What can assessments tell us about who we are? It’s complicated.

Does your year-end or year-ahead planning include a staff retreat with team-building activities? Terrific!

Does your team-building plan include using an assessment tool that illuminates people’s strengths, learning styles, or other interpersonal aspects? Also terrific. Maybe?

Well, yes; terrific.

And, it’s worth giving the activity some careful thought in advance, setting some ground rules for how you’ll approach the work and then use it within your group or organization afterward.

First, a little background.

One of the concepts that took root during the Progressive Era and exploded to become a still-expanding industry sector of its own is the field of psychological assessment. From those early 20th century intelligence tests and vocational evaluations to the current rage of EQ and enneagram, assessments are big business. Guiding everything from school placement to career paths, assessments can be great personal and professional development tools, helping us to understand ourselves, our preferences, and strengths better, and to live more fully into our unique human purpose.

Generally speaking, assessments are designed to help people understand their own behavior, thought patterns, and interpersonal styles. When the U.S. entered World War I, for example, recruits were assessed for intellect and emotional range before they were placed in roles.

By the Second World War there were more than 4,000 published assessment instruments, and the Wechsler-Bellevue Intelligence Scale was introduced. By the 1960s and 70s, assessments were increasingly commonplace at universities and corporations alike.

The innumerable assessment instruments available today range from validated, research-based tools to copycat hacks and social media polls. The language of assessments is so familiar in our everyday interactions that it’s not uncommon now for people who are newly introduced to compare notes on their enneagram results (or something similar).

Used to support making connections and strengthening relationships, assessments can be fun and can facilitate ongoing personal growth. They can invite insights that lead to positive behavior changes, and they can help facilitate ongoing learning and personal development that leads to growth.

What’s critically important to remember, though, is that assessments are information, not diagnoses. It can be easy to misuse them, overemphasizing their conclusions on the one hand, or absorbing a resulting label from them without following through to actively learn from what the results tell us.

A great example of a commonly-used assessment is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).

Developed by a mother-daughter team to help people understand their own patterns of behavior, MBTI has been used on college campuses and in Fortune 50 companies alike for decades. This collection of letters can go a long way toward helping people understand their personality preferences and the preferences of those around them. That understanding can, in turn, strengthen the relationship over time, whether that relationship is collegial or personal.

The ultimate purpose of learning one’s Myers-Briggs type – whether that’s ENTJ or ISFP – is to gain insight from the information about patterns of thinking or behavior. For example, someone whose results are categorized as ENTJ (extraversion, intuition, thinking, judging) may have a new way of looking at their preferences for interacting with other people.

As a team-building activity, assessments can play a positive role in building workplace culture. But how they’re handled makes all the difference between whether they’re beneficial or detrimental, restorative or divisive.

An important consideration is remembering that the categories or designations revealed through the assessment are simply information. Using them as labels or determinants does a disservice to the instrument and an injustice to the person taking the assessment.

This misuse is where assessments (in general – any type of assessment) can often go off track, even with the best intentions. People enjoy practicing new skills and using new information, and the language of an assessment can be fun to play around with, especially when it’s new.

But saying something as innocent-seeming as “Mary is *such* an ESTJ,” defeats the purpose of using the information to bridge connection. Taking that example one step farther, it’s great for Mary to use her new information in describing herself and her preferences but unhelpful and inappropriate for a colleague to turn it into a nickname or other label.

Setting ground rules before the group embarks on the work will help avoid the labeling trap and underscore the importance of peer respect and psychological safety that lead to team-building. Similarly, having a carefully thought-out plan for how the assessment will be administered, discussed, and used (or not used) after the group activity will help reassure participants that leadership recognizes the potential landmines as well as the potential benefits of doing the work.

Last, but not least, consider how you will select the particular assessment you’re going to use, who will facilitate the activity, and what you’ll do for ongoing work.

Has the assessment been normed across a wide range of cultures? If there are participants who are not native English speakers, is the assessment available in their native language? Is the facilitator certified in the assessment process and experienced in leading a group? After the retreat or activity, who within the organization will be responsible for continuing the work, if there is an ongoing use planned?

What will you need to do to prepare the participants in advance – particularly if there are trust issues? Who will guide the discussions in an exercise or retreat and afterward? What will the ground rules be, who will set them, and how will they be honored during and after the meeting? What will you need to do to establish and communicate a clear and intentional path ahead that incorporates the learning for long-term team development?

If all of this is starting to sound more complicated than expected, then it’s worth considering whether or not the assessment activity will truly contribute to a positive experience for the team. If you aren’t prepared to do the work that’s connected to using an assessment, then you’re probably better off skipping it, and doing a one-time team-building exercise instead.

In summary, assessments can be terrific tools for self-discovery, professional development, or team building. Careful planning and pre-work can ensure that the activity supports building an inclusive workplace and culture of growth and development. Embarking on the work with the expectation that it’s ultimately a way to support learning, relationship building, and shared understanding, a team retreat with an assessment activity can be an enriching experience for everyone.

Jennifer Balink is the executive director at Kindred Place, a community resource for parents and families. As a relationship coach and mom of two college-age children, she is passionate about bringing empathetic leadership to the challenges of work, parenting, and family. Jennifer is now a frequent contributor to StoryBoard, and this is her second under her new Yes; and… column.

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