The role of self-awareness assessments in the workplace

So what’s the case for self-awareness when it comes to the world of business? The latest research on the subject has even revealed that self-awareness can help leaders more than an MBA can.


By: Jocelyn Fryer

So what’s the case for self-awareness when it comes to the world of business? It certainly seems to be emerging as the latest buzzword on everyone’s lips from Forbes to Inc. to The Harvard Business Review The latest research on the subject has even revealed that self-awareness can help leaders more than an MBA can. Some might say, and as Matt Tenney, author of Serve to be Great and The Mindfulness Edge, has emphasised in his motivational work, greater self-awareness is proving to be the one commonality among exceptional leaders in the workforce across the globe and in varying sectors. One comprehensive study undertaken by Green Peak Partners and Cornell University examined 72 executives at public and private companies with revenues from $50 million to $5 billion, and in fact found that “a high self-awareness score was the strongest predictor of overall success.”

As the saying goes, it’s no good judging a fish by its ability to climb a tree. Perhaps since realising the folly in their ways, companies are now beginning to look beyond simpler matters of training and experience, and into more complex matters of the human mind and behaviour so as to better enhance working environments and play to the strengths of their employees. As such, assessment tools that highlight the personality strengths and weaknesses of applicants and current employees, alongside their core work values, are becoming more and more common practice in the workplace. So here’s where you come in. Self-awareness is first and foremost an ‘inside job’. And while it may at first seem the easier solution to crib your way through the various assessment tests to try and land the position you’re after, ticking the ‘right’ boxes as you go along, you can’t ultimately crib your way to career satisfaction and performance. Do that, and you may only end up feeling like that fish fresh out of water with nowhere to swim upstream. So why not take the plunge and begin by exploring the big, wide world of assessment tests from the comfort of your very own home? Most tests will instruct you not to dally too long from question to question. Deliberating over choices in a questionnaire often leaves one leaning towards what might appear to be the ‘ideal’ option. Essentially, it’s important to keep in mind that there is no right or wrong answer, only the one that feels best tailored to you. In the pursuit of self-awareness, honesty really is the best policy. The exercise is designed to be a constructive one, whereby you can learn, with time and practice and, of course, self-reflection, to make conscious and deliberate decisions in your career path rather than reactionary ones.

There are a few different tests which may be worthwhile to try out:

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) might be a comfortable place to start. This test was developed during WWII by two housewives (Katharine Cook Myers and her daughter, Isabel Briggs, naturally!) with a keen interest in the works of Carl Jung, the renowned Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. While neither Myers nor Briggs had any scientific training, they did have good intentions, striving to provide a test that would do its bit for world peace and help women find careers better suited to their personality types in the workforce.

In more contemporary psychological circles, however, it has since received some weighty criticisms. For starters, many feel it does not take into context the variability of certain aspects of the personality in its strongly bimodal approach. For instance, you are either typed as an introvert or an extrovert, whereas psychological insight has found subsequently that most people situate themselves moderately in the middle on this scale. Another example is that you are pitted as either predominantly ‘thinking’ or ‘feeling’, for instance, where history tells us that a great many thinkers have dedicated their pursuit of knowledge in the interest of a deeper feeling for humanity. Beyond this, in her research for The Cult of Personality Testing, Annie Murphy Paul discovered that alarmingly “as many as three quarters of test takers achieve a different result when tested again.” Ultimately, perhaps, the most glaring indictment in the limitations of the MBTI given what we now know from current cognitive research is that each and every one of us are far too unique and complex to be summed up by one of 16 potential personality types. That said, it’s still commonly used in many companies today so, until it’s phased out altogether, surely there’d be no harm in dipping your toes in the water with this one. You can try out this similarly modelled test for free online here. Of course, you’d be wisely advised to give the results of this particular personality assessment as much credence in terms of drastic life decisions and career moves as a spookily accurate palm reading.

The Big Five personality profile

Stuck with the outdated model of the MBTI that for all its popularity had no actual proven foundation in science, independent teams of psychologists set to work over the last half a century to hopefully build a better one with sounder, more reliable and consistent results. Over time, they developed the Big Five based on the five personality traits that emerged most predominantly as core factors across a variety of cultures all around the world. These are namely: extraversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness. Rephrased, the Big Five that serves as the core basis for most personality tests spells the acronym OCEAN (openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism). Beyond proving as powerful indicators in predicting job performance and team effectiveness, researchers in the new field of personality neuroscience have even begun mapping the Big Five in relation to regions in the brain. Taking it one step further, The HEXACO Personality Inventory has added a sixth trait to the big five, namely: honesty-humility (the H-factor), citing its exclusion as a major oversight. This one is where you’ll have to get your hands a little dirty, so to speak, in terms of answering the kinds of questions that often we’d all too readily rather avoid, such as whether or not you are prone to be a ‘worrier’ or quick to anger or irritation in a given situation. No one said the pursuit for greater self-awareness was going to be easy. Here, you might even want to share your results with someone who knows you well, someone you trust to be honest (but not intentionally hurtful) in their response, such as a spouse or close colleague.

We all have ‘blindspots’, as they’re commonly known in psychological circles, oftentimes creating a marked difference from how we are perceived by others in comparison to how we perceive ourselves. Internal self-awareness can only go so far if we do not work equally at developing external self-awareness, as Tasha Eurich, organizational psychologist and author of Insight, emphasises with the four self-awareness archetypes here.

The Hogan Personality Inventory

We may not like to admit it but our reputation can play a key role in limiting our advancement within a company, and it’s with yet another prominent assessment test, the Hogan Personality Inventory, that we truly turn over to the dark side.

Two decades ago, Robert and Joyce Hogan developed what they believed to be 11 dominant “dark side” traits that when taken to the extreme bore the closest resemblance to the most common personality disorders. The “dark side” traits are grouped into three overriding clusters, namely:

“Distancing” personalities

The characteristics in this category include cautious, excitable, leisurely, reserved or sceptical.

The “seductive” characteristics

Traits like bold, colourful, imaginative or mischievous are in this category

The two “ingratiating” “dark side” traits of diligence or dutiful

Having profiled millions of employees, managers and leaders, findings show that generally, most display at least three of the eleven “dark side” traits. While studies would suggest that it is very difficult after the age of 30 to radically alter aspects of your personality, it’s not so much about eliminating them as it is about becoming more aware of how they might play out if we do not manage them and keep them in check. Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. A ‘reserved’ employee can be beneficial to a team endeavour by staying calm under pressure. This would be regarded as a strength, by all accounts. However, the “dark side” of this trait can often come across as insensitive or uncommunicative to fellow co-workers, and in such hinder a team endeavour.

So in essence, the Hogan Personality Inventory suggests that our particular strengths in the workplace might simultaneously intrinsically share a shadier manifestation we need to be mindful of. For further reading on the subject, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, breaks it down for the Harvard Business Review, begging the question, Could Your Personality Derail Your Career? If you’re unable to recognise yourself in any of the 11 “dark side” traits, beyond registering online to do the test, Chamorro-Premuzic suggests that perhaps even more effective might be to approach others in the workplace from your subordinates to your bosses to your peers, openly and with “candor,” outlaying your objectives and express desire for a better working environment for all.

In the pursuit of better optimisation when it came to teamwork, Deloitte went beyond this and developed a system known as Business Chemistry. They wanted to focus less heavily on personal introspection and move towards a better understanding of the primary work styles in more effectively accomplishing shared goals. With the assistance and insight of biological anthropologist, Helen Fischer, of Rutgers University, and Princeton molecular biologist, Lee Silver, they developed and refined their assessment with three independent samples, each sample comprising of more than a 1000 professionals. Their findings were that each of us is a composite of four work styles, with individuals more closely aligned in the workplace towards one or two of these styles. In a nutshell, a better understanding of these four styles helps us to anticipate where certain work styles might sometimes clash, while simultaneously appreciating that in fact each work style is crucial to the bigger picture. The four work styles are namely: Pioneers, Guardians, Drivers and Integrators. If you’re pragmatic and value stability, then the Guardian style probably factors strongly in your approach. Alternatively, if you’re more comfortable with risk-taking and value possibilities, then you’re more likely aligned with a Pioneer style. It’s easy to imagine how these two styles might often come to loggerheads with each other. However, understanding the core values of each style helps to create a common language in the workforce to better understand the importance of each of the four styles. For more insight, you can read further on the new science of team chemistry here.

Holland Codes/The Holland Occupational Themes

While personality tests may be a good way to highlight your strengths and weaknesses in terms of your core personality traits, you may still find yourself floundering like a fish out of water if you simply haven’t found the right fit. This is where career aptitude and work value tests can prove to be extremely helpful in highlighting the kind of environment in which you are more likely to thrive and ultimately, the fields in which you might best pursue your ideal vocation.

One particularly prominent career aptitude test was developed by psychologist, John L. Holland, and is known as the Holland Codes, or the Holland Occupational Themes (RIASEC). RIASEC is simply the acronym for the 6 personality types that, in their varying permutations, give a clearer sense of where a person might find better career satisfaction. The 6 personality types fall under the categories of the following: Realistic (Doers), Investigative (Thinkers), Artistic (Creators), Social (Helpers), Enterprising (Persuaders) and Conventional (Organizers). By scoring the various types in accordance with your answers, there are 720 possibilities within this test, each represented by the acronym it receives, such as ISERAC or AIRSEC. Generally though, the first three letters of the acronym in the result are considered the most important, as the acronym you receive is ordered from those personality types that scored highest to lowest. For instance, if you scored high in the personality types of Investigative, Artistic and Social, depending on how each scored your three letter acronym could be IAS, AIS, SAI or SIA. The point of this exercise is to give you a clearer sense of where you might find optimal career satisfaction. As it stands to reason, someone scoring highest in the Social ‘department’, for instance, will only be miserable stuck behind a desk all day recording data ad nauseam and no amount of self-awareness is going to change that.

So now that you’ve got a better idea of the general career options that might be better suited in terms of your core personality, a closer examination of which work values truly matter to you can help to steer you in a more specific direction. The work values inventory, such as the one you can take for free here, is based on the theory of career anchors by Dr. Edgar Schein at MIT, alongside the theory of basic human values by Dr. Shalom H. Schwartz. Fourteen dominant work values have been identified, namely: Autonomy, Creativity, Variety, Structure, Self-development, Influence, Work-life balance, Financial reward, Security, Prestige, Performance, Working conditions, Work relationships and Altruism. Of course, contrary to personality traits that are generally unlikely to alter radically over the years, work values are worth revisiting from time to time. Where creativity and altruism may remain constant as values that are important to you, others, such as security or work-life balance may become more important if you are planning to start a family, for instance. So here, really, it’s about making sure your career path is working for you. If work relationships emerged as an important work value for you, and you find this to be lacking, a drastic career move isn’t necessarily your only available option. It might be better to approach your boss with helpful suggestions, such as introducing casual Friday. Beyond this, if you have decided to make a career move, be more proactive about the positions that are available to you. Again, to use the example of amiable work relationships, show up early for an interview and use the time to observe and get a clearer sense of how colleagues converse and interact within the company. If altruism is a work value that matters to you, do extensive research on a company to get a clearer idea of their overall mission statement before walking into an interview ill-prepared.

Get a life coach/therapist

The greater path to self-awareness is long and at times, arduous. There are personal exercises you can perform in your spare time to better aid you in your quest such as the five outlined here. A life coach or therapist can also prove a valuable investment in this process. In the overwhelming field of life coaches it would serve you well to do your research and be wary of wolves in sheep’s clothing whose qualifications don’t really extend much further than being born with the gift of the gab. You’d be better advised to seek the assistance of a qualified therapist, as their qualifications fall within a stringently regulated area of expertise. While clinical psychologists can be quite costly, counselling psychologists are more affordable, with a minimum consultation fee of around R500 to R700 per hour session. While clinical psychologists specialise more in the management of serious mental health issues, a counselling psychologist would probably be a better fit as a qualified companion on your journey for greater self-awareness. While it may seem a costly expense all the same, regular sessions with a counselling psychologist can often be the best solution in getting to the why of your behavioural patterns so that you can begin to cognitively work on them and ultimately remove those ‘blindspots’ that may have been holding you back, all in a relaxed and confidential environment.

In the end, the simple truth is that it’s going to take time and a great deal of effort. But as the great Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, once said, “Mastering others is strength, but mastering yourself is true power.”

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