Despite the title of this post, I believe that assessments can and do play a valuable role in many aspects of organizational life from leadership self-assessment, recruitment and selection decisions, developmental activities, and team-building support to name but a few. However, a couple of recent experiences that I've had an opportunity to be involved with also point out the perils of improper positioning and utilization of these very same assessments. The consequences of such can lead to hiring the wrong candidate for a role, reinforcing poor leadership or team behaviors, demotivating (rather than motivating) performance, and impacting the credibility of organizational effectiveness and development efforts for the organization overall.
There are a number of factors to consider and methods to utilize to get the best out of the vast array of assessments available to you as an individual and as an organization.
One. Understand your organizational context. Nothing exists in a vacuum and you may up against past (poor) history of how assessments have been used before. There may also be current cultural circumstances getting in the way of the validity and credibility of the assessment results. This came home to me recently when I was informed - perhaps from one person's perspective - that many raters might have "fudged" their input to a 360 assessment. This was ostensibly done out of concerns of confidentiality, anonymity and fear of retribution. What organizational leadership - and I - underestimated was the degree to which a culture of fear and distrust was operative in the environment. The clear outcome was far less useful and impactful data for the person receiving feedback. This then directly impacted on the quality of a leadership development plan.
Solution: Honestly evaluate the climate your are introducing an assessment process into. This may even lead you to conclude that an assessment process should not be initiated. Be clear about the limitations you are working under at the beginning of the process. Proceed cautiously.
The bigger solution: In this case, there was clearly more work required to develop a climate of safety, trust and open communication in the organization. In this case, we would have been better off to do some larger and heavier lifting before proceeding with an assessment.
Two. Understand (clearly) what you are trying to get out of an assessment. Too frequently organizations, HR departments, or leaders become enamoured of a particular assessment and fail to understand its limitations. Assessments - and there are a multitude out there - are designed with specific ends (and foundational philosophies) in mind. Be cautious of your own biased experience with them. One size does not fit all. Ensure that all stakeholders are clear about why and how the assessment results will be used. Keep aligned with that agreed upon focus. In the past, I have been particularly disturbed to have seen an assessment instrument initiated within a framework of professional/personal development later used as part of a performance evaluation process!
Solution: Use the right assessment for the right reason, ensure clarity of purpose on the part of all stakeholders, and stay focused.
Three: Recognize the limitations of any particular assessment. However, impactful any one of us may find the insights of an assessment it is only data not answers. It is only one piece of data. For the very same reason that best practice would never suggest an interview panel of one or simply relying on the quality of a cover letter to select the next leader, I would similarly recommend holding up the assessment results up to thorough scrutiny and balancing that data against other information you may have.
Solution: Don't rely on a singular source of data to draw conclusions - about others or yourself. Proceed with caution. Seek corroborating data.
Another solution: Aside from looking at past performance and related data you could consider use of more than one assessment. Depending on your need, you may find that two or more assessments together provide a better complementary mix of information for your purpose. People are complex machines and may need a variety of lens from which appropriate conclusions can be drawn.
Four: Guard against your biases. Much like reading the daily horoscope - if you are into that - we all run the risk of looking at assessment results without understanding our own filters and biases. The result - we look for what we want to see and find it. So as the person being assessed if you already strongly believe something about yourself, whether positive or negative, it will be there. Likewise for HR personnel or leaders critically evaluating potential leadership candidates, new hires or team members.
Solution: Be prepared to challenge yourself and your preconceptions. Whether you like or dislike the results of an assessment consider the opportunity/challenge. Watch your biases. Be aware of your filters.
Five: Get a proper debrief of the assessment results. Far too frequently I see individuals and organizations that fail to get/provide a proper - or sometimes ANY - debrief on an assessment that they have put good time and money into. Sometimes this is driven from a cost perspective. Other times it comes from a misplaced sense of our own intellectual capacity to critically and objectivelyevaluate the assessment results.
Solution: Work with a professional that is both certified and experienced in the particular assessments you are using. Just like any "job interview", critically assess their qualifications and experience. Get references and testimonials. Even test-drive them if you can. Qualified professionals can be a great assist to you in properly using assessments - they can just as easily cause significant damage if not qualified or otherwise suited to your organizational culture.
Six: Be prepared to develop and commit to an action plan. Flipping back to the daily horoscope comparison, and perhaps the shiny-object syndrome, one of the worst things that can come out of an assessment process is NOTHING! The effort that may have been put forward in both in cost and time of participants, which is even higher when considering 360 assessments, should warrant and demand some sort of constructive action plan. If not, then any lessons or insights drawn from the effort run the risk of having to be relearned later or casting aspersions on any future assessment and development activity.
Solution: Commit to a solid purpose and action plan once the assessment(s) are due to be completed. Create supporting structures that will help with action. This may include creating a template for a personal development plan. This may be creating milestone reporting dates for updates to be had with the individual receiving the assessment results. Ideally, you or the organization commit to making the assessment far more than a one-off event. It should fit with the bigger picture of what the organization or you are trying to accomplish. Structure, Structure, Structure. Action, Action, Action.
Seven. Prepare the ground. This could certainly tie into Number One above but as you or the organization prepare to initiate an assessment process do all you can to communicate the purpose and process for the assessment. Address as many questions as you can. Fill any information vacuum that might exist. Make any and all stakeholders true partners in the process. Alleviate fears. Build confidence. Build validity and credibility for your assessment process.
The list above may start to give you a lot of pause as you consider current and future assessments. And maybe that's a good thing. If you become more aware and purposeful in this regard that might in fact be the best outcome. Without that perspective you likely run the risk of fulfilling the fear of the title of this blog post - your results will be far less than they could have been OR they might be far more damaging than you ever imagined.
Creating and sustaining highly functioning leaders and teams is a challenging business. Assessments have their place if used appropriately and effectively. Use them with your eyes and minds wide open
Greg Hadubiak, MHSA, FACHE, CEC, PCC
President & Founder - BreakPoint Solutions