Assessment as Stimulus

Assessment is not the province of HR alone; it’s an essential management discipline.

II have been doing psychological assessment for developmental purposes for over 30 years. Whether the subject is an individual, a couple, a leadership team, or an organization, one thing I learned very early is that results are of two kinds: the reported results of the instrument, and the interpretation of those “raw” results and their implications for practical action. Both are important.  

I have used a wide variety of standardized instruments, and I’ve developed assessment tools, including the first 360° assessment of executive presence. Therefore, I appreciate the technical side of assessment – identifying the questions that must be answered, and the methods and tools that are best designed to answer them. I also recognize that raw results can lie fallow without a rigorous effort to discover their meaning and practical implications for the situation at hand. 

A vital third step in the process of making an assessment process payoff is the need to translate practical implications into action and a sustained course of adaptive implementation. Although action and follow-through are generally prized as virtues in business, it is just these virtues that are often lacking in our use of assessment practices. But let me turn now to the simple theme denoted in my title. 

Framing the Purpose

A thoughtful and intelligent use of assessment methods is guided by a purpose. Examples abound: “We aren’t collaborating well and it’s affecting quality, timely delivery, time-to-market; what’s wrong?” “This team is not working together as a team; what’s going on?” “Jane will be facing new challenges in this stretch assignment, so how do we support her and mitigate unnecessary risks of failure?” 

These are important business questions. They frame issues we need to better understand in order to take action on. In each case, the variables involve human behavior – the ways we think, feel, act and interact with others. That is, we believe there are behavioral variables of performance that significantly affect attitudes, motivations, and action. And as we frame issues in this way, we’re admitting that we’ve tried to address the issues and solve the problems, but we’re missing something. 

There is an issue, a history of struggling with it, perhaps some lessons learned from experience, but a problem remains. And it’s not an academic problem; it’s a problem that has consequences for our business. The sooner we are able to arrive at this insight the better. Why? Because it’s not just a matter of efficiency, solving the problem sooner. Frustration grows when, after numerous efforts to solve the problem, the problem remains.  

Stress and anxiety grow. Attitudes become more negative. People are worn down by the frustration. Fatigue sets in. Management can be questioned – are their goals realistic? Recognizing and facing the fact that we are stuck sooner averts this deterioration of organizational morale. Timely, adaptive solutions bolster resilience: “If at first we fail, we can usually figure things out if we take a step back, assess the situation, and try again.”  That is grounded confidence!

Ground confidence and resilience mean that we are not so easily discouraged, and we are less inhibited about admitting that things are not working out as we want them to. Is that the way things work in your organization? 

Making Results a Stimulus

Results of the assessment indicate patterns, tendencies in thought, feeling, action, and interaction. It’s normal for most people to look for the good and bad or the positive and negative meaning of these results. But that is judgment, and, at least initially, it’s best to suspend judgment, to set it aside while replacing it with curiosity: “How might these results be relevant for me, for us in this situation?” “Are there some impressions and possibilities that arise, some hypotheses?”  

One reason to have an outside expert available when interpreting results is that they have less of a vested interest, they’re less inclined to rush to judgment. They’re able to help those for whom these data are most important explore their meaning and practical implications. Someone skilled in this practice confronts a rush to judgment quickly, in a way that shifts attitudes in a productive direction. It’s this quality of processing the data that generates their stimulus value.   

This quality of mind loosens our attachment to ego needs to justify or defend ourselves. It places the focus on future possibilities for adaptive action. And as a few key insights emerge about how best to halt negative patterns of behavior and what we need to do differently, minds open, possibilities abound. We find ourselves at the wide end of the funnel, able to converge toward agreed-upon actions steps more quickly.  

Give Change Time to Work

“We do not learn from experience, we learn from our reflection upon experience.” John Dewey

Don’t expect too much too fast. Look for the changes in behavior that you believe will enable improved performance. Recognize that there is often a lag time between taking action and honing changes in behavior, on the one hand, and realizing consequential changes in business results, on the other hand. There is a need to trust the process. One way to accelerate learning and validate the efficacy of changes sooner is to frame your first implementation as a pilot. It signals expectations for learning and adaptation. Periodic feedback provides additional stimulus events, which prompt reflection. 

In this way, assessment as a stimulus become a normal part of the adaptive change that any company in the 21st Century must rely upon if they are to not merely survive but thrive!