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Personality Tests in Executive Development: Avoiding Career Derailment



No amount of training can “change” our personalities. Why, then, are personality tests a part of many executive assessments and developmental programs these days?

The answer may lie in the power of self-awareness—a commodity that some would-be fast trackers have in short supply, according to our sources. “At some point in their professional lives, the more successful people have already rationalized why people react to them they way they do,” says Gary D’Lamater, Ph.D., a 20-year veteran of executive education and coaching based in Corrales, New Mexico. “I provide them feedback, but they’ll say, ‘That’s interesting stuff, but I’ve been successful in spite of it.’”

Therein lies the fallacy, however. What they “got by” with in the past may prove to be their undoing in the next position. “Much of my work is done with individuals who are stuck and can’t move or who have been moved up too quickly and are floundering,” says D’Lamater. These are people whose careers are at risk of derailment.

Frank Shipper, Ph.D., is Professor of Management in the Franklin P. Perdue School of Business at Salisbury State University in Salisbury, Maryland. He has studied career derailment, working primarily with validated 360-degree feedback instruments. “Research has shown that poor self-awareness can be related to career derailment, particularly among executives,” he says. “Our studies suggest that assisting managers to see themselves as others see them on specific skills could either prevent derailment or aid recovery. The fatal flaw for would-be fast-trackers, based on our research, is a lack of self-awareness.”

While there is no straight line between personality tests and executive excellence, Shipper’s work makes a very convincing case for providing upwardly-mobile professionals with validated information that shows them how others may be perceiving their attitudes, words, and most importantly, behaviors.

“It’s another lens on the assessment camera,” says Christine Fahnestock, whose 25 years of assessment work has made her a firm believer in the value of personality testing. Fahnestock is president of Fahnestock & Associates in Glastonbury, Connecticut.

Same Skills, Traits May Not Fly at Higher Levels

Fahnestock works frequently with high-potential individuals who are being considered for higher-level positions. “I explain to people that awareness is the first step. It’s even more important for people who are upwardly mobile. In terms of personality tests, they are often very high on adjustment, ambition, and confidence. The flip side is they don’t listen much to input about themselves. They can be full of themselves about what they’re doing right.”

She gives the example of a young female executive who is currently being considered for high-level management. “Until now, she’s been golden. She is so bright and so fast to provide insights. She’s also extremely competitive and has been seen as a star up to now.”

Fahnestock’s challenge is to help her see that some of the personality traits that brought her this far may be her undoing at the next level. “If she goes to the next level, it will be a liability if she doesn’t learn to build strategic relationships. [At the next level] it will be all about sharing in the success of moving this company ahead—not about standing out. She won’t be able to play that card anymore.”

Fahnestock uses a “triangulated” assessment in much of her work, combining behavioral simulations, cognitive testing, and personality tests. “I’ve been amazed at how well the personality tests reinforce what we see behaviorally and cognitively,” she says. “But the real grabber is that the candidates are amazed at how accurate it is. It reinforces their belief in the fairness of the selection and development processes.”

Using 360-Degree Feedback to Improve Self-awareness

D’Lamater thinks that personality tests may have their greatest value for the executive coach. “Personality tests help me understand the person’s motivation,” he says. But to help his clients see themselves as others see them, D’Lamater often uses 360-degree feedback instruments. These surveys are usually based on strictly behavioral observations from bosses, peers, direct reports, and clients, plus a self-assessment on the same questionnaire. They address issues such as a person’s skill in communications, planning, praising subordinates, and other areas for which specific training can be provided.

“I find people very receptive to 360 feedback,” says D’Lamater. “Personality tests show me, as the coach, whether the individual has the motivation and energy to get through the difficult process of changing their behaviors. It helps me find an effective approach to the individual.”

Both D’Lamater and Fahnestock noted that personality feedback can help someone quickly come to grips with their developmental needs. “If a candidate is motivated to succeed, the combined feedback can arm him or her with a level of self-awareness that would be difficult to achieve in other ways,” says Fahnestock. “They get past the idea that they need to ‘give up’ some behavior or that their personalities are flawed.”

“It gives my clients a fuller and more predictive assessment,” Fahnestock adds. “It also allows them to back off from some of the more time intensive and expensive approaches to assessment.”

The message from these two coaches is clear: While personality tests cannot change personalities, they can help motivated individuals change behaviors that impede their career progress. That’s the power of self-awareness in a management career.

Author: Kathleen Groll Connolly writes on a variety of human resources topics and is a partner in Performance Programs, Inc., a firm specializing in human resources surveys and measurement. She can be reached at surveys@performanceprograms.com or 1-800-565-4223.

Date posted: 2/02/03