DISC is one of the most popular methods of personality testing and assessment in use today. Based on the answers to a simple questionnaire, it can describe a personality in terms of four key factors: Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Compliance.
This article will give you a general introduction to the concepts behind DISC, but you’ll also find more extensive reference resources on the site. Pay a visit to our full to explore the ideas behind DISC in depth.
A standard DISC questionnaire consists of twenty-four questions. Each of these questions presents four options, and asks the respondent is to select which of these applies most closely, and which least closely, to their approach. For example, a typical DISC question might look something like this:
|Behaving compassionately towards others|
|Persuading others to your point of view|
|Showing modesty in describing your achievements|
|Producing original ideas|
Marston’s original questionnaire, and many others derived from it, use simple adjectives for each of the four options. The ‘phrase-based’ approach shown in this example, though, is becoming more popular, as it provides the respondent with a clearer idea of the intention behind the question, and is less prone to misinterpretation.
Once we have a questionnaire with all twenty-four questions completed (a process that takes typically around fifteen minutes), we need to analyse the responses on that questionnaire.
Creating a DISC Profile
A completed DISC questionnaire will contain 48 answers (one ‘most’ and one ‘least’ for each of twenty-four questions). It is possible to analyse these responses manually, such a procedure can easily introduce errors into the results derived from the questionnaire.
The preferred approach is to have a computer analyse the responses and calculate the resulting DISC profile or profiles. This is part of the function of the Discus software, for example.
The analysis process involves taking each of the forty-eight answers from the questionnaire, and associating it with a particular DISC factor. This is a more complex task than it might seem, because some answers to the same question will relate to different factors depending on whether the respondent chose them as ‘most’ or ‘least’.
Finally, the results of this calculation are scaled, adjusted according the population averages, and plotted on a graph known as a ‘DISC Profile’.
What a DISC Profile Tells Us
This example shows a typical DISC Profile. Each of the four points indicates the level of one of the four DISC ‘Factors’ present (see the section on DISC Factors for more information on these).
This example, for example shows a very low level of ‘D’ (Dominance), relatively low levels of ‘I’ (Influence) and ‘C’ (Compliance), and high ‘S’ (Steadiness). You will notice that the order in which these four factors are shown on the profile provides ‘DISC’ with its name.
The darker areas at the top and bottom of the profile relate to highly significant factors – where one or more of the four factors fall into these areas, they are highly significant from a statistical point of view.
The central area of the profile is also marked with dotted lines. Factors falling into this central (‘medial’) region of the profile lie very close to the average, and are not considered statistically significant.
The ‘Profile Series’
Most DISC systems are not limited to single DISC profile, and instead will provide at least two analyses of a questionnaire, and usually more. Together, this collection of profiles is referred to as a ‘Profile Series’, and will consist of one or more of the following:
By looking at the relationships between different factors, we can build up a library of individual traits that a person possesses. By expanding this approach across the profile series, we can also assess traits that a person lacks, and even describe those that they are presenting in their behaviour, but which are not, in reality, present. This provides a useful ‘at-a-glance’ picture of a person’s behavioural style.
Pronounced variations between the Internal and External Profiles are often indicative of profile tension, and it is possible to measure, in general terms, just how much stress an individual was experiencing at the time they completed the questionnaire. It is also possible to estimate how effectively that individual will cope with stress, and to judge the probable source of that stress.
Especially where DISC is used in recruitment, JOB Matching provides an extremely useful tool. This involves the construction of an ideal behavioural profile for one or more roles, and comparing these against an individual set of DISC results. This makes it possible to calculate which roles suit a person’s style the best. Find out more about JOB Matching in the Job Profiler section of this site.
Candidate Matching is essentially the opposite of Job Matching. Once we have a selection of role templates (called Job Profiles by Discus), we can take one of these and compare it against a sequence of candidate profiles. This helps to quickly determine which candidate (at least in terms of behaviour) is best suited to a particular role.
Blood, Bile and Phlegm
To the ancient Greeks, a person’s general style of behaviour was an integral part of their general health. They believed that the body contained four fundamental liquids (called humours) based on the four elements of fire, air, water and earth. When one of these humours became dominant over the others, it was thought to effect the person’s mood and general approach.
The four humours, blood, yellow bile, phlegm and black bile, were each believed to be responsible for a different type of behaviour. An excess of blood made a person sanguine, yellow bile resulted in a choleric nature, phlegm, naturally, produced a phlegmatic outlook, and black bile was associated with melancholia.
These theories, first set down in a systematic way by Hippocrates, remained in use until the middle ages. We now know, of course, that they have no basis in medical fact, but what the Greeks had almost incidentally achieved was the first systematic method of describing individual types of people. So successful was their approach that, even today, the words ‘humour’ (meaning ‘mood’), ‘sanguine’, ‘phlegmatic’ and ‘melancholic’ are still in common use.
Thankfully, modern profiling does not rely on measuring the amount of yellow bile in a person to determine their style, but the ideas behind it can, indirectly, be traced back to Hippocrates’ theories.
Carl Gustav Jung
There are many modern theories of personal behaviour based on the idea of four individual factors. Perhaps the most influential of these is to be found in the work of the Swiss psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung. He defined personalities as belonging to one of four different types; Sensing, Intuitive, Feeling and Thinking.
The definitions of these types are rooted in Jung’s lifelong work on the unconscious mind, and need not concern us here. They are important because they represent one of the first serious attempts to map the human personality by a modern psychologist. Tests based on Jung’s work are still available today.
It was Jung’s opinion that people instinctively understand behaviour in terms of a set of four elements (his four types being one example of such a set, and the four humours of the Greeks being another). These groups of four (technically called tetralogies) underlie a very large number of assessment techniques.
‘The Emotions of Normal People’
In the early 1920’s, the flamboyant American psychologist William Moulton Marston developed a theory to explain people’s emotional responses. Until that time, work of this kind had been mainly confined to the mentally ill or criminally insane, and Marston wanted to extend these ideas to cover the personalities of ordinary individuals.
“…this book is devoted to description of normal emotions which are so commonplace and fundamental in the every-day lives of all of us that they have escaped, hitherto, the attention of the academician and the psychologist.”
The Emotions of Normal People
In order to test his theories, Marston needed some way of measuring the personalities he was trying to describe. His solution was to develop his own test to measure four important factors. The factors he chose were Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Compliance, from which DISC takes its name.
In 1928, Marston published his findings in a book entitled The Emotions of Normal People, which included a brief description of the test he had developed.
The Development of DISC
In common with many similar tools (including the IQ test), DISC first came to prominence in the military – it was widely used as part of the US army’s recruitment process during the years leading to the Second World War. Having proved its value, it gradually came to be used in a more general recruitment setting.
In those early times, the use of DISC was limited in the commercial sector. To be used effectively, it needed considerable expertise, and this made it expensive. In the days before computers, even the translation of a person’s questionnaire answers into a DISC profile was an arduous and complex task.
The advent of the personal computer has made DISC universally accessible, because results can be compiled and interpreted automatically. DISC has finally become a cost-effective solution for everyone, and has grown to become probably the most widely used behavioural assessment tool in the world.