Avoid the Assessment Sideshow

There is a new human being born every minute. Think of it this way:

Jo is one of your most promising managers. She spent last weekend at the country fair, spinning on rides, munching cotton candy and taking in a sideshow that identified her “true” personality. It was all fun and games and not to be taken seriously.

This week Jo spent a few days in a business offsite as the newest member of the marketing team. This high-profile event included coming up with new business strategies, dining on conference food and participating in a consulting firm’s questionable personality test as part of the team-building section. 

It was a company event, and how it labeled Jo’s personality had implications for her self-esteem, how her team now regards her and, potentially, her career prospects. 

 This where the fun and games end and talent management leaders need to take the personality sideshow seriously.

 I’ve seen some well-researched, reliable and productively used personality assessments, but lately the business has exploded into a three-ring circus of hokum being peddled out there. Often these instruments have as much value as today’s Facebook pop-up personality app (“Which Disney character are you? Oh, I’m Elsa and there’s Olaf over there.”). 

 I’m OK with that as fun and games outside of the workplace, but I advise leaving the sideshow out of your organization. At best, these types of personality assessments are misleading, and at worst damaging to individuals and the credibility of your company’s talent practices. 

On the surface, all manner of sideshow personality assessments are seemingly well received. “Yes, that really is me and helped me understand you better.” Yet, upon further inspection, the instrument is poorly constructed, unreliable and invalid.

 How is that possible? 

 It’s called the “Barnum Effect” in the world of industrial psychology, with a nod to the 20th century circus showman P.T. Barnum, who said that there is a sucker born every minute. It refers to the phenomenon that occurs when we read something like a horoscope or flimsy personality test and think the description rings true for us. Even through the description equally applies to very different people. There is enough to like about the profile that we think it’s true.

 As with the adverse impact to Jo, a poorly constructed instrument becomes the language of the organization, and if you don’t have the right style, you are on the outside looking in.

So our profession needs to step up and protect our talent against such flimsy, inaccurate and unreliable assessments that invade our organization — even if many of them seem interesting or entertaining. 

 We need to become educated a bit on the world of assessment and the tests of validity and reliability. As consultant and thought-leader Marc Effron advocates, we need to differentiate marketing claims from proven science by asking for the proof.

If the “research” is vague, missing independent validation or specific testing in your specific circumstances, you may be engaged with more of a “Barnum clown” than a true professional partner.

 Ask any provider for the technical report. That’s the sine qua non of an assessment — how well it predicts things like performance, promotion and other important talent management measures. Without a technical report with these sorts of correlations, any assessment — even a seemingly sound one — should be called into question. 

I recently encountered such a shady sideshow hawking assessments based on fingerprints.  Yes, fingerprints. When confronted with the question of proof, this throwback to Phrenology cited a vague, largely inaccurate reference to a late Harvard professor who had nothing to do with the assessment as well as a handful of old articles from unknown third-world journals. Needless to day, it was a stretch to call that evidence.

 Finally, cultivate a trusted working relationship with an objective expert in the field of assessment. These folks do enjoy reading the technical reports and can make sense of what instruments are truly valid and what is circus cotton candy.  

 And please don’t get me wrong. I like cotton candy and being entertained when I am at the circus. But I don’t want that in my workplace. Neither should you. 

(c) 2016 Kevin D. Wilde