practice this from time to time and observe how you feel before, during, and after the confrontation.)

Erikson lists several famous Red personality types, including Mother Teresa, Steve Jobs, and Barack Obama. 

Negative Perceptions of Red Personality Types

In the DISC model, Erikson’s “Red” aligns with the “Dominant” personality, which can be overwhelming to some people. Erikson says others may view this personality type as overbearing, insensitive, and self-centered.

The Perception: Red Personalities Are Overbearing

Red-dominant people like to be in control. Erikson reiterates that they are not detail-oriented people, and therefore they have no interest in micromanaging your work. However, they do like to be in charge, so if there is a decision to be made it will be their way or the highway. As a result, Erikson says those working with Red types often feel controlled and resent the lack of autonomy. 

(Shortform note: There is a theory that the desire to control others begins with “conditioned helplessness” in childhood. A child who isn’t taught to solve problems herself and is instead catered to by her caregivers is likely to grow into an adult who demands more of the same. In these cases, bossing other people around keeps anxiety and low self-efficacy at bay.)

The Perception: Red Personalities Are Insensitive

Erikson asserts that Red-dominant people avoid long conversations unless they’re truly interested in the topic, and they’re not subtle when expressing boredom. To be polite, they might ask about your weekend—but if you start actually telling them about your weekend, watch as their eyes glaze over or they check their watch. They might even stop the conversation entirely and walk away. Erikson says most people perceive this type of behavior as cold-hearted and rude. In reality, Red types don’t lack empathy, they just “get the picture” very quickly in the conversation and have no need for the details. 

(Shortform note: In The Fine Art of Small Talk, Debra Fine gives advice on how to gracefully end a conversation. Rather than ending it abruptly, as the Red personality is inclined to do, Fine recommends you thank or compliment the person, give a reason for your departure, and then follow through with the excuse. For example, let’s say you go to a coworker with a question and find yourself in a conversation you’d like to end. Try saying, “Thank you so much for answering my question, I need to go make some copies now,” and then let him see you walk toward the copy room.)

The Perception: Red Personalities Are Self-Centered

Red types will fight for what they want, and they’re not shy about it. Erikson says because Reds start so many statements with “I” (like, “I want this” and “I believe that”), they come across as preferring themselves over the team. He points out that Green types are especially bothered by this, because they believe in the group over self. Erikson says Red personalities meet their own needs before helping others, and they’re willing to step over other people to get what they want. As a result, they often alienate others and lose friends.

(Shortform note: If you have no trouble advocating for yourself at work but don’t want to be perceived as selfish, one simple strategy can make a big difference. After stating what you want, end by asking the others for their opinion. For example, if the office is choosing a new software program, you could say, “I strongly prefer Product A because of reasons x, y,  and z, but what do you all think?” By using this formula, you have made your position clear while also communicating that you value others’ opinions as much as your own.)

Surrounded by Idiots: The Red Personality Type

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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