Understanding Behavioral Styles

DISC-5By Dan Rust for Frontline Learning

Four-factor “DISC” behavioral models are ubiquitous in the world of corporate training and development today. A simple Google search produces over a hundred different DISC-style behavioral profiles, assessments and surveys, all based upon the same fundamental research.

The best way to make sense of all these options is to start with a baseline understanding of the underlying model for these assessments, and that is the goal of this article. I’m not a psychologist or a psychometrics expert, but I have leveraged a broad range of DISC-style assessments over the past 20 years. When I explain the DISC behavioral model to others in a practical, straightforward manner, it helps them make better decision regarding which specific assessment to use, and how to leverage it most effectively in their corporate training program.

So let’s start at the beginning. The search for understanding regarding our distinct personalities and the nature of human interaction is as old as humanity itself. The age-old question is, “Why do people do what they do?” The Greek philosopher, Hippocrates (400 BC), believed in four distinct personality styles; choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, and melancholy. Although Hypocrites’ theory has no medical validity, it was the first substantial method for categorizing types of behavior.

Hippocrates’ theory was expanded upon at the turn of the 20th century by a number of behavioral scientists. Carl Gustav Jung (1921), a Swiss psychologist, was one of the most influential modern behavioral theorist. In 1921 he published “Psychological Types” which described four psychological functions: thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition. Jung also classified these four types further by calling them either “introverted” or “extroverted.”

The DISC Behavioral ModelDISC-Model-safety

The development of the DISC behavioral profile as we know it was primarily due to the work of the American psychologist, Dr. William Moulton Marston. He was an expert in behavioral understanding. In 1926 he published “The Emotions of Normal People” in which he outlined the essence of the modern DISC behavioral model. Until that time, this type of work was confined to criminally insane and mentally ill people.

Marston observed (in “normal” people) a behavioral continuum with two extremes. Based upon his observations he grouped people along two axis:

  1. Either antagonistic or favorable view of the environment.
  2. Either active or passive tendencies within their environment.

In other words, when people instinctively perceive their environment (at home, at work, etc.) do they feel “safe?” Do they perceive others within their environment as supportive or antagonistic, or somewhere in between? This is about instinctive perception, not objective reality. Some of us can walk into a room of strangers and immediately feel comfortable. Some of us can sit at a dinner table with a supportive family and feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Of course most of us fall somewhere between the two extremes.


The other axis Marston focused on was the degree to which individuals are instinctively active or passive in their environment. Do they perceive themselves to have a high degree of control (active) or to have little or no control (passive) over their environment? Marston observed that this behavioral element was independent of perceived “safety.” Some individuals who perceive  an unsafe environment are instinctively passive, they view themselves as having little or no control over their environment. Others who also perceive an unsafe environment tend to be more active or assertive, because they perceive themselves to have a high level of control over their environment.


An important point to reinforce is that Marston observed that these instinctive perceptions tended to remain consistent for an individual no matter what the objective reality of the environment might be. So an individual who tends to perceive the world as a safe, friendly place – where he or she has little or no control over the environment – will tend to have this same instinctive perception even when the environment is un-supportive, and even when he or she is given full control over the environment.


By viewing individuals through the prism of these two behavioral continua, the four DISC-model quadrants are created and the four behavioral styles were formed: Dominance (D), Inducement (I), Steadiness (S), and Compliance (C).


 Since Marston, many individuals have contributed to the maturation of the DISC behavioral model. It became a common tool for the US military’s recruiting process before the second World War. Today companies frequently use it to choose the most appropriate candidate for their employment, sifting out countless other applicants.


Click on any of the boxes below for more details on each of the primary behavioral tendencies: Dominant (D), Interactive (I), Supportive (S), and Compliant (C).


Many Frontline Learning products incorporate the DISC behavioral mode, promoting a greater understanding of interpersonal influences and tendencies to enhance sales productivity, customer service effectiveness and general personal competency. The following Frontline Learning products incorporate some form of the DISC behavioral profile:

  • Professional Selling SkillMap™
  • Customer Service SkillMap™
  • Emotional Effectiveness SkillMap™
  • REAL Selling™
  • REAL Coaching™
  • REAL Marketing™


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