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Good DISC vs. Bad DISC

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

Good DISC vs. Bad DISC

All DISC tools are created equal right?

Common Roots, Diverse Results
All DISC tools and systems have their roots in ideas first put forth by Dr. William Moulton Marston in the late 1920s and therefore share some commonalities, yet there is a great range of different interpretation and quality of results to be found among the varying tools and DISC practitioners. Many consultants, with or without some education in psychology, use assessment tools to capture information from a subject and translate that into usable data, which can then be applied to a wide range of human resource related issues such as team-building, career development, communications, expectation setting, succession planning, morale improvement, etc. Most DISC tools in use today are provided by a handful of companies, known as DISC publishers, whose business models involve cultivating certified DISC experts who then resell the assessment tools to corporations for use in consultative work on the above mentioned areas. There is, unfortunately, no standards body or other central authority that governs the use of the term DISC or polices the application of DISC principles to real world scenarios. Instead, each DISC publisher sets the standard for its own community of experts, trainers, and salespeople and as a result this has led over the years to some divergence of practice in the application of DISC, the complexity and sophistication of assessments, and the accuracy of reported results. In addition to this uneven field of quality in the diagnostic capabilities of some tools, so too is there an uneven field in regard to the interpretive skills of DISC practitioners and in the depth of their training. Many training programs for DISC unfortunately fall into the habit of "teaching the tool" - simply showing the mechanics of provisioning an assessment and limiting explanation to the finite range of reports that particular assessment tool is capable of providing - rather than first grounding the trainees with a firm foundation in the theory of DISC, before examining real world application of the concepts and then showing the benefits and limitations of any particular tool in capturing the complexities of an individual person’s behavioral mix.

In short, although all DISC shares common roots and principles, no, not all DISC is created equal.

The Basics
To understand what makes some DISC tools better than others, let’s review some basics. DISC is based on four behavioral factors. We often shorthand our descriptions of people by referring to them just by the DISC type in which they have their most intense rating, for example we’ll call someone a high D if their chart shows that is their highest rating or a high S if an assessment indicates the S is their most prevalent attribute, but it is important to note that this should only be done when talking in terms of general DISC principles where the simplification adds to the clarity of understanding the aspects of the particular DISC category being discussed. When it comes to actual individuals it is necessary to maintain the awareness that every person has a rating (or score) in each of the four categories. These are indications of intensity of expression of the four behavioral concepts. Every person has some measure of intensity in each category of behavior and it is in the interplay of these behavioral intensities that we come to understand the individual. This shorthand can also make it easy to gloss over the importance of the low end of the scale in each of the DISC columns. A person who only interprets DISC by looking at the highs can easily misunderstand the behaviors when the score of largest magnitude might be in the downward direction. So that high S above might really be a low D with the raised S as the measure with the second largest magnitude in that subject’s chart. Unfortunately some DISC publishers ignore this distinction altogether even though an intense low score is just as indicative of behavioral traits as is an equally intense high score.

Understanding Intensity and Precision
What DISC assessment tools and their corresponding reports do is first provide a series of questions that measure the intensity of each of the four behaviors and then correlate the resulting graph with a corresponding report for that graph. Here is where we can begin to explain some differences in tools. Some DISC systems provide for more gradations in the intensity in each category, some provide more reports for the resulting profiles to be matched with - and the range of this number of reports among the offerings available is surprisingly broad: some DISC publishers provide tools capable of generating as few as 12 reports, some offer 50, while one offers tools that match behavioral graphs with hundreds report profiles. One can liken this to the difference between listening to music on an audio system with only adjustments for bass and treble, versus one with a multi-band equalizer. The former allows for some rudimentary adjustments to enhance the sound, but cannot discern around particular frequencies, the latter acknowledges the dynamic range in several frequency ranges so the adjustments are more precise and effective. Or to use another analogy, a simple tape measure might be fine to measure the height of a shelf, but it is simply too crude a tool to measure the diameter of an engine’s cylinders. The measurements in that situation would be too approximate to be useful - the engineer must employ a carefully calibrated measuring tool, one working on a significantly more refined scale, otherwise the results could be as disastrous as an engine with a jammed piston.

Even Great Tools Need Skillful Operators
We know from empirical evidence that people will typically exhibit a greater intensity in one behavioral category than they will in the other three, however it would be a mistake to ignore the other three categories and simply focus on the behavior with the greatest amplitude. It is also a mistake to oversimplify the process of matching behavioral graphs to report profiles. A DISC system with only 12 report variations is at best a coarse approximation of the individual in question. Using a DISC system with hundreds of report variations brings an order of magnitude improvement in the refinement and accuracy of the information provided. Yet even a system with hundreds of reports is still approximating. That is why training and understanding the debriefing process are also such critical factors in determining whether DISC is being used properly or not. A good DISC system can yield mediocre results if the DISC practitioner is simply treating the reports as rote representations of the participant being measured. A good DISC system will teach the DISC administrator to follow up and dig deeper by interviewing the subject - engaging the subject in a dialog around the perceived accuracy of the assessments findings, encouraging the candidate to compare his or her perceptions with those of a trusted resource such as a friend or spouse who is able to note behaviors of which the candidate may not be fully aware. Lower quality DISC systems treat the report findings as gospel and tend to make proscriptive recommendations based on making people conform to the "grid" of potential behavioral types rather than adapting and customizing the findings to reflect the additional anecdotal and situational input that can only be derived from post-assessment interviewing.

Simplification and Vagueness
There are some incentives for DISC publishers to pursue systems that involve a smaller number of different reports. With less reports to manage, training becomes simpler, and since the tools are more approximate the information in the reports can benefit from the "daily horoscope" effect: just like in a newspaper horoscope, the information provided is general enough to appeal to a large group of people. Similarly when using the rough sieve of a tool that can only categorize to a dozen or so reports the vagueness implicit in the copy of each report will provide answers that can seem satisfactory, but in the end don’t hold up well in terms of providing practical insight to address the real issues at hand. Further it takes a different level of knowledge of DISC to actually learn to analyze report findings and knowledgeably interview a subject to address objections and interpret findings, than it take to simply read report findings by rote.

Keeping it Fresh
A good DISC provider recognizes that the language used in the assessments, reports and in the adjectives of DISC charts need to be freshened periodically to stay current with the common business vocabulary of the day and the cultural nuances that are constantly evolving. Communications, social change, technology are all contributing factors to the evolution of language. If your DISC report seems dated it could be a sign that the information it provides has not kept pace with changing workplace norms.

Establishing Context for Better Results
Another vital element to consider when discerning the quality of one DISC system over another is the emphasis a system places on discovering the behavioral keys to success for a given position or needed to supplement gaps in a given team as part of the overall initiative to apply DISC in the workplace. It is not simply about identifying the DISC profile of a given subject, but understanding the behavioral context that determines the likelihood of success in a given role. DISC training to be effective must stress the primacy of objectivity in these scenarios. Too often a manager’s personal biases (or a consultants) will color the decision making process and favor either behavioral attributes which are similar to their own, or conform to some idealized aspirational profile, which may have little to do with the actual behavioral patterns needed to succeed in a specific job. Good DISC systems will encourage clients to inquire about the accuracy and objectivity of their approaches and will recommend the practice of using objective measures to understand the behavioral fit required for success rather than simply assessing candidates for roles where the behavioral aptitudes needed are not well-defined.

Going Natural, or the Importance of Adapted Behavior
Beyond the degree of refinement of the DISC tool and the diversity of reports it can generate, a very large dividing line in discerning DISC quality is the concept of Natural and Adapted behavioral styles. Some DISC publishers offer tools and reports that merge the adapted and natural behavioral graphs to create a single approximate graph, others ignore the difference altogether and simply present a single graph with no governing context for the resulting report. Both practices lead to confusing and inaccurate results. As we have presented earlier in this book the Natural behavior graph shows the intensities of a subject’s behavioral style in each of the four categories when the subject is in a natural or "default" state. This represents the behavior profile that causes the individual the least stress and the minimal expenditure of adaptive energy. By adaptive energy we mean energy spent on conforming to a behavior, not the energy spent performing the behavior itself. For instance a person with a high I may spend a lot of general energy in the act of lively conversation, but this energy is not promoting stress or anxiety, whereas the same person if forced into a situation that demands social isolation even when in proximity to other people, he or she may expend less physical energy because the engagement activity is gone, but a much higher expenditure of adaptive energy spent controlling the impulse to fall into the more comfortable pattern of conversation. This latter effort can induce stress, fatigue and a variety of long-term negative effects if required for frequent and extended periods. Contrast this with a low I individual who naturally seeks social isolation, but would experience similar stress and negative effects if forced to play a role that demanded pumping up other people on a routine basis.

Compare and Contrast
Good DISC systems will acknowledge the importance of comparing and contrasting the Natural and Adaptive behavior profiles of a subject as these can be highly indicative of stresses in the workplace, behavioral misalignments that can lead to job failure, and a source for identifying behavioral attributes needed for job success. Except in the case of major life-altering events, an individual’s Natural behavioral style varies little over time and tends to change slowly if at all, whereas the Adapted style can and does change as situational and environmental changes occur. Some Adaption if moderate or if only for brief stretches may actually be desirable as a refreshing "change of pace" however subjects forced to adapt for extended periods will exhibit stress that can often lead to outbursts, backlashes, firings and job quitting. Systems that combine Natural and Adapted behaviors end up with a graph that can be highly inaccurate as the averaging of intensities implies a different level of behavior than either the Natural or Adapted would indicate.

Single Graphs Miss the Whole Story
Single graph systems also lose the ability to chart the impact of environmental changes, which are often the source for identifying the most impactful measures for improving a workplace or team dynamic. For instance let’s say there is a team of engineers who have in the past thrived in their roles, but are suddenly quitting or becoming disruptive with overall dwindling performance. The change in performance began when a new management directive was issued requiring the engineers to devote part of their day to customer service. Examining the Natural profiles of the engineers would reveal that they tended to fit a general style consisting of a moderate D, low I, moderate S, and high C, making them more comfortable working semi-autonomously in a logical detail-oriented environment without superfluous social interaction. However under the new directive they were being forced to be friendly and polite to an endless array of strangers while a supervisor micromanaged and critiqued their interactions. In essence they were adapting to significantly raise their respective I’s as they forced themselves to be friendly with the customers and lowered their D as they surrendered their autonomy to the situation. Their Adapted profile had shifted strongly in the I-column and more moderately in the D. This would be a strong indicator that the stresses of forcing themselves to act like "people persons" was causing the heretofore anomalous problems of poor performance and job abandonment. Armed with this knowledge a number of remedies could be applied to the situation from, on one end of the spectrum, reverting to the old way as it was before the directive to hiring new engineers with a higher Natural I on the other end. The point is such remedies would be difficult to find without understanding the behavioral gap that existed between the Natural and Adapted styles in the scenario. Without such information it would have been easy to misdiagnose the problem and assume it was an issue with the customer service manager (why was this person unable to effectively manage people who had previously been good employees?) instead of identifying a behavioral conflict created by the change in the engineers’ duties. Bad DISC systems offer broad brush reports that may seem easy to understand, but fail to provide effective actionable data.

To conclude this discussion of good DISC vs bad DISC here are some questions we recommend asking before embarking on a DISC project:

Questions to ask before picking your DISC provider.

How many profiles/reports does your DISC system provide?

As discussed earlier, the smaller the number of reports, the more approximate will be the placement of any individual’s assessed profile. We recommend choosing a DISC provider with a wide array of available report combinations. That way people who take the assessments will be matched with the closest possible report.

What is the ratio of accuracy for your reports?

A reputable DISC provider will be happy to provide data on the statistical analysis used to substantiate the findings and objectivity of their reports.

Do your reports include Natural and Adapted profiles?

Contrasting changes in behavior with a subject’s normal (default) state is perhaps the most effective capability of DISC for analyzing and identifying the causes of workplace stresses, employee disfunction, hiring mistakes, morale issues, team disfunction, and more.

What is your process for administering DISC assessments and interpreting data for recommended actions?

Good DISC systems will encourage you to understand the steps in the process from assessment to debriefing, from recommendations to follow-up actions. DISC when used properly is an effective tool in diagnosing behavioral alignment and an invaluable aid in recommending remedies and strategic initiatives. A good DISC provider should include as part of their project plan an objective analysis of the success behaviors for a given position before attempting to use DISC to match candidates for team placement. An open dialog with your provider clearly outlining your goals and objectives should be answered back with candor and clarity regarding the role DISC will play in reaching your objectives.

How often are your reports updated?

Language constantly evolves and adapts to meet changes in society, culture and technology - language in the workplace perhaps more so. We recommend seeking out DISC tools that are kept "fresh" by DISC publishers who frequently examine the language of the reports and the adjectives in the charts so that the descriptions and recommendations therein reflect the common idioms and "business speak" of the day.

I need to hire smarter/retain employees/build better teams/plan a succession/salvage morale/etc., who have you done this for in the past? What have the results been?

A good DISC provider should be able to point to specific examples of situations similar to your own. They should be able to explain how DISC was applied to the situation and provide data on the results. Don’t be afraid to ask for references!

What is your certification process?

Understanding the training and certification required to represent a particular DISC publisher can provide insight into the quality and depth of understanding you can expect from your DISC consultant.

Can I get a sample report?

A good DISC provider will be happy to let you see example reports so that you can familiarize yourself with the type of information, interpretations and recommendations provided.

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