"Beyond personality assessments: What the coach can learn about patterns of behaviour and their implications" by Lynne Hindmarch (guest)

The purpose of this blog is not to defend or promote the use of assessments in coaching.  Lots of coaches are very successful without using them at all.  What I am interested in sharing (and debating) is:

  • How they can be used

  • What they can teach the experienced practitioner about patterns of behaviour.

In my first introductory piece I will discuss what we mean by psychometric assessments, give some examples of ones that are appropriate for coaching, and show how coaches can deepen their understanding of behaviour by using assessments.

Psychometric tests are designed to measure differences between people.  The term covers both ability tests and personality assessments.  I will focus on personality assessments in these blogs, as ability tests (such as verbal, numerical and abstract reasoning) are not generally used as part of a coaching programme. Examples of personality assessments that are frequently used in coaching are: the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, the16PF, the OPQ, and NEO (which will be discussed in more detail in my next blog).  They are different to most of the free tests that can be accessed online in that they have to meet certain technical criteria in the way they have been developed.   They must be:

  1. Reliable (consistent across time with different people and different applications),

  2. Valid (measure what they say they are measuring),

  3. Free from bias such as gender and race, and

  4. Standardised to minimise human error and bias.

This is why access to psychometric assessments is only provided to people who have been trained in their use.  Training involves learning about the technical and statistical underpinning of the assessments, and how to feed back the results to the client. 

Using a personality assessment allows the trained practitioner to form hypotheses about the client’s behavioural style, and that is what is explored in the feedback session.  Basically, the assessments form the framework for a good conversation; the focus of that conversation will be determined by the purpose of the coaching, such as personal development or career exploration. 

Coaching as a goal-oriented activity

Early in a coaching programme the coach is likely to ask the client in some form: ‘Where are you now?  And where do you want to be?’.  There are different ways to explore where a client is now, such as gathering biographical information, and using a model such as the Wheel of Life.  Using a personality assessment (or a combination of assessments) is an additional approach to help raise the client’s self-awareness, and help the coach better understand the client.

However, my interest in the benefits of using personality assessments is rather more than that.   Many coaches train in assessments once they have qualified with a coach training institute, and personality assessments are viewed as an additional tool in their kitbag. 

My own experience is somewhat different.

I was first trained in personality assessments over 25 years ago, and had been using them extensively for a long time before I became involved in coaching, team building and coaching supervision.  In fact my route into coaching was through the understanding of behaviour, and patterns of behaviour, that using personality assessments had provided.  I started working as an associate for a major outplacement consultancy, using assessments (at that time mainly the 16PF and the MBTI) with redundant senior executives.   The feedback conversation usually focused on:

  • What their behavioural style meant in terms of organisational ‘fit’,

  • How they would approach the job search (interview style, networking inclination, commitment to the process), and

  • Career implications.

I found the process of giving feedback, and the interaction with the client, absolutely fascinating.  The consultancy allowed a generous amount of time with clients: an initial session lasting about 2 hours, enabling me to obtain biographical information and administer the tests - paper and pencil in those days!.  This was followed a week or so later by a 3 hour feedback session, providing a good amount of time for me to explore the implications of the results with the client.   These sessions were, in effect, mini coaching sessions.  From this, I was asked to take on actual coaching programmes, particularly in the area know as emotional intelligence, still using the assessments as an initial part of the coaching relationship.   As this part of my practice developed, I took further qualifications in coaching and coaching supervision.

The point of this description of my route into coaching is this: one of the exciting things that a lengthy experience of using personality assessments can give the practitioner is a deepening understanding of behaviour, and patterns of behaviour.  These can provide insights that feed into the coaching goals.  The opportunities for the coach to learn more about people’s behaviour are presented every time he or she carries out feedback.  Using assessments in a development setting, the client is more likely to be open in discussing the results than when it is used in selection.  The alert practitioner can learn a lot from each feedback meeting.   Each discussion can yield rich information about how the client ‘lives’ the profile.  Over time, this depth of understanding can provide great insight into how behaviours impact on each other, and what that means in the way the individual manages themselves and their relationships.   

For example, what does it mean for the coach if a person is low on self-discipline, is emotionally resilient and is also a conceptual thinker?  I can tell you as I saw such a client recently.   I’ll call him Peter.  It was the first time I’d met Peter, as I was profiling him for his coach, who isn’t trained in psychometrics.  I analysed his personality assessments before I met him, so I knew it was likely that he would be late for our session (he was).  He was late because typically he doesn’t plan ahead (so he hadn’t allowed time for parking), has a positive outlook (so doesn’t factor in negative possibilities such as traffic delays), and is absent-minded (likely to mislay his car keys).

This is a light-hearted example, and of course this pattern of behaviour has much wider implications.   But the point is that a depth of understanding of personality assessments can provide the coach with insight into the client’s behavioural style, with implications for how the client is likely to interact with the coach and the coaching programme and clarify what their development needs may be in relation to their coaching goals.  In the example I gave above, the feedback to Peter on these particular aspects of his behaviour included discussion about the positive aspects of his creativity, flexibility and generally upbeat outlook, and also how those around him might perceive these in a negative light on occasion: he might come across as having somewhat eccentric, unrealistic ideas, not following through on commitments, and overlooking or ignoring potential difficulties.  

I had contracted with Peter to share the results with his coach.  I was able to share with her that Peter was likely to be effective at coming up with imaginative options for addressing his coaching goals, but one of the coaching challenges would be to help him break down his ideas into practical steps that he could work through.   Planning his goals and the steps to reach them would also be helpful in encouraging him to focus and organise himself more effectively.  His positive outlook is likely to help him in believing it is possible for him to achieve his goals, but may mean he underestimates the difficulties along the way.

Over time, as one’s understanding of personality increases, it is fascinating to be able to observe just one aspect of a person’s behaviour (without using assessments) and see how a pattern may emerge. Let me share some other examples,

  • If you note that a person is ideas-oriented rather than practical, they may be imaginative but also absent-minded, accident-prone and unrealistic. (They don’t generally like DIY. You wouldn’t trust them with a hammer.)

  • Observing that a person doesn’t plan very much suggests that they may be flexible and adaptable, and also disorganised, last-minute, and only motivated to complete something if they really enjoy it.

  • Those who have a positive outlook may be cheerful and upbeat and may not be aware of drawbacks and may take risks.

This is just to provide a taster of what I plan to cover in future blogs.  I will be working through other examples of behavioural clusters, exploring what they mean from the perspectives of the person giving the feedback, the client, and the coach.   The purpose is to share insights I have gleaned over the years into the subtleties of behaviour, and how observing one aspect of behaviour can provide an understanding of associated characteristics.   That is the really fun bit!

To connect with Lynne Hindmarch:

Business Psychologist

Business Psychologist

Organisational Behaviour Consultancy


email: lhindmarch@obc.org.uk

mobile: 07977 129955.