Taking a closer look at the benefits and pitfalls of psychometrics supporting coaching programs
Written by Paul White
Since their introduction in the early 20th century, assessments have grown in both their validity and popularity. In the world of 21st century business and self improvement, they now hold a strong position of input into any personal or team development conversation. They provide a measure of ability, personality traits/behavior and impact on others.
In the past 40 years, coaching has also grown in practice and has even become ‘mainstream’, in some sectors of business and enterprise. The International Coach Federation, one of the pioneering coach accreditation bodies defines coaching as “…. partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” This creative process of exploration that leads to action helps many business leader’s and entrepreneur's growth in their effectiveness.
Assessments are often used in organizational development and coaching for two main rationale. Usually the rational centers around talent selection (talent acquisition, cultural fit, role readiness, success path/strategy) or talent development (Developing High Potential, Leader/Manager Skill Growth, Leadership Development, Leader’s transition).
For the purpose of this article when we mention ‘assessments’ we are referring to psychometrics instruments. Alternative terms for these one may find are - inventory, test, tool, survey, review and instrument.
The benefits of using psychometrics are widely published in the leadership and personal development space. With a massive raft of such tools available, one only has to research briefly to discover in that a widely held belief that they add perspective and focus to a personal development plan and/or coaching program.
Different assessments can provide deeper insight into behavior, work style and a person’s impact on others. The results of this can be an easy-to-read distal menu that highlights specific areas of personality traits or behavioral preference that could be addressed.
As a client, seeking heightened self-awareness, assessments can provide an ‘unbiased’, ‘independent’ view which is largely untouched by human hands. Some companies use them in combination with 360 feedback to provide an independent comparison to the feedback of a team.
It is important to understand that while assessments hold significant value in their own right, the coaching relationship can offer the flexibility needed for a client to work through the opportunities and obstacles that results may offer. An open, healthy coaching relationship provides a ‘sandbox’ to adapt and learn from insights gained and ‘play around’ with new attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.
The Dark Side
The universe of assessments has a dark side and therefore, one must be aware which can display danger signs. Linda deLuce identifies a number of areas which can cloud the learning experience within a coaching relationship. Namely:
“Expert” Coach Bias - A coaches training and specific experience provides a natural bias toward a certain development area, assessment type or a certain assessment. An example of this, consciously or otherwise, is when the coaches chooses the same tool for all clients.
“Inflexible Organization” Bias - Organizations often tend to chose and keep the same assessment for the sake of consistency. Having a common language and reference point compels companies to stick to this mandate. The dark side is that this reduces the respect and honor for the individual as well as the context of the need for an assessment before blindly jumping into the process.
Shadow of Expectation - As a client answers questions and provides feedback for an assessment, they are doing so “through the lense” of the rationale behind the business case for the initiative. Be it performance improvement, skill development to something else, it jolts the focus of conversation away from the client’s content
Invasion of Privacy Perception - For some the very act of participating in such activities is an act of personal discomfort as they feel their private world is being exposed. It may be that either they do not wish their ‘internal world to be exposed at all’ or that they don’t wish external peers and managers to ‘see inside’.
Beyond this, a coach should be aware of other perils of assessments as a coaching input, namely:
“Pigeon Holing” - by nature, as it categorizes and trends, an assessment, without proper car, lends itself easily to stereotyping and polarization.
Tendency to get “lost in the details” - for those of a more technical nature (both coach and client) there is the temptation to get caught up in the detail of results, rather than drawing back to understand the essence of potential change and challenge.
Assessments lacking validity, reliability and favor - the purpose of this article is not to delve into the technicalities of validity, reliability and social desirably, but it must be remembered that due to a range of well-documented statistical and social factors, all assessments are not equal
Key Questions to Address
Who owns assessment data?
Who sees the report once it is generated?
How long until a report loses its relevance?
How will results be handled in combination with 360 feedback?
The Posture of a Coach
As an outside influence on the coaching relationship, the use of the assessments has the potential to distort the coaching learning environment and inhibit the development of the client. Following is a number of pertinent guidelines to keep the coach in the right frame of mind as they help their client address the results of an assessment and the implications that these may present.
Ask permission of the client to use the assessment - to enable the ownership of the content of the coaching relationship to remain with client, it is right always to give them the freedom to opt in or out of using an assessment in an individual session or entire program.
Let the Client pick their insights - often by allowing the client to read through and reflect on the results of assessment they will find own insights, and then be able rightly to initiate the introduction of these into coaching.
Let the tools insights challenge the client as field work away from the intensity of the coaching conversation is a good place to begin with assessment results, there a client has time to process, reflect and draw their initial personal conclusions. A coach should always avoid giving advice and certainly never resort to imposing views on their client by ‘preaching’ from the assessment results.
Encourage the client to consider other options - the field of coaching naturally lends itself to providing different perspectives and therefore even with assessment in hand, the coaching conversation must remain op en to many options outside of the content of the assessment database.
No assessment is foolproof - There is a danger of unscrupulously accepting the results of assessment as completely valid and reliable and relevant. The coach should keep in mind that while valuable insight can be gained, no-one in the assessment industry would ever claim that their tools are 100% accurate.
Help the client along on the journey - the beauty of the art of coaching is the coaches role in facilitation of self perception and the revelation of influences and behavior that impact their personal and professional lives. Coaching is a powerful place to help people respond and change in the way they choose.
The coach must sit in the place of expert in the coaching process, not of the ‘content of the client' or assessment material.
With the explosive growth of the number of assessments, companies who see value in coaching as a leadership development and personal growth tool are also regularly using assessments to support learning objectives. Appropriate techniques and practices can greatly enhance effectiveness of the use of assessments alongside coaching and therefore positively impact business results. With the increased popularity of coaching in the past decade, the number of coaching assessments has also increased. It is important to consider the potential benefits and dangers of all assessments at the design phase of a personal growth plan, leadership development strategy or coaching program. Asking the right questions in selecting assessments and putting in place the right checks and balances should aid the effectiveness of assessments.
Most importantly, at all times coaches must remain the right posture in using assessments, they must remain experts in the art and science of coaching itself: keeping the client in charge of the coaching agenda and giving freedom of acceptance and critiquing of results. Coaching can help clients become aware of their existing behaviors and habits, develop new ways of working, and reinforce new patterns of behavior - an appropriate assessment rightly applied can be a great asset.
Paul White is executive coach (PCC) and Chartered Accountant (CAANZ) with more than 20 years experience in Intercultural leadership and 10 years coaching in the context of leadership development and career transition.