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What is The DISC Personality Assessment, and How Does It Work? - HRDQ

What is The DISC Personality Assessment, and How Does It Work?

In the early 1900s, one man became obsessed with lying.

This man was William Moulton Marsten, also known by his pen name Charles Moulton. He was a psychologist who studied lying, among other things. In 1928, he published the book Emotions of Normal People, which became pivotal to the development of DISC. Marsten was also the inventor of the lie detector test and co-creator of the DC Comics character Wonder Woman. He was a fascinating character.

In Emotions of Normal People, among other things, Marsten put forth the idea of DISC. DISC is a quadrant-based judgment of character, identifying four key behaviors people tend to exhibit. These behaviors can be placed along two different axes.

  • Passive vs. Active. This axis measures whether a person tends to be more active in overcoming obstacles or more passive in avoiding them.
  • Favorable vs. Antagonistic. This axis measures the environment in which a person operates. Favorable environments are easier to work in and present fewer obstacles, while antagonistic environments present more obstacles.

By arranging these two axes perpendicularly, four quadrants are formed. The four quadrants are described as:

  • Dominance. People in this quadrant thrive in antagonistic environments using force to get their way (active, antagonistic).
  • Inducement/Influence. People in this quadrant thrive in favorable environments, and use charm, trust, and enthusiasm to handle obstacles (active, favorable).
  • Submission/Steadiness. People in this quadrant thrive in favorable environments, and handle obstacles by being a predictable and friendly team player (favorable, passive).
  • Compliance. People in this quadrant thrive in antagonistic environments, primarily by adjusting to the way things are around them (passive, antagonistic).

Though it has changed somewhat over the near century since its invention, the DISC assessment still uses this core framework to judge the behaviors and character of the people taking it.

"The DISC model of behavior was first outlined by psychologist William Mouton Marston in his 1928 book, "Emotions of Normal People." According to DISCprofile.com, Marston's theory stated that behavioral expression of emotions could get categorized into types (Dominance, Inducement, Submission, Compliance), based on a person's perceptions of self in relation to their environment. Understanding your primary behavioral trait, he believed, would help you understand and manage your experiences and relationships with others." – Business News Daily.

Over the decades, various groups and organizations have adapted, expanded, and altered the DISC assessment. In fact, a massive variety of business personality, communication, and character assessments are all based on the DISC, even if they may not tell you.

Whether or not you realize it, if you've spent time in a corporate environment and taken an assessment, you've probably taken some version of the DISC.

How the DISC Assessment is Designed to be Used

As it was initially invented, the DISC analysis was made to analyze the behaviors of individuals in certain situations. In the century since its invention, it has grown in both complexity and nuance, but it still uses this core analysis of the environment and the individual's reactions to it. Modern test versions prioritize a bit more nuance and pick one of the four quadrants as a "primary," while acknowledging that individuals can exhibit behaviors in each quadrant.

Taking DISC Personality Assessment

What is the point of the DISC assessment? It is generally used in business environments to assess a team or group of people, look for the leader and the followers, and assess how different people will act in different environments. The results can then be used to create tailored team-building exercises, structure a team for more effective performance, and analyze shortcomings in communication that can get addressed.

"Today, the DISC assessment is most frequently used in business and government organizations to help teams work more effectively together. Respondents rate a series of behavior-related statements (e.g., "Getting results is one of my top priorities" or "I like to be involved in group projects") based on how strongly they agree or disagree with each." – Business News Daily.

The original DISC assessment wasn't nearly so nuanced and was more of a thought experiment and framework presented as part of a psychologist's overall body of work. At the time, it was not meant as a corporate tool but rather as one of many means of understanding a person's role in their environment.

Organization DISC Use

Like many such assessments, it has mainly been taken over by business culture and used for many variations of the same purpose throughout the last several decades. The idea of using a shared assessment to create a "shared language" to reference problems allows less socially nuanced individuals to discuss those problems in teams and the workplace in a way that avoids personal value judgments. As such, the DISC assessment can:

  • Offer increased self-awareness. The framework can present situations that can help you learn how to handle conflict in the workplace through your answers and subsequent analysis.
  • Develop better conflict resolution. The DISC gives you a starting point, which you can use to find your shortcomings. These can then be worked on through training and self-improvement programs.
  • Improve social skills. Specifically, the modern DISC aims at helping people become better at sales, customer service, and leadership. Additionally, the framework is designed to help you find roadblocks in communication and improve your communication skills.

Of note, the DISC is simply an assessment. It does not have any inbuilt mechanisms for improving what it tests, only in providing awareness of those attributes. Therefore, it's up to you (or your employer) to establish training and exercises to help improve the areas of weakness identified by the DISC assessment. For example, if your organization needs help improving their leadership skills, try the Supervisory Skills Questionnaire. A training solution that gets supervisors quickly up to speed and ready for performance.

The Success of Marston's Legacy and the DISC

The DISC assessment is part of a long line of personality tests developed with the intention of categorizing groups of people to make it easier and smoother to run a business and build high-performing teams. While Marston's original intent with his framework may not have been what we see as the DISC today, it's undeniable that his work has had a tangible impact on the world of business.

The DISC is wildly successful and has spawned dozens, if not hundreds, of variations, knock-offs, rebrands, and other assessment forms. While some of these rename the categories and call it a day, many build upon the foundation of the DISC to create more nuanced, practical, and reliable assessments.

It may be worth mentioning that the modern-day DISC is quite different from the original DISC framework from 100 years ago. It has evolved from a simple set of yes/no questions and adjectives to pick from to a robust and nuanced digital assessment with surprising hidden insight. It has withstood the test of time and continues growing in popularity year over year.

Analyzing Results of DISC

One of the main complaints about the DISC is how reductive it was. How often can an environment be described as solely favorable or antagonistic? How often are an individual's behaviors solely active or passive? Not only can these things have a lot more nuance than the assessment allowed, but they can also change from year to year, month to month, and even day to day. Moreover, people often learn to code-switch in different environments.

"An obvious question here might be: can we measure an entire personality with just four factors like this? In fact, we can't, but what DISC can do is focus on a series of key traits that directly affect a person's behavior and performance. There will always be other factors to consider - notably things like experience and knowledge - but DISC focuses on more fundamental questions about the ways a person will naturally react in different situations." – DISC US Online.

This challenge is primarily what modern adaptations of the DISC strive to solve. They do so in various ways, usually by adjusting the questions to provide more depth than simple yes/no questions. The modern DISC can provide a much greater depth in results by judging answers on a spectrum rather than a basic binary choice.

While it's impossible to judge an individual on a simple axis or spectrum, an assessment like the DISC is meant to be a self-referential test. In other words, it doesn't place you in a category defined by your relationship with others; instead, it allows you to assess yourself and determine your position within its framework. You can then pursue training, mindfulness, awareness, and other forms of growth and re-take the assessment later to see how your thought patterns and behavioral changes have affected your position.

The DISC alone is not meant to be a stand-alone tool. Instead, it works best as part of an overall awareness and training program that establishes a baseline, helps employees develop an awareness of their reactions, and encourages growth to more business-appropriate, productivity-enhancing communications.

How to Use the Modern DISC

There are three ways you can use the DISC in its modern form.

DISC Assessment Graph

The first is to take a DISC assessment. You can find these assessments through many providers, such as DISCUS, DISC Online, and DISC Profile. Each will have variations on the assessment itself and the surrounding support materials. These are usually the options used by employers looking to assess and train larger workforces, as they are generally corporate-provided.

"The DISC assessment has been around for about 40 years and has slowly become more accurate over time. Most modern DISC tests utilize adaptive assessment, which means that the computer administrating the test will offer different questions based on the responses of the person currently testing.

However, being self-reported, the nature of the test means that any results should be subject to some skepticism. People have difficulty seeing past their egos or personal biases, so they may not answer honestly even if they intend to do so. This is the same limitation that all personality tests have.

Ultimately, taking the DISC multiple times throughout a week or month using adaptive assessment is the best way to determine whether the test can give you a "general" or broad reading of your personality type." – Test-Guide

The second option is to use assessments based on the DISC framework but adapt it to be more impartial, scientific, or otherwise practical.  

For example, our "What's My Communication Style?" assessment is based on the DISC framework, but rather than analyzing based on the same two axes of the original DISC; it takes more forms of communication into account. It also does not purport to be a total personality style assessment but rather one of personal communications. This shift allows the assessment to be developed with an eye towards being a self-assessment, eliminating the bias by embracing it and acknowledging it. Our assessment can also be proctored or online-led, providing a more rounded and robust assessment of individuals participating.

Our communication style assessment allows you to offer a test to your workforce, which helps them determine their dominant and secondary communication styles. You can then use this information to help people in different quadrants learn how to work effectively with those in conflicting quadrants. For example, you can identify those who tend to be more aggressive and domineering and encourage them to self-reflect and allow for the less aggressive members to contribute.

The third option is to skip the DISC entirely. There are, of course, many different personality and character assessments on the market. Some may arguably be better than the DISC, while others are not. It comes down to which ones you find most valuable for your teams and workplace.

Matrix Manager Inventory

One of the primary purposes the DISC gets used for is to assess the leadership capability of an individual, as informed by their environment. While you can do this, we recommend using a leadership-focused assessment instead. For example, it may be better to use an assessment such as the Matrix Manager Inventory or the Supervisory Skills Questionnaire. This package can provide a more objective look at management styles and techniques, and roads to tangible improvement via training.

Regardless of which option you choose, there's something available for you in our comprehensive inventory of business assessments. Be sure to browse to see what these tests have to offer.

Do you have any questions or concerns about the DISC personality test or how to implement it into your company? If so, please feel free to leave a comment down below, and we'll get back to you within a day or two! We make it a point to reply to every message we receive and would be more than happy to assist you or your company however we possibly can!

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About our author

Bradford R. Glaser

Brad is President and CEO of HRDQ, a publisher of soft-skills learning solutions, and HRDQ-U, an online community for learning professionals hosting webinars, workshops, and podcasts. His 35+ years of experience in adult learning and development have fostered his passion for improving the performance of organizations, teams, and individuals.