Thoughts on the DISC assessment

Earlier this year, everyone in my little division of the library, area studies, took a DISC assessment in order to learn more about dynamics within our group. The DISC assessment (trademarked DiSC for the particular version that we took) is based off the William Moulton Marston’s 1928 book Emotions of Normal People. Marston posited that people present one of three personality traits: dominance, inducement, submission, or compliance. In 1956, Walter Vernon Clarke developed a behavioral assessment tool based on Marston’s model. Over the years, this assessment has been further developed, and marketed to organizations as a tool to discover how people act at work, why they act that way, and how they can be encouraged to work more effectively with each other. The categories have also been changed to (the perhaps more appealing) dominance, influence, steadiness, and conscientiousness.

I’m a fan of personality tests as a rule, especially ones that tell me which book character I am, but I don’t take them too seriously and was fairly skeptical of the test in general. However, it was stressed to us that this was not a personality test but instead a test that would show how we act in the workplace, so I answered the questions with an open mind and waited for my results. And let me tell you, when my results came back they were dead on. I tend to be timid, I avoid conflict, I love routines, and all of that was there in my results. I was impressed. Of course, the categories are very general, so it likely is easy to find yourself in your results.

That said, in discussing with others, there were definitely characteristics embedded within results that some of my co-workers did not feel resonated with themselves or their work styles. Our facilitators were quick to suggest that we cross out any terms we felt did not fit and change them to other adjectives that better described us. I appreciated this flexibility: even if it did not change our overall result, it did allow for some fluidity within the more detailed report and afforded it a bit more of a personal touch.

Depending on how the test is administered, there may be the opportunity for further reports to be generated to compare you to other people on your team. This is what we opted to do, and this meant that I received reports detailing areas where I would likely find the most difference between myself and my co-workers. The reports also gave us advice about how best to interact with each of our co-workers. With more discussion or group activities, this could be developed into an interesting exercise to discuss and improve upon group dynamics.

However, I do not see the DISC assessment as an immediate fix for teams. It might be a place to start, but it would take more work to build upon the results and create a constructive space within a group to discuss how to work together. It also seems that results could easily come out skewed, which might hamper further discussions. We were instructed to answer the questions while imagining work settings, which helps get at how you behave in work situations and not in your personal life (which might be very different). However, when taking the test, it would be easy to answer the questions based on how you aspire to act and not how you actually act, because we aren’t always aware of some of our faults or some of strengths. This, of course, could change your results and then change the baseline you’re starting from in any further discussions.

Another major qualm I have with the DISC assessment—brought up during our meeting by one of my co-workers—is that it does not address cultural differences. While it would be easy to claim that the test is not biased, this is an assessment based in the United States and it is therefore going to be relying on the norms and values of mainstream American culture. This especially applies when considering comparisons: how a person coming from one culture views their interactions with others could be very different than a person from another culture. There could be more value placed on being forthcoming or, conversely, more value placed on being tactful.

For me, I especially considered these ideas when answering the questions in the assessment and considering a work environment. I kept wondering what sort of work environment. I had my first serious job overseas in an office where fitting in and maintaining the status quo was very important, so I quickly learned not to allow any conflicts to surface and instead to work on them behind the scenes. While I know American work environments are much more up-front than this, I sometimes still slip into these patterns because I became good at interacting with others in these ways. Can the DISC assessment account for this sort of flexibility?

If your library is considering a DISC assessment, I think the biggest takeaway from my experience is to know what to expect. Learning everyone’s profile, even with comparison reports, will not in and of itself address conflicts or instances of miscommunication. To do this, you will still need to put in the work to have discussions about norms, expectations, and methods of communication. Do you need the DISC assessment to facilitate this? Certainly not, but if you’re finding that other methods aren’t working, this may be one way to get the conversation started.


If you’re interested in taking the DISC assessment, there are several free versions available online.

Have you ever taken a similar assessment in a work environment? What did you think of it?

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