The MSL role is constantly evolving and facing new challenges. MSLs are both scientific experts and relationship managers. As such, they are required to perform tasks that are extremely analytical and technical in nature, while being able to skilfully handle relationships on a human level. Each of these responsibilities seems to require not only very different competencies but also dissimilar personalities. However, very little has been investigated about MSLs’ personality traits.
We have designed and conducted a survey that explores MSLs’ personalities and behavioral styles, based on the DISC system. Our goal was to provide some insights about the distribution of personality traits among MSLs and to investigate the relationship between each personality type and the preference for specific MSL-related tasks and responsibilities.
We received responses from 50 MSLs, with a wide range of experience in the role (Fig. 1A), different academic backgrounds (Fig. 1B), and working in all main healthcare company types (Fig. 1C). However, not all geographical regions of the world were significantly represented. Most participants were working either in Spain (34%) or in the USA (32%). 42% of the responders were males, 58% were females (Fig. 1D).
Fig. 1 – Responder’s demographics. (A) Years of experience in the MSL role. (B) Academic backgrounds. (C) Company classification. (D) Gender. (E) Countries where participants work. Size is directly proportional to frequency. We received responses from MSLs working in 13 countries. Most responders were working either in Spain (34%) or in the USA (32%).
The survey included a total of 19 questions. Data were collected and analyzed anonymously. A link to a freely-available, reduced version of the DISC test was provided (https://discpersonalitytesting.com/free-disc-test/). Such a tool generally gives a good approximation of the responder’s DISC style blend. Nonetheless, it is not a comprehensive test, and the outcomes might be biased.
Participants were asked to rank specific tasks related to the MSL profession according to their preference. The tasks were classified into five categories based on the MSL guidelines published by the MSL Society in 2018: KOL engagement; congress support; evidence generation; insights gathering; internal activities. Each of the tasks was assigned a priority to one of the four DISC styles, depending on whether we considered it innate of a task- versus people-oriented people, or of introverts versus extroverts. It’s important to stress that we aimed at analyzing preferences, not competencies. Competencies can be learned and improved; preferences, instead, are innate and are less likely to vary through time. However, we cannot guarantee that such a distinction was clearly understood by all participants. As a result, some of the received responses could be skewed.
An additional limitation of the study was the self-selection bias, as some individuals tend to respond to the invitation to participate, while others normally ignore it. Nevertheless, our demographic data indicate that we have an adequate representation of the MSL, as we received responses from individuals with various degrees of experience and academic backgrounds.
The DISC System
The DISC system was developed in the 1920s by a Harvard psychologist, Dr. William Moulton Marston. According to his model, people are driven by two key motivators, the “motor” drive, and the “priority” drive. On the one hand, people can be either extroverted and fast-paced or introverted and slower-paced. Extroverts tend to be talkative and outwardly focused, while introverts are generally quieter, observant, and inwardly focused. On the other hand, individuals can be either task- or people-oriented. Task-oriented people will focus on logic, data, results, and projects, whereas people-oriented individuals will be more concerned with experiences, feelings, relationships, and human interactions. The combination of these two basic drives generates the four main DISC types: “Dominant” (D)”, “Influencing” (I), “Steady” (S), and “Compliant” (C) (Fig. 2).
MSLs are both scientific experts and relationship managers. They are constantly leveraging their interpersonal skills to engage with stakeholders, to support and to influence them. The qualities that make MSLs innately great at relationship management are more likely found in people with High Influencing and Steady styles. On the contrary, result-oriented people with a propensity for analytical thinking and a strong drive for results are more likely to have High Dominant and Compliant energies.
We, therefore, set to investigate the distribution of the four DISC styles among MSLs around the world.
Fig. 2 – DISC Style System. The axis of introversion vs extroversion and that of tasks- vs people-orientation define four main behavioral types: “Dominant” (D)”, “Influencing” (I), “Steady” (S), and “Compliant” (C). People with a High D style are action-driven, strong-willed, extroverted, and outgoing. Their focus is on solving problems, and they enjoy taking charge of the situation. However, they can sometimes be perceived as controlling or aggressive. They strive for power and control, and they are motivated by results and achievements. People with a High I style are extroverted, outgoing, persuasive, and quite talkative. Their focus is on interacting with people, generating enthusiasm, and motivating others. For this reason, they may sometimes struggle with structure and organization. They have a strong desire for sociability, approval, and praise. People with a High S style are reserved, supportive, easy-going, and agreeable. Their focus is on maintaining harmony and cultivating deep relationships. As a result, they might be scared of or resistant to abrupt change. They have a strong desire to help and understand others. People with a High C style are introverted, very detail-oriented, analytical, and precise. Their focus is on facts, rules, and compliance. As a consequence, they might sometimes be perceived as “cold”, stubborn and excessively bureaucratic. They are driven by a desire to understand the world with objectivity, and they are motivated by quality, analysis, and accuracy.
Distribution of DISC Styles among MSLs
It’s important to keep in mind that each individual person is highly unlikely to display a single behavioral style. As a rule of thumb, they will possess a blend of styles; some of them will be stronger (High styles), while others will be weaker (Low styles). In the general population, most people have two High and two Low styles (80%). However, there is a small percentage of people that have either three High types (15%) or a single one (5%).
In our survey, the distribution was different (Fig. 3A, B). Only 66% of the participants showed two High-Styles, while the percentage of responders with one or three dominant styles was 17% and 12,8% respectively. The remaining 4,2% of the participants declared they had an even mix of the four traits. Interestingly, among the participants with a single High style, there was no one with an Elevated Compliant type (62.5% High D; 25% High I; 12.5% High S). However, if we consider the percentage of participants with a specific High trait independently of the total number of Elevated traits, then the distribution is quite balanced (25% High D; 22,9% High I; 25% High S; 27,1% High C) (Fig. 3C).
Interestingly, females seem to have Higher Steady traits, while Dominant traits are more prevalent in males (Fig. 3D). Task-oriented (C and D) styles are more frequent among new MSLs (<1 year of experience), whereas experienced MSLs have higher people-oriented traits (Fig. 3E). MSLs with a Ph.D. display noticeably higher Compliant traits, while Steady traits are more common among people with a different academic background (Fig. 3F). Remarkably, style blend also seems to vary depending on the country. MSLs working in the USA tend to have high Compliant and Influencing traits, whereas Steady and Dominant traits are more prevalent in Spain (Fig. 3G).
Fig. 3 – DISC profiles of survey participants. (A) Details of the DISC style blends of the participants. The most common profiles, in order, were: High SC (introverted) (17,4%); DC (task-oriented) and IS (people-oriented) (13,0%); D (extroverted, task-oriented) (10,9%). (B) Distribution of the DISC styles blends (1 High style – 17%; 2 High styles – 66%; 3 High Styles – 12,8%; even blend of 4 styles – 4,3%). (C) Distribution of individual High styles among participants, independently of the total number Elevated traits (High D – 25%; High I – 22,9%; High S – 25%; High C – 27,1%). (D) Distribution of individual High styles in male versus female participants. (E) Distribution of individual High styles in participants with more or less than one year of experience in the MSL role. (F) Distribution of individual High styles in participants with or without a Ph.D. title.
(G) Distribution of individual High styles in participants working in the USA versus Spain.
DISC Style impact on MSLs’ career
We asked participants whether they were aware of the existence of the DISC system prior to taking our survey (Fig. 4A). Over 40% of the responses were negative. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the participants (92%) agreed that being aware of their DISC style blend could help them advance in their careers (Fig. 4B). In their answers, some words (identified by creating a word-cloud; Fig. 4C) were particularly recurrent: strengths; others; weaknesses; people; interact; improve. Most responders believe that being aware of their DISC style can help them achieve a higher level of self-knowledge, which will allow them to maximize their strengths and identify areas of improvement to work on.
Ultimately, MSL’s success comes from communication and relationships. As stressed by most participants, recognizing the DISC styles of their interlocutors and adapting to it may foment relationships based on trust and facilitate interactions with both internal and external clients.
Fig. 4 – Benefits of the DISC system for MSLs. (A) 58% of the responders were aware of the existence of the DISC style testing before taking the survey; 42% weren’t. (B) 92% of the respondents believed that being aware of their DISC profile can help them in their professional development; 8% didn’t. (C) Word-cloud showing the words that participants used when asked how being aware of their DISC personality can help them in their careers. Size is directly proportional to frequency. Some of the most recurrent words included: Strengths; Others; People; Interact; Weaknesses; Improve.
DISC Style influence on MSLs’ work preferences and motivation
We asked participants to rank specific tasks related to the MSL profession according to their preference. In the analysis, we first looked at the preference for either extroverted or introverted activities (Fig. 4A). We found that the former was preferred by people with High Dominant or Influencing styles, whereas the latter received higher scores by people with Elevated Steady or Compliant traits. These results are in accordance with the DISC profiling system and suggest that the introvert-extrovert axis might influence MSLs’ propensity for specific activities. As an example, High D/I individuals might prefer delivering presentations in front of large audiences, whereas High S/C people would rather prepare training material for internal use and support sales representatives.
However, this trend did not seem to be conserved for the task- vs people-orientation axis (Fig. 4B). Indeed, it appears that people-oriented activities are generally preferred over task-oriented ones, regardless of the DISC styles blend of the responder.
We also asked participants if they typically feel prouder of themselves when they are praised for their ability to overcome obstacles and achieve good results (D style), their charisma and inspiring talks (I style), their support and dependability (S style), or their analytical work and adherence to high-quality standards (C style). In accordance with our hypothesis, we found that D/I type appraisals work better for extroverted people, whereas SC type appraisals greatly motivated introverted individuals (Fig. 4C). Similarly, I/S type appraisals are better perceived by people-oriented individuals, whereas appraisals centered on tasks and results are preferred by people with High D/C traits (Fig. 4D).
Indeed, the analysis of individual profiles points to a correlation between the motivation type and the DISC style of the person (Fig. 4E). in other words, the profile for which a specific appraisal works the least is the opposite one in the DISC wheel. As an example, an S-type appraisal works best for Elevated S individuals – introverted and people-oriented – and worse for High D individuals – extroverted and task-oriented.
We believe that being aware of these differences could be of use for MSL managers and MSL excellence. Considering whether an MSL is more of an introvert or more of an extrovert could help predict what tasks they will prefer and feel more comfortable with. Additionally, it is important to consider it when thinking about coaching and development. Indeed, in our view, keeping MSLs motivated is crucially important not only for their individual development but also for the achievement of the medical goals of the company. By taking an interest in their personality and by adapting the communication and the mentoring style to each blend, managers may have greater success in motivating MSLs. In turn, this might actually boost the impact of the MSL team.
Fig. 5 – Relationship between MSL’s DISC styles and their preference for work-related activities. (A) Preferences of High D, I, S, and C individuals for introverted and extroverted activities. (B) Preferences of High D, I, S, and C individuals for task-oriented and people-oriented activities. (C) Preferences of High D/I (Low C/S) and High I/S (Low D/C) individuals for extroverted and introverted types of appraisals. (D) Preferences of High D/C (Low I/S) and High I/S (Low D/C) individuals for people-oriented and task-oriented types of appraisals. (E) Preferences of High D, I, S, and C individuals for D-, I-, S- and C-types of appraisals. All data are presented as mean ± SEM.
The “Ideal” MSL
In the survey, we asked MSLs what personality traits the “ideal MSL” should possess. Almost 90% of the responders indicated that MSLs should be “influencing or analytical, depending on the factor that governs the situation; flexible in dealing with people; methodical, analytical and systematic”. Such traits describe individuals with Elevated IC – and comparatively Low DS – styles. Indeed, people with High IC might exhibit either Influencing or Compliance-related behaviors. The former will prevail in social and relaxed circumstances; the latter will dominate in more formal situations. This description appears to fit perfectly with the two main roles of the MSL: a compliant and analytic scientific expert, and an influencing and persuasive relationship manager.
Nonetheless, it is important to consider that Influencing and Compliant traits tend to compete for supremacy. As a consequence, the person will generally end up picking one behavioral type over the other, depending on the situation at hand. Furthermore, even though the majority of people display some degree of style blending, not all combinations are equally frequent. In fact, combinations of styles with similar characteristics are more prevalent than combinations with divergent ones. Concretely, Elevated DS, and Elevated IC are the least common profiles, as they merge styles that are diametrically opposed.
What these results are telling us is that the profile that describes the “ideal” MSL is particularly rare, uncommon, and possibly subject to unbalances. In fact, High IC individuals might be more or less skilled in harmonizing their opposite innate tendencies. Think of an MSL with the methodology and the organization of an extremely High Influencing individual when reviewing the literature. Or think of an MSL with pure and inflexible Compliant traits during a KOL meeting. It’s a recipe for disaster. However, if you get it right, if you manage to get the Influencing and Compliant styles to co-exist harmoniously…there you have it: the ideal MSL. A deeply analytical, compliant, and evidence-based scientific expert that can skillfully leverage his/her influence traits to excellently communicate and persuade in professional settings.
Fig. 6 – The “ideal” MSL. 89,9% of the responders indicated that the “ideal” MSL has an
Elevated High IC profile. The following selected profiles, in order, were: High S and High C (32,7%); High I (30,6%); High DI and High D (26,5%); High IS (16,3%); High SC (4,1%). The Elevated DC style, corresponding to an extremely task-oriented style, was selected by only one of the participants.
Each person is unique, with their own needs, motivations, and expectations. In these differences, there are great strengths. Nonetheless, they need to be understood. The spectrum of personality blends among MSLs is wide and varied, and it appears to have an impact on their work-related preferences and on their responses to appraisals. Indeed, the DISC system seems to provide a valid set of useful principles for motivating MSLs, especially when the introversion-extroversion axis is considered.
Even though the results presented in this report are preliminary and not supported by solid statistical analysis (due to the low number of responses), they can serve as a starting point for future investigations. Indeed, they highlight some potentially interesting trends that could be further explored with studies on a bigger scale and involving additional professional roles, such as MSL managers or Medical Affairs Directors. Ultimately, the findings of this study might help optimize medical strategies and facilitate the achievement of the goals not only of the medical department but of the whole company.
Martina holds a Ph.D. in Biomedicine and has over 5 years of experience in leading pre-clinical R&D projects in neurobiology, inflammation, and regenerative medicine. Recently, she completed her MBA in Pharma & Biotech, and she joined the medical oncology division at Sanofi Genzyme, from where she’s actively working to break into her first MSL role. She’s passionate about science communication and training, and she is committed to making a positive impact on the lives of patients. She is driven by a strong desire for self-improvement, and always welcomes new challenges and the opportunity to step out of her comfort zone
ALBERTO AVILA GIRALDO
Alberto is a Transformation Manager. He’s committed to challenging current mental premises and attitude, fostering new ways of thinking and behaving. That’s what a true transformation is all about. His job is to promote the transformation of the company at all levels, not only from a digital and technological point of view but also (and perhaps most importantly) from a cultural point of view. In this way, the company will be able to rapidly adapt and reinvent itself, thus thriving in a world that is complex, constantly changing, and demanding new ways of thinking and acting.
DAVID VALLS COMA, M.S.
Systemic consultant and facilitator of transformation in organizations. Senior Coach with International Certificate (ICF-PCC). Systemic and Organizational Constellations Coach. Trainer of trainers and Consultant in Neuro-Linguistic Programming from NLP University (Santa Cruz, CA). Insights Discovery Licensed Practitioner. MS in Electronics and Telecommunications Engineering.
I think everyone deserves to be able to display their best version, to feel that their work is meaningful and that it has a valuable impact on their environment.
MARTINA RIOSALIDO, M.Sc
Martina has more than 13 years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical & Biotech industry, in Training, Marketing, and Medical Affairs departments, overseeing both national and international projects for subsidiaries and headquarters within a multicultural work environment. She is currently an MSL with Gilead, focusing on COVID-19 ant-viral drugs. In 2019, she received the MSL of the Year-Outside USA from the MSL Society.
VICTOR SASTRE, M.Sc, MSL-BC
Victor has more than 20 years of experience in the pharmaceutical & biotech industry, Medical Affairs, and R&D. Professor in several Masters and Pharma MBA Coordinator. Passionate and author of various publications related to the MSL position. He is currently a Senior MSL in Amgen, with responsibility in Bone Metabolism, Neuroscience, Inflammation, and Biosimilars. Victor has previous experience at Parke-Davis and Pfizer. In 2018, he received the MSL Award of the Year-Outside USA from the MSL Society. Victor is also a Board-Certified Medical Science Liaison (MSL-BC®).