Voodoo Science a Useful Tool or a Trigger for Therapy
I think I was in my second year of work post-university, and the company I worked for offered a class for anyone interested in learning about their “social style.” I remember most of my peers laughed and joked about what they thought was another useless class from the training group in our Human Resources department. For me though the whole notion of getting to understand myself better in a brand-new way sounded fascinating. I couldn’t wait to find out what my social style was.
The prework for “class” was all on paper, with those little bubbles you filled in with a pencil. I hated those forms because the side of my hand always got covered with graphite dust. Worse yet, by the time I was done, I had inevitably smeared it on my shirt and pants before I remembered to wash my hands. Ah, the good old days. As I started coloring in my bubbles, I quickly got a sense of where the questions were leading and how they kept circling around the same topic in different ways. I was tempted to guide the results to what I thought was the right answer, but I was truly interested to see what my results really were. TLDR - as it turns out, I’m “people-oriented” and “tell assertive” …. a total shock to all who know me.
As I read through the description of my “Expressive” style, I was amazed by just how accurate it felt. I felt seen and understood and loved the strengths listed for my people. All of us in the class wrote our names on the big poster to indicate where we ended up on this model. There were only a couple of us “down and to the right,” and it felt cool, especially as I reread our strengths and interests. These are some good people right here, I thought.
Now let me explain. I’m a social science major. In school, we read books, lots of books and wrote papers, and discussed theories. The notion of a four-quadrant model was somewhat foreign to me, and worse, I had no idea there was a good place to be on these bad boys. Those of you who had classes in the other buildings and mostly didn’t write long papers for grades are smirking right now.
To say my bubble burst when I saw that virtually every senior manager in our company was in a different quadrant than mine would be an understatement. Worse, they were above me. Those guys (all but one) were “high and right.” I was not. There was not a lot of talk about “there are no good places to be on this model,” or at least I don’t remember that there was. They undoubtedly intended to make us all feel good about where we ended up, but I was traumatized to see I was not in the same grouping as our management team. This didn’t look or feel good. Now in retrospect, I am sure many people coloring in the prework bubble saw where this was going and gamed their results, or they had been clued in by fellow “manager types” about where you wanted to come out on this assessment. No one told me dammit. This began my fascination with and deep suspicion of these “personality and style assessments.” Note - these aren’t tests; they are assessments … they said.
As the arc for my career became clearer and clearer, I knew I was far more interested in people than doing actual work. Don’t judge. I was fascinated by people’s interactions, tendencies, and willingness to engage in moments of self-awareness. I was quick to see who seemed to work best and in what situations, who got incredibly annoyed with whom, and why. This was absorbing stuff for me, and over the years, more and more of these assessments were popping up that purported to help people learn how to understand themselves better, their bosses, and teammates. After going through dozens of them myself and becoming certified to deliver 4 or 5 of the most common ones used in corporate America, I have to say I do find them valuable tools.
As you are likely aware, this is not a universal conclusion. There are skeptics everywhere who pooh-pooh everything, and many people HATE feeling like they are being “put in a box” … even though good facilitators are taught to emphasize again and again that this is NOT about putting people in boxes. I do have to say however, it would help their argument if program designers stopped using boxes in their models.
IN many cases, the best facilitators of these tools, not coincidentally the ones we have at EngagedLeadership (humble brag), have experienced the same “quadrant trauma” that I did and are darned careful to present and apply these tools for good and useful purposes. As much as I find assessments useful and am a strong advocate of using them for individual and team development work … I have to admit there is a lot of art and unquantifiable science baked into these tools.
You know I love to Google (to be clear, I do not love Google, but I do love: Googling, Googlers themselves (most of them), and owning a smidge of Alphabet). Doing a quick search on “Why is MBTI wrong?” returns you to 4.5 million hits and lots of experts quick to tell you what the tool doesn’t consider, why it isn’t predictive of success (if you weren’t aware, MBTI is short for Myers Briggs Type Indicator and is a very common style assessment in the workplace). The deniers talk about validity and consistency and cultural bias and psychometrics … frankly I think they have some valid points.
After two decades of observing, working, coaching, and teaching a variety of human beings from widely diverse cultures across the globe, I believe in the overall value of these tools.
Here is why we often use these assessment tools in our 1:1 Coaching and Team Development work.
Presented and explored skillfully, they absolutely can:
- Give a person useful insights into their preferences for thinking, deciding, interacting, communicating, resolving conflict, dealing with stress, etc., etc.
- Explain how others approach the same situations quite differently yet often just as effectively.
- Illuminate your blind spots and a team’s blind spots, and help you consider alternative data and perspective.
- Suggest ways of understanding and working with others who have very different preferences.
There are many assessment tools out there today; to me, some seem more useful than others (probably just my style preferences). Properly used, most can help participants learn new approaches that absolutely can be more effective than their current set of beliefs and ways of interacting. At EngagedLeadership, we don’t use any of these tools as the answer or a gold standard. We try very hard not to suggest anything more virtuous about those who are “high and right” or in any other particular “box” in a model.
Again and again, I have seen that those who are most successful navigating through the human experience possess the ability to understand their own tendencies/preferences and combine that with the ability to skillfully adapt to those they work and live with.