Using the DISC Assessment with Families

The DISC assessment is a useful tool for helping families, trustees, and family office or business professionals understand how and why different people process and behave differently.

The DISC assessment is a simple, powerful tool for identifying how different people make sense of the world differently. I’ve used it for years with students, corporate teams, and family groups. This post is meant to introduce DISC, show some of what it can do, and explore a bit how a family office or other advisor might use it with a family or within a family enterprise.

What is DISC?

The DISC framework was originally created by Dr. William Marston, a physiological psychologist, in 1928. Although he theorized the four basic behavioral types that DISC describes, he did not create an assessment tool–others have done that based on his work. As a result, various assessment tools exist. If you Google “DISC assessment,” you will find many different options. (For a useful history of the development of the DISC profile, see this timeline.)

I personally use a version of DISC by Wiley called EverythingDiSC. It is an online tool that is very easy to administer. More important, I find the reports that it produces to be clear, complete, and compelling. It is also very widely used, and Wiley is therefore able to adjust the assessment over time to improve reliability and validity. (For more on the reliability and validity of the tool, see this research report.)

A DISC profile describes a person’s behavioral preferences and tendencies using four basic styles: D(ominance), I(nfluence), S(teadiness), and C(onscientiousness). Everyone is a blend of these styles, and no one style is better or worse than the others. The four styles result from the two different axes in the model:

The vertical axis is about how bold or cautious you are: to the north the model shows more fast-paced, outspoken, active, assertive behaviors; to the south it shows more cautious, careful, methodical behaviors. The horizontal axis is about how skeptical versus accepting you tend to be. To the west the model shows more questioning, skeptical, logic-focused, challenging tendencies; to the east it shows more warm, empathetic, agreeable tendencies.

Put them together and you have four styles or preferences or tendencies:

  • Dominance: This person tends to preference active, outspoken, direct, forceful behaviors, and to prioritize getting it done. They might be described as driven, decisive, strong willed, or fast paced.
  • Influence: This person tends to preference active, outgoing, enthusiastic, lively behaviors, and to prioritize getting recognized. They might be described as charming, collaborative, social, or energizing.
  • Steadiness: This person tends to preference more quiet, thoughtful, accepting behaviors, and to prioritize getting along. They might be described as calm, deliberative, warm, appreciative, or cooperative.
  • Conscientiousness: This person tends to preference thoughtful, questioning, precise, skeptical behaviors, and to prioritize getting it right. They might be described as analytical, accurate, reserved, and systematic.

I think of the four styles as really being about preferences. It’s not that the assessment shows you how you behave all the time. It’s more that it shows you your tendency: how you are likely to choose to behave or react when it matters. Put differently, it seems to identify what you prioritize. In a pinch, a “D” is likely to push a decision forward–“let’s just decide already!” A “C” is more likely to want to slow down, think it through more carefully, and collect more information–“let’s make sure we get this right!” An “I” is going to preference engagement and enthusiasm–“let’s get this party started!” And a “C” is reflective and quiet–“let’s make sure everyone is ok with this.” If forced to choose, a D will probably preference getting it done over getting it perfect, whereas a C would choose the opposite. I often use this simple figure to explain these styles: people seem to relate to these four images immediately!

Four DISC Styles in a Nutshell

How Is DISC Administered?

How does using DISC work in practice? I have an account with Wiley’s EverythingDiSC product suite. When I want to administer the DiSC assessment, I enter the names and emails of the participants (either manually or by uploading a simple spreadsheet). The system then emails each person inviting them to fill out the assessment. They go online and answer roughly 80 questions; it generally takes 15-20 minutes.

The Assessment Tool

Once all participants have completed the assessment, Wiley’s system can produce various reports for each person. This is where I find Wiley’s DISC offering compelling: the reports are very good. Each participant report is roughly 15 pages. It describes their profile results in detail, and explains what the results mean. It also explains how their tendency (D, I, S, or C) likely interacts with others’. The reports are in PDF form, and I can set whether I want participants to be able to see the results immediately after they take the test (online) or whether only I can download and print the results for them for use in a discussion or meeting.

Each participant, of course, is ultimately assessed as having some particular tendency profile. In the example below, this person is a strong “D”. The location of the dot in the circle tells you the quadrant the person tends to be in, as well as the strength of that tendency. If the dot is farther out, near or on the edge of the circle, the tendency is stronger; closer to the center of the circle, it is more mixed.

A Given Participant’s Result

Wiley’s system can also produce two other very useful types of reports:

  • A Facilitator’s Report: This shows the profile results of all members of a group of participants, and creates an overall graphic showing everyone on the same DISC circle.
  • Comparison Reports: This report allows you to select two individual participants and create a report showing how their two tendencies are likely to interact. The system will print a personalized comparison report for each person. These reports are a very useful tool, because people tend to really find them quite accurate in describing their interaction with the other person.

Using DISC with Family Systems

There are lots of possible uses of DISC within a family enterprise system:

  • Family Meetings: DISC can be a simple way to get conversation started about differences in personality, style, and behavior patterns.
  • Family Office Discussions: DISC can be very helpful for teams within an organization, such as a family office, private trust company, or family business.
  • Board Meetings: DISC can be useful for Board assessments and discussions of how the Board of a family business, trust company, or family office get along.
  • Trustee & Beneficiary Meetings: DISC can be helpful in assessing a trustee-beneficiary relationship or in helping a Distribution & Beneficiary Relations committee of a private trust company assess its own personalities as well as the personalities of the beneficiaries it works with.

I personally find it most helpful to have everyone take the assessment but not see their results. Then I print the result packets before a facilitated discussion. I present some basics of what DISC is and how it works, and then hand out their results and let them discuss with a partner. Most often, I have had the group do some sort of simulation or exercise before this, so that they can think about whether their DISC tendencies were evident during the exercise they just completed. I may also pre-print comparison reports showing how a given pair is likely to interact, and ask them to review those and discuss as well.

In my experience, roughly 85%-90% of participants feel that their assessment accurately describes them. If it doesn’t, I of course invite them to revise–they can identify with whatever profile(s) they wish. But most people seem to relate very quickly to their results.

There are many other assessments used with family systems and within family enterprises. I don’t mean to suggest that DISC is superior to others–only that I have found it a useful tool. Participants seem to relate very quickly to it and to understand the basic framework without a lot of explanation. Thus, for meetings where time is of the essence but you want to get a discussion of differences going, DISC can be perfect. (I have found some other assessment tools take much longer to explain.)

In summary, a simple graphic that explains a lot: