ASSESSMENTS IN COACHING: HELP OR HINDRANCE?
By Jan Austin, MCC
A number of behavioral, communication style and emotional intelligence assessments have been widely used by organizational consultants and coaches to inform their work with organizational leaders. The MBTI, which was developed around WWII, helped the military deploy personnel in accordance with their “psychological type”. Today, well-meaning organizational consultants and coaches employ assessments to support increased communication effectiveness in high-potential leaders, or to intervene when a leader is derailed, a team’s conflict diminishes trust and productivity, or when a merger demands rapid decision-making around individual and team assignments.
The frameworks offered by assessments can help to create a shorthand way of describing an individual’s typical or preferred way of responding to the demands of his or her work environment and how the individual prefers to approach job assignments and work with others. Increasingly, behavioral style and personality assessments are used to inform selection decisions by hiring managers. When used wisely and in conjunction with other data points for decision-making, assessments can provide a useful perspective.
But is all this assessing a good thing? Can a good thing be carried to the extreme, producing deleterious consequences in the process? Perhaps so…
One problematic consequence of over-reliance on information from an assessment is that it can create rigid views of individuals and cast a shadow on their perceived capabilities. Similarly, assessment information might contribute to diminished individual responsibility with an individual defaulting to his or her assessed “style” as a reason to avoid responsibility in certain circumstances. For example, individuals with quieter, more introverted stylistic tendencies may conclude that they aren’t cut out for leadership roles because they observe that many of those in leadership roles have more extraverted styles.
Others may use their assessment results to justify their aggressive behavior with co-workers: “This is who I am and they need to understand that.” One worry this author has about this outcome is that individuals may see an assessment as the basis for informing others how to communicate with them rather than using the information to inform their choices and responses in the spirit of increasing their communication effectiveness. These unfortunate outcomes can be mitigated by a thorough individual or group assessment debriefing by a well-qualified coaching professional that focuses on how the assessment results can enhance self-awareness, awareness of others and awareness of adaptive strategies to improve workplace communication.
Ideally, the results of any assessment would be positioned as simply a sample of behavior. As such, it doesn’t provide a complete picture or define a person’s qualities in total. Nor is it conclusive evidence of a person’s capabilities. What we can say is that an assessment provides a picture of tendencies and preferences, either of which can shift in the context of specific circumstances (such as heightened stress) or unusual job demands, but that may be predictive of how an individual may choose to typically respond in normal circumstances. Most importantly, whether or not the information from an assessment is personally meaningful and useful, as well as how the information can be applied, is in the control of the individual. The best coaching supports the deeper reflection and grounded thinking that leads to informed choices and increased effectiveness.
Perhaps the most affirming thing we can say about assessments is that they represent tools that can be used for predicting preferences or tendencies as opposed to establishing firm conclusions. As coaching practitioners, we need to always ask ourselves how an assessment can serve our clients and their possibilities and potential. We need to use language that is suggestive rather than conclusive, and we need to honor and respect the individuals we serve for their ability to make choices and take responsibility in their work and lives. In this way, we can support our clients to reap the full benefit of assessments.
Jan Austin, MCC, BCC, is an organizational coach, author, and leadership program facilitator who specializes in leadership excellence. She is a UTD Executive Coaching Program Faculty member. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.