Assessment as Vital Engagement

What stands between assessment and development is vital engagement. It is a thoroughly relational phenomenon. Subjective and intersubjective dimensions of experience bring the data to life. It opens us to a process of discovery, which includes painful moments of reckoning with one’s vulnerabilities and self-limiting tendencies – which block growth and adaptive learning. But it also discloses reasons for hope and fuels our courage and motivation to assert developmental action.

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Vital engagement is a qualitative state of mind and social-emotional interaction that does not usually arise without certain facilitating conditions created by design. When those conditions are present, the assessment experience can become the occasion for rich insights and an invigorating stimulus for transformative change. When they are lacking, we teach people to expect little from assessment, perhaps even to become cynical about the possibility of making change.  

I shall briefly characterize some of the well-researched conditions that promote vital engagement. Of course, any such “best-practice” recommendations are only as good as the qualitative results they produce. That means that we must approach our efforts to facilitate vital engagement with the end in mind, with readiness to observe how the other is responding to our efforts. It is these observations that will guide our execution of best practices, sometimes prompting a pause to process what we are observing.

Conditions for Generating Vital Engagement

Creating the conditions for generating vital engagement is the mutual responsibility of the expert service provider and the individual he or she is seeking to help. The primary burden of responsibility, however, falls upon the expert at the outset. In the service of brevity, I share the vital few factors that research and experience tells us matter most:

1.     Reason for the Assessment – Clearly framing the purpose and relevance of the assessment in advance is important, but doing so when presenting the results is even more important. This means getting beyond the ostensible or formally stated reasons for assessment. The question now is, why should the client care? Answering this question should give client and provider reason for taking the data to heart and looking for practical relevance and implications for action.

2.     The Relationship – Credibility, competence, and trust are what distinguish the relationship as a holding space for development. It’s about more than the knowledge and skill of the professional; it’s also about the interpersonal dynamics – attitude, sensitivity, empathy, and positive intentions. Even more telling is the capacity to tolerate moments of strain and conflict, and to use them constructively. When manifest, these qualities disarm defenses and make candor and exploration possible. 

3.     Joint Interpretation – The emphasis here is on getting the client actively involved in the work of analyzing and interpreting the results. The client must feel a sense of authorship before he or she is able to feel ownership of interpretations and the motivation to act on their practical implications. It requires their involvement from the outset, setting expectations (“it takes two to tango”), assigning preparatory work, and providing tools that empower them to play this role.

4.     Self-Efficacy – This means bolstering the client’s belief that he or she can make change, even if it may not feel “natural” for them. “Natural” is very often code for “familiar” and comfortable. Change requires risk-taking. Self-efficacy consists of three elements: a) clear understanding of the issues, and their relevance and mechanisms of cause; b) knowing that there are proven strategies for solving the problem; and c) believing that one, with support and practice, can effectively deploy such strategies.

5.     Follow-up with Feedback Providers – Until we appreciate the value in following up with feedback providers and take action to do so, we limit the likelihood that our efforts at change will be noticed, well received, and encouraged. When they are noticed and register with those for whom they are intended, we’re viewed more positively. Our influence and efficacy grows. We effectively transfer the relational dynamics of development beyond the professional relationship into the workplace.  (Applies to multi-rater and 360 assessment.)   

The reader will readily recognize, as we review them, that these conditions are a potent catalyst for creating vital engagement. What we can just as quickly see is that creating these conditions in practice requires more than the mechanical enactment of so-call best-practice procedures. We must approach our work as providers with a high degree of mindfulness and care.

These conditions interact, co-mingle, and become real through the dynamics of the relationship. So, although the professional member of the relationship has a disproportionate duty to structure the dynamics at the outset, the responsibility is shared – it truly does take two to tango. This implies a need for the professional to make room for the client to assert his or her role and to encourage him or her as they do so.