Come with me in a thought experiment to a gathering of university students. They are from many different institutions, public and private, geographically distributed, large and small. The students are given the following instruction:
“Raise your hand if you have taken at least one assessment to help you better understand yourself.”
What percentage of students will raise their hand? My experience says over 60%.
Now imagine the group was comprised of college graduates, with at least two years of experience on the job. Once again, the group is diverse, covering all business sectors, large and small companies, with wide geographic representation.
The group is asked the same question. What percentage will raise their hand? My experience says over 80%.
Now imagine a follow-up question, to both groups:
“How many of you are benefiting today from the results of the assessment(s) you have taken in the past?”
What percentage will raise their hand? My experience suggests less than 10%.[i]
If you are doubting my survey results, ask yourself the same two questions. My guess is if you are honest, you will admit you have taken multiple assessments, but you aren’t benefiting practically from them today. And if you are, you probably know you are the exception.
Obsessing about Assessing
According to a 2015 Harvard Business Review article, 76% of organizations with over 100 employees use assessments for aptitude and personality as a part of their hiring process. And that number is rising. It may be as high as 90% today.[ii] The higher you go on the org chart the more likely assessments will play a role in the hiring decision.
Should we be so obsessed with assessments?
My answer is yes. But only if the information increases self-awareness and is used in ways that bring practical benefits over time.
Self-awareness is the primary gateway to self-leadership. To lead yourself, you must understand yourself.
Self-leadership is foundational and universal. It is foundational because all the leadership capacity you develop will rest on top of your ability to lead yourself. It is universal because it applies to everyone and no matter how high you go on the org chart it can never be delegated.
If you can’t lead yourself, don’t expect others to follow.
Self-awareness is simply being honest with yourself, about yourself, and honest about yourself with others. People with high self-awareness understand who they are, what they do best, and where they have gaps. They know how and when to share this information with others.
People who lack self-awareness negatively impact the performance of a team by lowering decision quality (36%), limiting cooperation (46%) and increasing conflict (30%).[i] Studies show self-aware leaders are more successful and more likely to be promoted. Some research suggests self-awareness is the single greatest predictor of leadership success.[ii]
It’s not hard to convince people of the importance of self-awareness. We can all translate data into experience with the names of people we know, whose low self-awareness negatively impacted a relationship or the performance of a team. Keep in mind, it is much easier to spot low self-awareness in others.
You can’t grow self-awareness by thinking harder.
Sending a person into a coffee shop or conference room with a note pad and pen for a few hours expecting a breakthrough in self-awareness is an exercise in futility. To grow your understanding of yourself you will need to engage with outside resources. That’s why millions of people have completed assessments for personality, strengths, leadership style… and the list could go on.
Doing an assessment is not going to set you apart from others. Putting what you learn about yourself into action will.
Why do so few people translate assessment information into action? There are many possible answers to this question. Here’s my top four.
The Top Four Reasons Assessments are not Applied
1. The Inoculation Effect
I’ve had the same conversation with hundreds of different people. It goes like this.
“Have you ever engaged an outside resource to help you better understand yourself?”
“What part of ‘you’ was the resource assessing?”
“My personality.” (At least that’s the most common response, but it could also be strengths or motivation or style or something else.)
“Which tool did you use and what did you think of the results?”
“I’m not 100% on the name of the tool, but I do remember the results were pretty accurate.”
“OK, never mind the tool, tell me more about the results.”
“Oh, I don’t really remember much about the results. I could probably find the report if I looked hard enough. I do remember it was pretty accurate.”
This is a classic example of the inoculation effect. A person takes an assessment, agrees with the results, and then as if they had been inoculated from a disease, they set the information aside and rarely think about it again.
In my experience, the more rigorously validated the assessment, the more charts, graphs and techno-jargon in the report. The information is “pretty accurate,” and it seems to make sense in the moment. But few people have the natural inclination or ability to translate data from the report into actionable steps that grow their self-awareness over time. I’ll explain more about why in reason 3 below.
Our team of Identity Profile Self-Awareness Tool (IPSAT) certified coaches engage with leaders, often with decades of experience, who retake assessments they have already done in the past, not because they believed the results were wrong or are wondering if they have changed, but because they can’t remember the results or find the report. That’s the inoculation effect at work.
2. The Silo Effect
When we engage with multiple assessments measuring different aspects of our identity, we end up staring at reports with different formats, designed by different organizations. The subliminal tendency is to assume my personality, strengths and skills (or whatever we’ve assessed) are separated, siloed from each other, without meaningful interaction.
When you think about it logically the silo effect doesn’t make sense. But that doesn’t stop us from developing a compartmentalized view of ourselves or eliminate the struggle to figure out how to bring the information from the different reports together into a meaningful whole.
A metaphor I’ve found helpful is the chemistry of identity. Imagine the various aspects of you as test tubes that are poured into the beaker of your life where they organically bond to form your unique identity molecule. That’s a much better way of understanding who you are. But it doesn’t come naturally, and it rarely happens without some outside guidance.
3. The Ownership Gap
Almost all assessments start with you responding to a list of questions and end with a computer-generated report based on carefully developed algorithms that have been validated with lots of users. That’s why we usually believe the report was pretty accurate.
But there is a difference between agreement and ownership.
People tend to own what they help create. And responding to questions on the front end of an assessment isn’t perceived as the co-creation of the results, even when the report appears to be accurate. This is exacerbated by assessment techno-jargon. The inoculation effect compounds the ownership gap.
4. The Feedback Gap
There are two aspects of self-awareness, internal and external. Internal self-awareness increases when I better understand who I am, what I’m good at, and where I have gaps. External self-awareness increases when I share what I’m learning about myself with others who know me well enough to provide feedback.
John Ortberg said, “The truth about you, is you don’t know the truth about you.” I would add that you never will, until you are willing to invite others into the conversation.
In my experience people tend to associate feedback with performance. And we accumulate negative experiences where others told us we didn’t measure up. At least that’s the kind of feedback we remember the longest and makes the deepest imprint on our emotions. So, it is understandable why there is a general reluctance to seeking out feedback about our identity (who I am, what I do best, where I have gaps).
Even when we attempt to solicit feedback about the results of an assessment the people we ask are often unfamiliar with the information.
“The report says I’m an ENTJ. What do you think?”
“I did this thing called the Enneagram, and it says I’m a 3.”
“My top strength is WOO.”
OK, I’m exaggerating to make my point. But only a little. The fact is that the highest-level shorthand results for most assessments includes techno-jargon that is hard to explain. And most people who could give us feedback don’t understand it well enough to feel confident doing so.
Putting Assessments To Work
At nexleader our focus is helping people discover, optimize and unleash their potential. We decided the best way to accomplish this goal wasn’t the development of a new assessment, but rather a process designed to help people apply what they learn about themselves from other assessments. We call our process the Identity Profile Self-Awareness Tool (IPSAT). It is built on the following three principles.
1. An integrated model: The Identity Profile™
The five components of your Identity Profile are your personality, strengths, skills, passions, and values. When you visualize and reflect on the components of your identity and how they work together, it diminishes the impact of the Silo Effect.
At the core of your identity is your personality, strengths, and skills. This is the primary engine of capacity you will use to add value to others, be productive at work, and contribute to the common good.
Your skills are not more important than your personality or strengths. But there are two important differences. First, your personality and strengths are inherited. Whatever combination of nature and nurture produced your personality and strengths, you didn’t play a role in selecting them.
Second, your personality and strengths are generally static. Once you understand your personality and strengths, the goal isn’t to change them, or exchange them with someone else. Your increased self-awareness should guide you to lean in to who you are, understand your personality and develop your strengths.
Skills are developed through deliberate practice over time. We do have control over which skills we practice and how much time we invest in the process. You will make much better decisions about the skills you choose to develop if you understand and build on your personality and strengths. This is important because you will need a growing and evolving set of skills in your toolbox as the circumstances and opportunities change around you.
Moving out from the core of your identity is your passions and values. We don’t get to choose our personality and strengths. We do get to choose our skills. There is a sense in which our passions and values choose us. Or we could say, we choose our passions and values because they choose us.
If you meet a person passionate about an issue or cause and ask where the passion came from, they will almost always tell you about life-shaping experiences they’ve had that served as a trigger. Similarly, the reason some values become so important that we describe them as core to our identity is usually because we’ve had experiences that brought these principles to the surface and increased their importance. We choose the passions and values that choose us.
2. User Created Identity Statements
One of the reasons people treat assessments like a vaccine that inoculates them from the need to apply what is learned is the lack of ownership resulting from computer generated statements. We’ve designed a guided discovery process of self-reflection and coaching that helps individuals harvest the most meaningful information from a bundle of assessmentsconnected to their Identity Profile and translate it into statements they create.
You don’t really understand your identity until you can explain it concisely using common language that would make sense to anyone, even if they’ve never heard of any of the resources that helped you discover your identity. Here’s the five user created statements included in the IPSAT process:
Identity Overview: this is a 100 word or less statement that explains what happens when the five components of your identity profile work together in your life. Go back to the chemistry of identity metaphor. Imagine the most meaningful, common language words or phrases from each of your five pre-IPSAT reports (about personality, strengths, skills, passions and values) were poured out of test tubes into the beaker of your life. Then imagine yourself taking those words or phrases and arranging them into a 100 word or less statement.
If I was attempting to guess your personality profile, top strengths, skills, values and passions, I should find clear clues in this statement.
Best Contribution: this is a 50 word or less statement explaining how your identity positions you to add the most value to others and make the best contribution to a team. Identity self-awareness should produce confidence and clarity about what you bring to the table in relationships, at school, at work, in life.
Developmental Priority: this is a 50 word or less statement focused on the highest return on investment growth opportunity you have discovered from better understanding your Identity Profile. Part of being honest with yourself, about yourself, includes facing up to where you have gaps and what to do about it. Remember, your growth posture is not an attempt to change or exchange your identity. It prioritizes developing the parts of your identity that have the most latent potential, including how different aspects of who you are can work together to make you even more effective.
Potential Derailers: this is a 50 word or less statement explaining how your identity naturally predisposes you to self-defeating attitudes or behaviors that could sabotage relationships or derail your leadership. There is a balcony and basement side to your identity. The balcony is you at your very best. That’s the focus of your overview statement. The basement expression of your identity is actively conspiring against you and if it’s ignored long enough, it will derail you.
Vulnerable Settings: this is a 50 word or less statement describing the situations or environments, in which your potential derailers are even more likely to surface. Potential derailers answers a how question. Vulnerable settings answers a where or when question. If you know how you are likely to be derailed and where or when it is likely to happen, you are better positioned to proactively design a mitigation strategy.
3. A Coaching Conversation
We’ve discovered that most people can create a working initial draft of these five statements without outside help. But everyone benefits from the opportunity to reflect more deeply on each of the five components of the identity profile and how these big ideas can best be translated into identity statements. A conversation with an IPSAT certified coach becomes a force multiplier that amplifies and activates the process of upgrading the five identity statements.
Common Language Statements for Practical Application
Self-awareness is being honest with yourself, about yourself, and honest about yourself with others. The first step in growing external self-awareness is disclosure that invites feedback. IPSAT coaches ask questions that produce thoughtful reflection and prepare the person-being-coached to more confidently invite feedback from others.
User created, common language statements developed from understanding your identity are more powerful than the techno-jargon results of each assessment, even if you remember them. These statements practically summarize who you are, what you do best, and where you have gaps.
The five identity statements can readily inform your LinkedIn profile, clarify your resume, prepare you for a job interview, and simplify how you introduce yourself to a new team. They help define your personal growth plan and protect you from falling into a derailer ditch of your own making.
The goal of this process isn’t to memorize the five statements. Though you may want to keep them in a visible place on your desk and refer to them often. The goal is to use these statements to drive practical outcomes over time. And if you are ever on the receiving end of this question, “How many of you are benefiting today from the results of the assessment(s) you have taken?” your answer will be an enthusiastic yes!
. . .
[i] I’m extrapolating from hundreds of conversations with students, student development officers, and newly hired workers. This is not the result of a scientific poll.
[i] Tasha Urich, Insight, pg 51, Crown Business, 2017
[ii] A 2009 study by the business consultancy Green Peak Partners and Cornell University examined over 70 executives in several different industries, and cited by Michael Hyatt at https://michaelhyatt.com/podcast-self-aware/?transcript.
 We have chosen the 16Personalities version of MBTI for personality, Clifton Strengths Assessment, a skills inventory, a Personal Values Inventory, and My Passion Profile.