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Managerial Conversations about Identity


Executive summary: The author cautions managers to uncritically accept the labels dished out by the vast range of psychometric instruments on the market. The "label" generated by the test is a function of the test, not necessarily anything more than a construct about me as a person. Tests categorize people on the answers, very few pay attention to the actual process which produced the answers. How you get to the answers is "the telling" part. To get some ROI on the time and money spend in doing the incredible wide range of "psychometric stuff" on the market the author proposes a "reality check", i.e. questions to ask about the labels produced by the test. One question is “under what circumstances is this label true about me?”

In spite of the sales and academic hype about the validity and reality of instruments that describes functions, attributes and preferences of managers, there is reason to be skeptical about its value. The answers on which people are rated and labeled are the mere tip of the ice berg. The important “telling part” of completing the test is in the processes that produced the answer. In ignoring that process, and by assuming that the same answer is the result of the same process, the essential variants that are unique to the person are ignored.

Based on the fact that it is the process not the answer which is important, I would like to raise two ideas:

  • i. “The best a person has ever done on an IQ or EQ test is the minimum that they are capable of.”
  • ii. “The label attributed by the instrument is only valid in certain contexts, and with extreme caution considered as valid in other contexts.” Below are some reasons why.

The Experience

In filling out questions about preferences (which will tell you who you are, or how you function, or what the strength of an attribute is) who of the readers has not had the experience of thinking “when does this apply? When I am home, at work, with friends?” Given the context of doing the exercise people sometimes do restrict themselves to the context in which it is being done, for example, the work situation. But, frequently, one cannot help but wonder about the answer in other times and places. And here is the first clue: if one has to wonder, and consider that “the answer may be different when…,” then the label has to be tested for the range of its validity. When, where and with whom is it still valid?

The Process

Any thinking done by the mind and its tool, the brain, is characterized by an internal sequence of events, or thought steps. Whether we refer to an attribute, or ability, or a trait, we are giving a label to an internal sequence of events that are more or less complex, and more or less predictable. By the nature of these internal processes performance naturally vary over time, as we recognise in professional athletes, and expect in the outputs of managers.

These internal sequences are interwoven with content of outcomes (where does this lead to? What does it produce?), content of values (a standard of judgment: is this right, the best, the truth about what is being asked? Am I doing good?), and content of meaning (a definition of the context, an expectation of the impact or meaning of the results of the exercise, etc). These three variables, to mention just a few, are critical in how one approaches possible answers. The more empowered a person is by these interwoven variables, the more resourceful that person will be in doing the required thinking to produce or select an answer. The question is: does the test accommodate this heightened resourcefulness, or does it go with a hypothetical “average” or even with the myth that “it does not matter?”

The argument is that human skills, intelligence, physical attributes and personality is so enduring and hard to change, that over-generalizing the significance of the results is legitimate. Performance variations, or variations in the external expression of the internal processes of these descriptions, are ignored in the face of research and experience.

In spite of the representatives of the instruments saying with their mouths that these are “just preferences,” their behavior reflect the rigidity of their opinion when they treat a person as the “you are it” and/or when they give advice how to deal with those who are “other its.” The language that characterizes this prejudice is one of “typology.”

Typologies do not accommodate contextual performance and process variations in a person. It therefore creates a very destructive commitment to a partial identity in the believer of the results. Identity is probably the most powerful organizing principle through which people decide to do or not do to, or what and how to respond, thus the need for a reality check on identities implied by the labels resulting from measurement instruments.

The Reality Check

The core assumption is that a person is more than and in particular circumstances very different from, any label attributed to them by any psychometric instrument. A second assumption is that the instrument with all its statistical validity can be questioned in the light of personal experience and personal history.

In order to get some value out of the attributions made by psychometric instruments, below are some questions that are helpful:

  • i. what precisely is the definition of the attribution we are talking about? Would an example be helpful?
  • ii. Under which circumstances, or in what context, is the label attributed to you true?
  • iii. When is the attribution not true? What is then true of you?

It would be wise not to accept attributions from psychometric instruments as statements of ones’ identity. Validation against the experience and history of the individual are vital and compelling.