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Know Thyself . . . (and thy people)

(Individual and organisational profiling)

I had a friend in Canada who worked for several months in the employment branch of a major car manufacturer. The local car manufacturing plant employed hundreds of new assembly-line personnel every year and as part of their recruiting process, prospective employees were required to undergo psychometric profiling. The company used the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) as one of their tools for this screening.

Now this was the 90s and many companies have moved on from this type of profiling, but the company used a blanket screening process with no room for movement. If candidates did not exactly match the “ideal” personality profile stipulated by the HR department, then they were not considered, despite their qualifications, experience or references. People were pigeonholed or categorised as an ISTJ or ENFJ and there was no understanding or belief that they could act in any other way in their jobs. 

My friend noted that many potentially suitable candidates were overlooked for these supposedly ideal personalities. The “ideals” did not also end up performing really well in their jobs, despite their personality profile. 

Tools like the MBTI can be incredibly useful and powerful, but nobody uses them to box people anymore. Or do they?

Many people and organisations learned their lessons with tools like the MBTI. But there are a whole new raft of tools – some sources estimate there over 2,800 personality-related assessments alone currently in existence – that keep coming into existence that we need to learn new lessons with.

You may have seen or experienced people being labelled a particular colour or name, subsequent to an assessment and then been told to “become” a new “colour”.

One of the dangers in this is usually that assessments of this nature do not take into account the many thousands of variables that make up individual effort, workplace performance and culture, nor are they able to predict needs in novel situations. Hence, we end up with organisations where everybody has to be a certain way, in order to “fit in with the culture” and then the whole organisation starts thinking the same way all the time, with potentially disastrous results. The Global Financial Crisis is just such an example of this kind of one-sided mentality. One style of thinking led whole financial institutions (and the legislators backing them) into tanking world markets and millions of livelihoods.

When the ancient Greeks said to “know thyself”, I don’t think they had modern psychometrics in mind, nor were they implying that you then had to become the “perfect profile”.

Knowing yourself is important to being able to perform highly. It impacts your job success, your leadership, your people and your life. Good psychometrics (even ones that assign you a colour) can be important in understanding your strengths, weaknesses and tendencies. Great tools also predict how you may behave under stress or a crisis, or in particular types of tasks, teams or environments.

But a psychometric is only part of knowing yourself.

I studied the construction and use of advanced psychometrics during my Master’s studies in psychology undertaken in Canada with some of the most esteemed professors in the field. We analysed the construction and utility of various personality, intelligence, attitude and aptitude assessments. I can tell you that no psychometric can take the place of an holistic, life-based assessment of individuals or organisations.

Psychometrics, by definition, are reductionist and quite frequently extremist in analysis. Thus, someone may be either an extrovert or an introvert – rarely does an assessment acknowledge that someone may act both ways depending on the context.

Instead, the emphasis we always placed in using assessments is that they should never be used to pigeonhole or just to give someone a score. Assessment should always be used to provide information – information that you can use. And assessment comes in so many more forms than a paper and pencil (or keyboard and screen) assessment. There is so much more to knowing yourself.

You need to ask questions like,

  • “What is my passion?”,
  • “What do I really enjoy doing?”,
  • “When am I at my best?”, and
  • “What challenges me?”. 

 Beyond that you also need to ask,

  • “When do others – family, friends, workmates or employees – think I am at my best?”,
  • “What do I do that stops others from performing well?”,
  • “What do I do that inhibits me performing well?”, or
  • “What kinds of situations or environments drag me down?”

To truly know yourself, you need to try yourself out in real situations and real environments. To know others (especially if you are their employer), you need to try them in real situations too.

You may not be able to change the environment, the task or the team, but understanding yourself – all of yourself – is an essential ingredient to becoming more effective, more productive and more successful. You can then seek guidance to change or better the things you can, and to work with the strengths and weaknesses you have to get the best results.

But what about those around you? Knowing and understanding the people around you means that you move from just yourself (which, let’s face it, is the definition of selfish) to seeing how you and others can achieve together. Your partner – in business or life – would be very grateful if you then demonstrated that understanding.

How about knowing your team, business or organisation all round? And what if you could then get guidance on how to use the business’s and people’s strengths to perform better? How do you then learn more about how you can achieve, armed with that understanding?

If you are using assessments for your organisation, ask yourself

  • "Do they attend to the actual kinds of behaviours that are going to lead to a well-rounded company, or are they asking me to typecast or pigeonhole me, my company or my people?"
  • "Am I getting information that will be able to actively guide me in using my strengths, or will it just tell me that I'm the wrong colour?"
  • "Are the tools reliable and validated?"
  • "Can people retake the tools and just get better at answering the questions in order to give me the desired answer?" and
  • "Is this information only useful on one occasion and then thrown away, or can I use it get more information over time?"

In contrast to the one-size-fits-all or pigeonholing approaches above, we have used tools specifically designed to provide non-judgemental information and guidance on best behaviours that you can adapt to your own career, interests, passions or organisational culture. Through these tools, we have been able to identify and predict success, stress reactions, better job fits and strengths and weaknesses not just of individuals, but of whole organisations. And these tools are used to compare not your basic personality, but your actions with other individuals in similar positions or other organisations in order to determine what works best for that role or company.

Instead of stopping there and trying to change everyone to become a new colour, we gathered information that guided us in adopting new and more effective ways of working and new ways of leading as appropriate, in planning for ways to manage the negatives when they came and for planning on making the kinds of long-term changes that honoured everyone and brought about the best results for both the people and the business overall.

Do we use psychometric assessments in our work? Yes, we do. (We also develop our own tools like our People Performance Audit to use with clients and organisations – but always with a view to providing relevant information to the situation at hand.)

The psychometric tools we use are great at predicting behaviour and success (such as Harrison Assessments) – but we use tools that we know have great research and theory behind them, that are balanced in their overview of the various contexts in which people operate, and that yield information that fits in with a broader holistic assessment. We use these tools because they can be extremely valuable in delivering insight and believe they should be used as appropriate.

I have taken assessments that have taught me about myself and my people and that has been extremely valuable for me personally. We have seen how such tools, used ethically, can tremendously enhance personal and organisational performance. Unlike other approaches, however, we never use them to pigeonhole, but to spur improvement.

My own personal experience has demonstrated to me time and time again that no assessment can predict the ability of people to rise above and overcome the most incredible challenges.

Knowing yourself is crucial to being able to navigate those circumstances and challenges – as much as lies within you.

In learning about yourself and others, though, never fall for the trap of using the one tool or method – no matter how powerful – as the be-all and end-all of your understanding. Human behaviour is too complex for that. Keep working at it in different ways and different times, always looking for information that will positively guide you in achieving good results.

“Know thyself” – it’s not just something you do once and let go of, it’s something you work at constantly and consistently. But knowing it will make all the difference to your organisation and to your life.

Peter J. McLean

Managing Director

(Article continues with "Know Thyself" Part II - How You Can Use Profiling To Your Benefit)


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