September 18, 2018
The True Story Behind the DISC Model: How a Negative Assessment Morphed into a Tool for Collaboration

The True Story Behind the DISC Model: How a Negative Assessment Morphed into a Tool for Collaboration

By: Andrew Fayad

What do Wonder Woman, lie detectors, and personality tests have in common? The answer is George Marston, mastermind behind all three. In our industry, we’re seeing the DISC assessment (a personality test based on Marston’s DISC model) make a big comeback.

Industrial personality tests were once tools to weed out emotionally unstable workers. At ELM, we use tests like the DISC to help foster open communication and healthy company culture.

“Some of the latest research in positive psychology is showing that personality tests are for creating communities and understanding the people around you.” Andrew Fayad, CEO of ELM

The Negative Origins of Industrial Personality Tests

Industrial personality tests have a weird history, steeped in fear and rife with bias and bizarre assumptions, which explains the negative stigma still surrounding them. The earliest known personality tests for workplace assessments was Woodworth’s Personal Data Sheet (WPDS) in 1925. It was adapted from a 1917 military questionnaire meant to eradicate potential soldiers with a “predisposition” for shell shock (what we now call PTSD). With loaded questions like “Do you get tired of people easily?” the WPDS and other early workplace personality tests were historically negative—meant to identify and weed out neurosis, rather than enlighten or educate users. The test was soon discredited and disappeared, but the idea around testing soldiers—and by extension, workers—caught on.

DISC Personality Types

The DISC theory was first introduced in a 1928 book called Emotions of Normal People by psychologist William Marston. Marston’s model divided “normal” (what he meant as typical) human emotional behavior into four DISC personality types: (D) Dominance (I) Inducement (S) Submission (C) Compliance.

Marston had an atypical, scandalous private life for that era, which might explain the deviant undertones of the words “dominance, inducement, submission and compliance.” He was an attorney and a psychologist and an outspoken proponent of women’s rights by day; comic book author by night.

Marston created the comic book character “Wonder Woman,” (an Amazonian from an island where no men are allowed). Marston also invented the first lie detector test but lied to the public about being a bigamist. One of his wives was a former student, but he told the public she was a relative staying with himself and his first wife. He fathered children with the two women and they all lived together in a ménage à trois. Marston, in spite of the scandal he caused with his private life, was a well-respected psychologist whose theories of human behavior are still widely accepted today.  

The DISC model was later published as a psychological test in 1956 by industrial psychologist Walter V. Clarke as a way of vetting potential job candidates. Clarke renamed the four types as: Aggressive, Sociable, Stable and Avoidant. (ASSA just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?). Not only did Clarke destroy the nice acronym, but his four types were so obviously skewed. Where do you think you should score to get the job?

As for the most current use of the DISC acronym, the descriptors are still there—Dominant, Interactive, Supportive, Conscientious—but, in the spirit of inclusivity, all are positive. You can’t answer incorrectly, so it’s in your best interest to be honest so as to learn more about how you communicate and can communicate with others. Co-founder and CEO of Take Flight Learning, Merrick Rosenberg, also added the bird imagery to explain each personality type in a visual way (see chart below).


Taking Flight at ELM: How our Organization uses the DISC Profile Test

“In the past ten years, the modern workplace has become more about collaboration than conformity. For this reason, it’s critical that we’re aware of the different communication styles in our organizations.” Andrew Fayad, CEO ELM.

The age-old mistrust between worker and employee was definitely not helped by corporate misuse of personality tests. The stigma around these tests still exists today in some organizations, which is why they don’t work as well without a preexisting culture of trust and transparency. Workers might skew their answers based on what they think management wants, or management could use the results as justification to not hire, demote or fire certain employees.

ELM uses our own Personality Assessment Tool (PAT) early in the hiring process so we can see which candidates have important characteristics, one of which is empathy, and values that align with our company culture of Servant Leadership.  

We’ve recently rolled out the DISC across our entire organization as part of an ongoing growth and development tool to build a greater understanding in communicating more effectively across the whole company. Our leaders have been certified through the Take Flight Learning company to give the DISC Assessment and analyze the results.

Not surprisingly, our PAT assessment has resulted in an abundance of Supportive/Doves at ELM. But, not everybody is the same or has an identical mixture of attributes, so the DISC is a great teaching tool for developing awareness and an appreciation/understanding of unique communication styles.

Merrick Rosenberg, CEO of Take Flight Learning and author of The Chameleon: Life-Changing Wisdom for Anyone Who Has a Personality or Knows Someone Who Does has changed the way people learn about themselves and utilize the styles to impact their organizations. He said, “For far too long, personality assessments have created fleeting fascination, but generated no long-term impact. If done well, the styles will become embedded into a company’s culture and change the way people interact with their coworkers and customers.”

While the verbiage surrounding the DISC has changed, the test is based on the same structure and research that arose in the 1930s. Some of the earlier tests have fallen out of vogue, but the tests we still use, like the DISC, have adapted with the times. Personality tests, once a negative tool for hierarchical organizations to weed out undesirables, are now positive tools for finding out more about ourselves, the people we work with, and how we can communicate more effectively.

 Author: Andrew Fayad, Co-Founder and CEO

 Designer: Britney Sharp, Designer

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