From Personality Profiles to Reading Tea Leaves: the role of diagnostic tools in leadership development.
Recently I asked a leader how his business was going. “Business is great” he answered, “if it wasn’t for the people!” He was smart enough to see the paradox in his statement, but it nonetheless highlights the critical issue of people dynamics in a leader’s role. The computer age has brought quick advances in global connectivity, information sharing, shorter lead times and business efficiencies, yet the vagaries of the human element in the workplace leaves many leaders frustrated. They conclude that people are nowadays the weak link in the business chain and for this they turn to us for help.
Certainly, people and teams can be messy, unpredictable and time-consuming, driving leaders with good analytical skills crazy. They know they need people – they just don’t understand them. Their people don’t seem to share the same passions, values or vision. They act in ways which don’t maximise results. They exaggerate trivial concerns at the expense of critical business issues and waste time and energy in not getting along. Such leaders often ask us for some frameworks to apply science to interpreting human behaviour and improving team performance.
These days, the world of team development and leadership coaching is awash with such interpretive frameworks, explanatory models and diagnostic instruments designed to help understand people better so as to improve performance. Some examples are:
- Myers-Briggs Personality Profiling
- DISC Behaviour Profiling
- Emotional Intelligence Asessments
- Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument
- Belbin Team Role Inventory
… to name just a few.
Claims made by such frameworks range from the promising to the outrageous, pledging to uncover hidden secrets to success and unleash previously unidentified leadership or team potential, often just with the application of a few simple rules. But can these resources really offer any reliable guidance, or are they simply the straws leaders grasp at in a vain attempt to understand the mystery that is their team, their leaders and even themselves?
In fact, very few of these frameworks stand up to much academic scrutiny. Although recognising that different people have different preferences, researchers generally struggle to find much useful behavioural predictability for these preferences. In other words, having a certain preference does not seem to predict a person will in fact act that way. Academics also question the validity of many of the tools, which they argue are poorly researched, lack internal coherence and have poor test-retest reliability, meaning that the same person taking the same test at a different time may not end up with the same result.
Given this unreliability, why does Tirian continue to utilise some such frameworks in our team and leadership development consultancy work? Simply put, if the right tools are used in the right way, they can have immense heuristic value. That is, many teams and leaders over time have found them to be helpful ways to think about leadership, team dynamics and organisational principles which can give demonstrable improvements in employee performance, engagement and effectiveness.
Specifically, these types of frameworks have three main uses in team and leadership development. Firstly, they increase awareness of both one’s self and of others. They facilitate some objectivity which helps leaders see themselves on a continuum rather than as the centre of the universe. It opens up the opportunity to understand differences and to respect them in others. Good leaders even learn to encourage and utilise these differences to create a more effective, heterogeneous team for better results.
Secondly the terminologies used in the various frameworks provide a language for dialogue. They become shortcuts for referring to complex human needs and behaviours, which allows for a richer level of communication without everyone in the room needing a degree in psychology. It means that the time allocated to team or leadership development can then be focused on practical behavioural changes to make rather than talking at cross-purposes while just trying to understand each other.
Thirdly, the popularity of these frameworks gets the critical dimension of human dynamics on the agenda. A 2013 Gallup global survey found that organizations with high employee engagement outperform their peers by 147% in earnings per share, and outperform their competition’s growth trend by 90%, while at the same time finding that only 13% of employees are actively engaged. Unfortunately, many leaders pay more attention to process than to people, and seem unaware of the impact of people dynamics, or for that matter the impact of their own interpersonal behaviour, on the performance of their organisation.
To utilize interpretive frameworks and diagnostic tools effectively in team and leadership development, here are a few principles to consider:
1. Choose wisely: The quality of the frameworks and tools varies enormously, and it is important to choose more robust frameworks supported by research with validated tools. We carefully choose tools for different purposes from the range available which seem to have wide support, enjoy at least some academic support and have a good history of useful application. For instance, with our own soon-to-be-released Leadership Climate Index, we have spent years developing the tool, supporting it with post-graduate studies and spent thousands on validating the online diagnostic tool. This will continue to be tweaked with experience and practice. Be wary of frameworks that offer outrageous claims – if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
2. Use wisely: Frameworks and tools need to be regarded as very loose guides of preferences rather than firm indicators of behaviour. Preferences are like tastes. My children might not like the taste of Brussel sprouts, but much as they might argue differently, that doesn’t mean they can’t eat them when needed. Predictions from diagnostic tools of personal, relational, leadership or career success should be resisted, other claims and promises moderated and pigeon-holing avoided altogether. Far from being ‘stuck’ in a certain category, each individual is continually changing and is always free to choose how he or she responds. In fact, simply understanding a framework is often enough for an aware leader to make the leadership changes required to be more effective.
Our work demonstrates time and time again how dialogue around team and leadership dynamics using good profiling frameworks and tools can be both enlightening and liberating. However, when talked about as a certain set of categories which predict or limit a person’s options, it is both disrespectful and dehumanizing. It simply underestimates the human capacity for adaptability and growth. It must be remembered that these frameworks are descriptive, not prescriptive and, used well, place great power into the hands of the individual – the boundless power of choice.
Lloyd Irwin, a Director at Tirian, is currently completing a doctorate focusing on leadership development, and he has assessed leadership profiling tools as part of this work.