I first learnt about Herrmann Whole Brain Thinking at a presentation by Julie Varney, back in 2015, so it was a real treat to catch up with her in 2020 to revisit this topic. Julie Varney is the director of the Business Development Company. The Whole Brain Thinking framework is central to her work with organisations to build great teams.

In this conversation we jump straight into a discussion of the Red, Green, Blue and Yellow thinking traits, but you can access a more detailed introduction to the framework here.
There’s also an excellent, funny video on Julie’s website which shows how the different types approach a team meeting. Here’s a very quick summary of the four thinking types:

  • Red: makes feeling-based decisions, collaborative, team-focused
  • Green: practical, good at step-by-step processes, focused on getting things done in a timely way
  • Blue: makes thinking-based decisions, analytical, facts-focused
  • Yellow: intuitive, creative, open to new ideas, future-focused.

I arrived early for our meeting in a café, with a list of typed questions. Julie immediately pointed at this list as a very Green thing to do. The easy way to spot a Green person is they will be on time, be organised, have a process, and will write those processes down.

I had to laugh at that and that helped me to relax, even though I was mortified that I had forgotten my glasses, so had to wear my prescription sunglasses throughout our meeting. When I explained about that she says she does it too.

And so we began to talk. Her highest strength is Red — the feeling people. I asked her about how this helps her in her work. She reflected on this and said she had just come from a workshop with a room full of strangers. Walking into the room with her Red superpower meant she could be confident that she could engage the participants, listen to them and help them to solve the problems they face.

She makes people feel comfortable, and accepted just as they are, as I know from my own discussions with her (including her response to my dark glasses). Julie explained that this is a signature trait of Reds.

“They do connect to people. They respect where people are at and like to put others at ease.”

I asked her what the downside of being a Red can be.

She said Reds are at risk of caring too much — becoming too upset and too emotionally involved, for the scale of an issue.

She described a situation which could have gone badly for her, if she hadn’t had an understanding of the Whole Brain Thinking framework. It related to a meeting with a business mentor. Here’s how the conversation began.

Red: “Hi, how is your family?”

Blue: “Do we really have to do this? Can we just get on with it, please?”

We laugh at this, and I kind of shiver inside. I recognise that blunt Blue statement as something I am inclined to think (but not say), and to want to get through the personal stuff as quickly as possible.

Julie tells me that as a Red, she could easily be offended by their approach, but because both she and her mentor had a shared understanding of the different personality types, it wasn’t an issue.

She said Blues (the thinking type) can come across as cold and uncaring but they’re not — it’s just that for them there is a time and a place for showing emotion and it’s not at work.

We talked a little bit about where there is the most potential for conflict and for miscommunication, and there does tend to be more potential for antagonism between Blues & Reds (thinkers and feelers), and Greens & Yellows (sensation/practicality and intuition/ideas).

Sticking points between Red and Blue thinkers

  • Red can perceive Blue as: cold and blunt.
  • Blue can perceive Red as: over-emotional and too chatty.

Sticking points between Yellow and Green thinkers

  • Yellow can perceive Green as: too conservative and ordered; and too focused on implementing/sticking to one idea.
  • Green can perceive Yellow as: too fluffy (and late); and as being too prone to change their mind when they come across new ideas.

I had to laugh at these descriptions. I described to Julie how I had got off to a bad start in a meeting with a client the day before. They’d left me hanging around in Reception for more than 10 minutes, and only arrived after I chased them up by phone.

Julie said, “if they’re late, my first thought is are they Yellow”.

That previous meeting ended up being a really interesting and inspiring discussion, so I’m glad I got over my Green grimace reasonably quickly.

Julie says it’s useful to figure these things out when working with others. It helps us to know how to communicate with the other person in a way that will light them up, and bring out the best in the working relationship.

Even though I describe myself as a Green, after talking with Julie I realised that my Blue is strong too, so I fit into the second category below, of the people with two strong preferences.

Strengths:

  • 5% have one strong preference
  • 58% have two strong preferences
  • 34% have three equally strong preferences
  • 5% have four – but Julie thinks they have had to learn that. It doesn’t come naturally, for all four to be equally strong.

Here’s how Julie responded to the remainder of my (pre-prepared) questions.

How do you use the Herrmann Whole Brain Thinking system to help people in the workplace?

Awareness is a superpower — both about yourself and others. Here are the two key things I am seeking to achieve through my training programmes.

  1. Insight – awareness of self and your own strengths. Understanding decisions you make and the way you communicate. It also helps with understanding the things you may overlook when making decisions and solving problems.
  2. Insight into other people being different — and acceptance of that — being able to listen to their point of view even though they are different, and have a different way of viewing the world. This opens up different possibilities you might have been closed to. Realising this other person isn’t trying to irritate you can be very useful.

What changes have you seen as a result of people learning about their Herrmann Whole Brain Thinking profile?

The purpose of sharing the framework is to break down barriers between people, so they can appreciate different ways of thinking. It depersonalises the issue of difference. Dealing with differences becomes a problem to be solved rather than just thinking someone with a different style doesn’t like you.

An understanding of differences can help executive leadership teams make better decisions. A whole organisation relies on people in leadership teams to make good decisions, so it’s important they listen to each other and debate the issues really well. Harmony, compromise and easy consensus is not necessarily a good thing. Robust debate is better – where people feel able to speak up. This awareness of thinking styles can generate more and better debate.

Should all teams have a balance of thinking styles?

No, you don’t need all colours in an engineering team (which are likely to be primarily Blue and Green) but that team can benefit from awareness of the different thinking styles when dealing with other teams, such as Human Resources or customer services staff.

As people, we are genetically wired for teams. Teams are the best method we humans have ever devised to make each person’s uniqueness useful. We know that using personal strengths leads to high performance, and we know that strengths vary from person to person.

Teams make weirdness useful. They are a mechanism for integrating the needs of the individual and the needs of the organisation. If we can get them right, we solve a lot of problems.

Should we be working on our weaknesses?

It is better to lean into strengths and to maximise these, but be aware of weaknesses. For example, Valerie Adams is good at throwing, not so good at running. It doesn’t make sense for her to focus on running. Get the rewards from that thing you are good at, and that you enjoy.


How does the Herrmann Whole Brain Thinking framework relate to the Meyers Briggs framework?

I believe that regardless of the model you choose, the fundamental value is in understanding yourself and others.

The advantage of Meyers Briggs is it provides a deeper, more complex understanding of yourself. It reflects more preferences (Introvert vs Extrovert, Intuition vs Sensing, Feeling vs Thinking, Perceiving vs Judging). It better addresses the complexity of our different personality types, but the downside is that it’s harder to apply than Herrmann Whole Brain Thinking, which is just four categories.

The simpler Herrmann Whole Brain Thinking model is easier to quickly understand within a team, and to achieve an understanding of the two principles of insight about yourself, and that people are different. It is also easier to apply in a workplace.