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The Dumbing Down of DISC

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The following is an excerpt form Art Schoeck's upcoming book on DISC...

The Dumbing Down of DISC

As a long time DISC advocate and practitioner I've become increasingly alarmed by a growing trend in our industry: To put things in blunt terms there seems to be a widespread 'dumbing down' of DISC for use in the business community and it is the business community that is paying the price in terms not just of time and money wasted on erroneous results, but in costs of unresolved productivity issues, bad hires, unabated morale problems, and undiminished turnover.

This trend began some time ago, but seems to have lately grown to epidemic proportions. DISC publishers who once prided themselves on the accuracy and applicability of their findings now seem to favor simplification. Certainly creating a more streamlined user experience, especially for the assessment taker, is a laudable goal, but not when it comes at the expense of objectivity and predictability in the results of the assessments given. Likewise DISC training has suffered in quality as have the degree of sophistication and detail among assessment reports. There is simply no reason why readability and clarity of reports should come at a sacrifice of accuracy or utility. What good are clear instructions if they are pointing you to the wrong destination? How valuable are easy to read profiles if they gloss over (or omit entirely) vital information for understanding an individual's behavioral style?

The dumbing down of DISC is really a five-fold trend:

  1. Oversimplification of the interpretation DISC behavioral profile
  2. Assessments and reports that trade depth and precision for ease and speed of entry
  3. Training to trust the reports not the person
  4. Ignoring the Natural vs Adapted style distinction
  5. Misunderstanding of how best to use DISC and where it is most applicable in the employee lifecycle

1) Oversimplification
The best DISC tools are capable of presenting remarkably valuable information regarding an individual's behavioral style as measured in four categories: Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Compliance, hence the acronym DISC. Often he results of assessments are presented in the form of a chart or pair of charts that map the subject's behavioral style as offsets from a neutral centerline running horizontally across four vertical columns labelled D, I, S and C respectively. Some individuals will have profiles that contain marks above the line in some categories and some will have marks below the line in some categories. When a mark is well above the line we use the term 'high' to describe that column, and likewise if a mark is below the line we will refer to that as 'low'. These distinctions are useful and important in describing the behavioral style of the subject in question. However these oversimplifications have become increasingly common:

Ignoring the 'low' - Poorly trained DISC practitioners will often ignore the lower marks on the DISC profile chart. This is especially egregious if the distance between the center line and the lowest low mark is in fact greater than the distance between the centerline and the highest high mark. In such a case the low is actually the most influential behavioral indicator in that subject's profile. To ignore the low is quite simply misdiagnosing the subject's behavior and therefore makes it exceedingly unlikely that recommendations based on that diagnosis will yield any desirable results.

The other oversimplification is stopping the profile interpretation at just the largest measure. Boiling an individual down to a one-dimensional high D or high C, etc. A qualified DISC practitioner should be able to easily explain the difference in behavioral expectations between a person with a high D as their largest measure, and a fairly high I as their second largest measure, than with a person with the same high D, but an I that is actually below the centerline. The first person might be a confident leader who inspires others through friendly interaction, the latter might be a pushy and domineering bully, insensitive to the feelings of others. Both high D's but if the interpretation stopped there much vital information would have been omitted. In point of fact all four categories of DISC play their part in an individual's behavioral style and the reports generated by a DISC publisher's tools should reflect that diversity and complexity of behavior.

2) A bad trade: losing precision to gain ease of use
It seems that many publishers of DISC tools and reports in an effort to make the assessment tools quicker and easier to administer and reports shorter and easier to read have lost sight of something important: the fact that an inaccurate DISC report is a useless DISC report. Over the years there have been well-constructed tools that can be administered in a very short time period yet yield highly accurate and consistent results, which are then mapped to literally hundreds of report profiles allowing for a high-degree of applicability of the information provided and a strong sense on the part of the participants of the results 'ringing true' in their appraisal of the individual's behavioral mix. When such quality tools exist it is difficult to fathom why some publishers have chosen to tinker with the process and drastically reduce the number of reporting categories, but the net result are tools that may or may not be easier to administer, and shorter, but far less accurate, reports that simply don't offer enough precision in the measurement to make worthwhile (or beneficial) recommendations for the vast majority of workplace related behavioral issues.

3) Training to trust the report and skip the interview
Further exacerbating the above situation is the trend amongst some DISC publishers to encourage an approach that treats the results of the DISC report as essentially sacrosanct and infallible. As many reports are becoming increasingly less accurate the training (and in some cases, the laziness) of the practitioner lead to decisions being made solely on the basis of DISC reports rather than including the essential step of debriefing or otherwise interviewing the subject being assessed. Even the most accurate and granular DISC tools available, ones that provide hundreds of potential report profiles, still recommend that the results of the report be compared with anecdotal feedback from the assessment taker and people who know the person well, such as friends, family or coworkers, to allow for further refinement of DISC style profile and allow for the opportunity to make critical adjustments to the recommendations provided with the report.

4) Ignoring the Natural and Adapted differences
It is an observed fact that people may change their behavioral response when placed in different situations such as workplace or social circumstances. A person's natural or default behavioral profile may vary considerably from the behavior they exhibit in a stressful situation or one that enforces a different social hierarchy or introduces unique stimuli. We refer to this latter behavior as 'adapted' and it can be some of the most useful information that a DISC tool can provide - assuming that the DISC tool used hasn't skipped this information or consolidated it into a single blended report together with the natural profile. For example a person might feel more comfortable as a go-with-the-flow person, perfectly okay with following the direction of a leader, but a new work assignment might thrust this person into a leadership role, essentially requiring a behavior adaption to now take charge and be responsible for the actions of others. In this example the person's natural D would be fairly low, but the circumstances of the new position are requiring them to adapt to a higher D state than is the norm. In a situation where this is only an occasional departure from natural behavior this might be a non-issue, even a refreshing change of pace, however, if the situation demands constant adaptation this can become a source of stress and a potential predictor of a coming crisis in the job situation. Reports that combine the Natural and Adapted behavior, or only look at the Natural graph will miss these cues that can be highly valuable in adjusting team dynamics and providing career guidance for optimal success and satisfaction.

5) Misunderstanding how to best use DISC
Too often we see DISC practitioners who seem to be only interested in selling assessments and not solving problems. They'll push for department wide assessment initiatives that end up getting filed away and never used, or worse used inappropriately as contextless exclusion tools in making hiring decision, promotions or team placements. Context is the key here. Using a behavioral assessment as a filter for making a placement decision doesn't make a lot of sense unless a behavioral success profile has already been created to understand which behaviors are desirable and productive for a given role. People tend to have an affinity for other people who share similar behavioral styles, however this can lead to lopsided teams lacking the balanced perspective to work optimally and make effective progress. Also, as stated above, DISC systems that ignore the Natural vs Adapted distinction are incapable of being used to recognize environmentally induced behavioral changes. Let's look at the situation of an employee who has historically been a good performer, suddenly falling off in productivity. If that employee had a DISC profile on file that indicated both Natural and Adapted behavioral styles and was then administered another assessment after the change in productivity it is likely that a specific change in adapted behavior would be revealed and in this case much clearer information would be available for determining how best to address the situation in the most beneficial way for both the company and employee. Treating the assessment process as a one time only event ignores the utility of applying behavioral information over time and therefore ignores long-term benefits in employee morale and team productivity.

Stay Vigilant
We at Data Dome feel it is our duty to stay vigilant and continue to assess the assessments to assure that the tools you use are actually capable of solving the problems and building the successes you expect for your company, your self and your team. When DISC tools and systems are promoted that fall short of the quality expectations you should expect it is harmful to our industry and to the customers who invest in tools that are not adequate to meet the needs of their organizations. For further information on what to watch out for when selecting a DISC prodram see our white paper: Good DISC vs Bad DISC.

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