From Reading Tea Leaves to Personality Profiles

Diagnostic Tools

From Personality Profiles to Reading Tea Leaves: the role of diagnostic tools in leadership development.

Personality assessments are regarded by some as little more than fortune telling – and yet they are still highly popular. Is it safe to use them in the workplace?

Last issue we described how popular diagnostic frameworks, like MBTi and DiSC, are used as mechanisms for understanding the elusive human dimension in the workplace. However, we also outlined that many such frameworks and their respective tools are poorly regarded by some academics for failing to predict how a person behaves. We then explained that Tirian still uses carefully selected frameworks in our team development and leadership coaching work because they have proven heuristic value when used well. In this issue we recommend our approach for the useful application of such frameworks.

Specifically, these types of frameworks have three main uses in team and leadership development:

1. 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. This 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

For more details about profiling, samples and a full comparison table of DISC, MBTI and HBDI profiles please visit this link.

Lloyd Irwin, a Director at Tirian, is currently completing a doctorate focusing on leadership development. Lloyd has assessed leadership profiling tools as part of this work.

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