Leveraging Social Styles for More Effective SME Interviews

One of the most important (but underrated) components of good instructional design is the ability to conduct a successful interview with a subject matter expert. SMEs are critical from the get-go of any project, not just for their knowledge and experience on the topic at hand but also for the insights they can offer in helping to clarify a project’s objectives, scope, assessment criteria, and so forth. As an interviewer, you need to not only gather the information you need in an efficient and timely manner, but also establish and maintain a good working relationship with your SME to ensure their support and commitment to your work together.

The Social Styles model of behavioral science, which maps personality styles in the workplace, is worth tapping into for the insights it may give you into your relationship with your SME. This approach defines employees’ behavioral patterns according to two criteria: how much they are driven by tasks versus relationships (responsiveness) and how much they ask versus tell (assertiveness). Depending on where employees fall along each axis, they are categorized according to one of four social “types”: Expressive, Amiable, Analytical, and Driver.

Drag the two sliders in the Storyline interaction below to see how adjusting levels of assertiveness and responsiveness determine the characteristics of each type:

So now that you know the basics of Social Styles, how can you apply them to your SME interviews? It breaks down into a three-step process.

Step One: Assess Your Style

A styles self-assessment is a great way to determine your own behavioral tendencies and gain some insight into the relative strengths and weaknesses that you bring to the workplace. It can also be invaluable in learning how to forge good relationships with colleagues, managers—or SMEs.

Step Two: Assess Your SME’s Style

In your kickoff meeting with your SME, use the styles grid to gauge elements of their behavior, body language, and manner of communication. Does your SME attempt to direct the meeting, or is he more passive and hesitant in responding to your questions? Does she attempt to wander off-topic into personal anecdotes and stories, or stick to “just the facts”? Identifying the Social Style of the SME you’re working with can go a long way in ensuring that you get the most from your time with him or her.

Step Three: Flex Your Style

Once you know where you and your SME fall on the styles grid, you can “flex” your own style as needed to more closely align with theirs, which can help to minimize personality clashes, establish your respective roles on a project, and put you both at ease with one another.

What can you do to tap into your SME’s style tendencies to make things go more smoothly? Here are some ideas:

  • Drivers tend to be excellent at time management and respond well to tasks; an interview with a SME who’s a Driver should be well-structured, goal-oriented, and run efficiently to ensure that he feels his time is being used judiciously and to keep him from feeling the need to direct things.
  • Analyticals generally value data and logic more than personal stories and chitchat. In an interview with an Analytical SME, keep your communication detailed, well-organized, and factual, and make sure to do more listening than speaking to avoid drowning out this less assertive type.
  • Expressives tend to be spontaneous, fun-loving, “big-picture” types. In an interview with an Expressive SME, embrace their inclination to think out loud by forgoing a bulleted agenda and engaging in some mutual exploration that engages your creative and critical thinking skills and gets you working together.
  • Amiable SMEs are likely to be more reserved in their communication as well as highly attuned to the reactions of others. Be supportive of his or her contributions in your interview and be sure to allow plenty of time for this thoughtful type to process and articulate their thoughts.

Bear in mind that you can also find yourself working with a SME who matches your own Social Style. This can be both a benefit—because you both may intuitively respond to the behaviors you share—and a drawback, because you may amplify the shortcomings of those same behaviors. In this case you can mitigate the negatives by flexing away from your own Social Style and toward that of the opposing quadrant. An Amiable interviewer should flex toward the Driver quadrant to ensure that the meeting proceeds efficiently and accomplishes its objectives; an Analytical interviewer should flex toward the Expressive quadrant to draw out their introverted SME and get them talking.

You should also be mindful that the Social Styles mapped in this model are merely guidelines to behavioral patterns, and you can only approximate your assessment of where you or a SME might fit. We all will exhibit elements from some of the other Social Styles that make a black-and-white categorization impractical. Nonetheless, hopefully this approach will get you thinking about how you can better relate to your SME, guide your interviews, and set the stage for a fulfilling and positive working relationship for both of you.

Now what?

I’ve created a job aid you can download to help you facilitate a Social Styles assessment of your SME for your next meeting. Use this as a resource to look at where your respective Social Styles fall on the grid, and what that tells you about how you can leverage that knowledge to get the most out of your work together.

For more information about leveraging Social Styles in the workplace and in SME interviews, this overview video provides a concise breakdown of the different styles. You can also refer to Robert and Dorothy Grover Bolton’s People Styles at Work: Making Bad Relationships Good and Good Relationships Better for a more detailed explanation (Ridge Associates, Inc.: New York, 1996).

What do you think?