The Zen Paradox of Psychometric Assessments

By August 17, 2015Article

Psychometric assessments have become a multi-billion dollar business today. Nearly every organization uses them in hiring and promoting. They are especially favored as part of a strong L&D program to help customize development programs for individuals by identifying where each person is lacking skills and competences. Assessments like the MBTI allow us to size up an individual’s key style of thinking and interaction—useful to know who they may work with best. Other personality assessments such as simulations give us a window into an individual’s values, motivations, and behaviors so we can assess how they handle difficult situations, how well they work under pressure, how they interact with other people, and whether they are real leaders or followers.

Our experience at SyNet is that such psychometric assessments are useful…but only to a point where they are no longer useful. It’s a sort of paradox that must be appreciated in the same way that you appreciate a Zen Buddhist koan.

We agree that one must be able to assess people using proven scientific methods, rather than relying solely on gut feeling, intuition, or subjective perceptions. Psychometric assessments can provide measurable ‘data points’ and reveal valuable insights about people that cannot be gleaned from CVs or the interview process.

Nevertheless, we suggest that the assessment world is missing a key point: the competences of management and leadership today have changed and are continuing to evolve rapidly. The “leaders of tomorrow” –to adapt the phrase from renowned psychologist Carl Rogers’ concept of “persons of tomorrow” — need a deep level of psychological literacy that cannot be measured, at least not through existing psychometric assessments. The combination of skills, insight, knowledge, and orientation to action to deal with a complex world have moved into new territory.

Assessments may have worked as part of the old culture of leadership selection and development, where problems could be reduced into simple components, and individual competences could be identified and matched to each problem. But the world today is far more chaotic, unpredictable, and integrated, requiring leaders to possess a wide range of judgment, experience, empathy, personal motivation, and wisdom—all of which are unmeasurable because they are inseparable elements of who people really are in the real world and what we expect from them as leaders. In other words, there is a “holistic” quality to the leadership competences of the future that is essentially invaluable to develop while at the same time, not worth trying to measure.

All in all, we see psychometric assessments as falling behind what organizations need to do today to manage talent and improve the capacities of their people for the real world of the future. The implication of this is critical. Rather than spending time and money on more and more psychometric assessments, we see a far greater benefit if organizations devoted their resources to learning initiatives that develop all their people to become mindful, thoughtful, and self-reflective leaders, each of whom has a stake in the success of the company and recognizes the need to bring the best they can to the table. We need to stop using psychometric assessments as the be-all-and-end-all of how we develop leaders, and focus instead on educating the hearts, heads and minds of all our people.