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Mike Cooney

Righttrack Consultancy

Director

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Personality profiling – a pigeon hole in disguise

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There are few activities in the learning and development world that have a more consistent and broad appeal than personality profiling questionnaires or psychometric tools.  The profiles of which reveal how we engage, communicate and manage. The results come in different forms. Belbin Team Role, for example, uses labels such as Shaper or Team Worker, others like DISC or MBTI use sets of initials and quite a few use colour coding.

Personality profiling questionnaires and psychometric tools are widely used as recruitment tools, as well as in preparation for a training programme or actually during a course. They enable participants to explore and understand themselves and others. In our experience when individuals read their profile results the majority will be heard to say how uncannily accurate they are. However, to gain maximum benefit most people need time to explore and discuss their results with someone else; preferably someone who is trained and proficient at managing that process.

But – and there several ‘BUTS’ – all personality profiling tools must be used with a strong dose of responsibility and caution.

One BUT is that they can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some people hang on to the most prominent ‘label’ the profile gives them and live up to it permanently. “I couldn’t possibly think of preparing a spreadsheet, I’m a ‘Yellow’. Give me a chance to have some banter and a bit of a laugh anytime – attention to detail just isn’t my thing!”

This perpetuates and the message is sent that only ‘Yellow – friendly’ work is OK for this individual. However, when a profiling professional is on hand to help individuals to understand better their primary and secondary strengths, they are encouraged to recognise that with a little focus and effort they can utilise additional skills and behaviours. People then tend to be more flexible and not so constrained by a single-minded attraction to one characteristic and the behaviours associated with it.

Personality profiling has another BUT…

It is not uncommon for people who are not properly introduced to the questionnaire to attempt to answer questions in a way that may just give them the results they think they ought to have, for example, to fit the role they are applying for or to show the presumed attributes of a good manager or leader. However, the only result is that these individuals shy away from acknowledging who they really are and from learning to leverage their strengths. Some careful feedback from a coach or someone who knows them well can turn this situation around.

And the final BUT… 

It is the responsibility of the recruiter, trainer or HR manager to ensure individuals receive a sensitive and thorough feedback session. Done successfully individuals can make great progress. Neglected and the individual can be permanently affected, just like Melissa.

Melissa, a qualified management accountant, attended a management development programme with two of her work colleagues. All three had just been promoted to line management roles in different parts of their media business. They had been identified as rising stars and the employer chose to send them on an external course to gain experience and mix with people from other businesses. The first day started well and they were all soon into completing a profiling questionnaire as part of a group of 10 people on the course led by one facilitator.

The feedback report to Melissa pointed to her being predominantly ‘Green’ with a preference for being non-confrontational, having a high attention to detail and being task-oriented. She recognised those characteristics but also saw that she had a good deal of assertiveness and people skills in her secondary scores. When it came to debriefing the profiles, the group split into pairs and Melissa found herself receiving feedback from an individual with rather strong views and a very dominant communication style. This individual took little notice of the approach the course facilitator described to them.  With his personal conviction of always being ‘right’ he proceeded to explain why the profile revealed that she was totally unsuited to a management role and that she was sure to fail in it. It was not an exploratory conversation; more of a rant and the programme facilitator, who was busy talking with another pair, heard nothing of this. 

Melissa felt wounded by the feedback, and having heard that a very close family member was very seriously ill only the day before, she was not in the best state of mind to deal with this. Having dried her tears she went on to complete the next two days of the course in something of a daze.  Now, some six years later, she can remember the bitter experience as though it was yesterday. Fortunately, she recovered from the knock her confidence suffered and has now, having proved herself as an excellent manager, moved to a more senior leadership role.

How could this have been dealt with differently? Well, the facilitator could have taken more care in matching the pairs. He could have spent far more time on coaching the group to be capable at exploring each other’s profiles. He could have taken care to look out for those who were less likely to be competent at feedback and supported them better during the process. He could have had more competent and practised professionals do the task he gave to the course delegates.

The Melissa story is not that rare and it is a stark reminder to those who use these profiles to ensure that the feedback is managed carefully.

Conclusions

Profiling tools are a fantastic ‘starter for ten’. People like them and they are very effective at increasing self-awareness and developing emotional intelligence.  They provide a point from which to explore and discuss strengths and identify overdone strengths, as well as to consider the impact of these on themselves and others.  They should encourage us to think bigger not smaller.  As facilitators of such tools it is important that we never lose sight of that and actively challenge delegates where labels are being used to restrict and justify behaviour.

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Mike Cooney

Director

Read more from Mike Cooney
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