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ATD Blog

3 Common Mistakes Leaders Make When Choosing an Assessment

Friday, May 20, 2022

The 500 or so hours of video that are uploaded every minute to YouTube include a somewhat small category that can be labeled as “wrong tools, right results.” Those who upload these videos are examples of MacGyver wannabes who show that you can drive in a nail with a screwdriver or make a putt with a driver.

In leadership development, however, using the wrong tools seldom ends in the desired results.

Most executives, of course, don’t intentionally pick the wrong tools for training their employees. But when it comes to assessments, it’s easy to pick the wrong one without realizing that it’s not made to do what you need it to. Even if you adhere to the adage that anything can be fixed with duct tape (if it moves and shouldn’t) or WD-40 (if it doesn’t move but should), you still need to know which one to grab during a crisis.

To determine the right assessment for your situation, avoid these three common mistakes:

1. Confusing behavior and personality.

Some leadership development assessments measure behavior, while some measure personality types, and a rare few measure both. Many leaders mistakenly apply those assessments as if they measure the same things, but the most common and misleading mistake is using a behavior assessment as if it’s one for personalities.

Many behavioral assessments trace their roots to William Marston, who not only created the comic-book character Wonder Woman but, along with his wife, developed an early version of a lie detector machine. As a psychologist, Marston described four behavioral patterns based on how people perceive their environment (favorable to antagonistic) and how they respond to their perceived environment (passive to active).

Based largely on that model, many assessments place people in one of four quadrants, typically labeled as dominance, influence, steadiness, and compliance. These types describe how a person behaves based on their perception of external circumstances, but they don’t address a person’s intrinsic motives.

The underlying theory for the behavior model suggests that the results should change as circumstances change. Personality assessments, on the other hand, measure a set of enduring, stable characteristics that aren’t primarily due to the environment. Treating a behavior assessment as if it’s a personality assessment gives you a false understanding of who you are and why you behave in certain ways in certain situations. Behavior in any given role or situation cannot be generalized to the whole-life domain of personality.


2. Using a single-label assessment in a multifaceted world.

Just because someone’s personality involves enduring, stable characteristics doesn’t mean people will feel and act the same way in all situations. But many personality assessments result in a type that supposedly holds true all the time. These assessments create the false idea, for instance, that you are an introvert or an extrovert, when, in reality, everyone is sometimes a bit introverted and sometimes a bit extroverted.

It may be convenient to label personality types as “this” or “that,” but the reality is that all personalities are a blend, and recognizing the blends helps prevent stereotyping.

Single-label assessments also don’t account for the predictable ways personality is represented differently when things are going well versus when there is conflict. Choosing an assessment that accounts for both conditions provides a more realistic view of what motivates people and drives their behaviors.

3. Choosing easy and popular over valid and useful.

The most obvious example of this mistake is the enneagram, which is easy to take and popular in some circles but isn’t based on science and is useful only if someone looks at the results in a way that causes them to make some improvement in their lives.


Some scales on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) also can fall into this category. While it’s one of the most popular assessments and can be useful, many researchers challenge its validity.

The MBTI is based on the work of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who introduced introversion and extraversion as the most important basis for personality types. But Jung explained that extraversion could be balanced by introversion, and he claimed the “perfect adaptation” or goal of personal development was to integrate psychological functions equally and not have a type. Forcing a four-letter type, as the MBTI does, is not consistent with Jung’s theory.

Even a popular and valid assessment tool, however, can be unhelpful when it comes to making a positive impact on how people treat one another. The labels used by some assessments, for instance, are hard to remember or the insights are difficult to apply in positive ways in work settings.

Choosing what’s easy and popular rather than what’s valid and long-term useful is a waste of time and money.

The right assessment, of course, can provide invaluable results for individuals and an organization. The sweet spot is to find an assessment that accounts for personality and behaviors, measures personalities as a blend and accounts for predictable changes during conflict, and is easy, valid, and useful.

Trying to force an assessment to meet a need is like trying to use duct tape to loosen a sticky bolt. To get the results you really want, you need to find and use the right tool for the job.

About the Author

Tim Scudder has spent most of his professional life studying and teaching about personality and working relationships. As a principal of Core Strengths since 1995, Tim has played a lead role in developing assessments and curriculums based on the ground-breaking work of the firm’s founder, acclaimed psychologist Elias Porter. Tim has written or co-authored several books, articles, and training resources, including Working with SDI 2.0, Have a Nice Conflict, and The Leaders We Need.Tim frequently is a featured speaker at conferences, association events, and workshops on topics such as strengths, motivation, teamwork, leadership, and change management. In addition to his leadership role at Core Strengths, he consults and facilitates with clients, specializing in work with high-potential leaders, improving the relationship awareness of organizational cultures, and linking human development functions to organizations’ financial health. His clients have included IBM, CME Group, USC, GEI Consultants, Microsoft, and Twitter.

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