Discussions around leadership development sometimes come down to what kind of psychological tests their employees should be taking. Tests that would tell who has what it takes to be a leader. There is a big problem here—you might not be getting what you are looking for.
In general, when considering psychological assessments, we tend to talk about the two main categories—feedback-based assessments, such as 360-degree appraisals, and personality tests. None of them will tell you whether you have leaders on board.
Leadership is not a cognitively-behavioural process. It is a phenomenologically-affective one.
Feedback needs to be put into context
While feedback-based appraisals can be a good way of challenging one’s view of themselves and helping a person understand how others see them, we still need to know that their capacity to tell us whether someone has the potential to become a true leader is extremely limited.
Using feedback-based assessments in isolation of any other source of information could even be damaging. For instance, a person that strongly believes their behaviour is appropriate for a particular situation may have difficulty accepting sudden feedback summing up how others see them.
Someone who is highly sensitive to criticism—which we tend to find a lot of higher managers are—might feel shamed and rejected. They may resort to anger, frustration or withdrawal.
Why? Firstly, everyone thinks they are doing their best in a given situation and behaving optimally for that situation. Challenging them on how they act, interact, behave or think could be hitting up on their psychological defences head on. And this will usually not solve a problem but make it even worse.
Another issue with using feedback to assess an employee occurs in organisations where conflicts are present.
Conflicts will skew feedback results and decrease their reliability.
This is often evident when we are considering feedback that peers or superiors are giving to an employee.
Take for instance an executive director in a large corporation who reports to one of the board members. When assessing leadership skills of this particular executive director, the results might be substantially skewed by the fear and threat that the board member may be experiencing in relation to the executive director. Maybe they are feeling threatened by the huge amount of competence or influence of their subordinate. And the fear may even be worse precisely because the executive is an effective leader, who is running a devoted and productive team.
You can see how feedback of the executive director’s reports will say much more about his or her leadership potential than will the feedback of his or her peers or superiors—people that might feel threatened.
So, when relying on feedback in assessment of leadership, we need to look at the results partially and within the context of the organisation. Relying on them blindly may turn our well-intended efforts into damage.
Personality traits say little about leadership and even less about one’s potential to change
Another form of employee assessments that we may come across when assessing leadership are personality assessments. Assessing someone’s personality traits in order to see whether they have the leader in them is just as illusory as using feedback.
Personality traits will tell you very little about leadership potential if you assess them outside the context of working environment, professional relationships, personal ambition and other important professional needs of the individual.
Attempting to connect personality traits with leadership potential is a shot in the dark. Leadership is much more of a phenomenological and internal process than it is a cognitively behavioural one.
Leadership is about utilising skills such as knowledge, intellectual and emotional capacity in order to relate to others rather than manage them. A leader will, amongst others, be determined by how they stimulate the sense of purpose in their team; how they secure the perception of nonthreatening working environment, promote sense of protection and the experience of safety; how they promote trust and manage the cohesiveness of the team; whether they have the trust of the team in reaching the goals together; how the leader advances their employees professional ambition and career goals; whether the leader is perceived as a potent individual, one with the ability to handle situations in a grounded, reasonable, respectful manner and without engaging in psychological games.
All this makes leadership much more than a set of skills one can learn. It’s about a set of values that one needs to adopt experientially—as a being.
I guess the most important thing one can do before they assess their leaders with psychological tests is to think about what they want to get from the process. There is no ‘one solution fits all’ here, but there are a lot of traps to be mindful of.