“You are the Grinch of assessments,” teased a fellow corporate psychologist after I shared the new scales we were norming.
I smiled and asked her if she was investing six figures a year in someone, would she rather know the derailers or the positives?
When we make talent decisions, can we ignore the negative?
I completely get the benefits of focusing on someone’s strengths for the sake of their motivation and development. There has long been an undercurrent towards focusing on positives and allowing people to self-actualize in response to their strengths. Karl Rogers preached unconditional positive regard making therapy feel like a nice warm bath. Steve de Shazer developed Solution Focus Therapy. Clifton developed the Strengths Finder Assessment, which continues to be wildly profitable for Gallup. Seligman went from learned helplessness (clearly a negative state) to leading the positive psychology movement. Even the Hogan assessment reframes negatives as “strengths overused” and labels their primary scales as “Bright Side”
So why is the negative so vital?
We worked with a private equity firm ready to acquire a company for ~30m, which would make its charismatic CEO rich. As I sat in on the investment committee, we spent only a fraction of the time on the financial models and the rest gushing about the inspirational leader. One member suggested they may not need to do human capital due diligence on this investment because the CEO was so effective. The managing partner overrode her.
I did my assessment and recommended that the CEO leader be replaced soon after the acquisition. The investment team was dumbfounded. They made their case by listing his strengths, most of which were soft skills.
What did they miss? This leader experienced massive self-deception and the covert signs of a sociopath. When someone from the team prematurely leaked my assessment results to him, he became enraged and broke a small sculpture. The leaker reported feeling frightened for her safety.
From a client perspective, I can’t think of a single Psynet Group client whose stated reason for hiring us was to better understand their candidates’ strengths. Instead, we get responses like this from a COO or a prominent investment bank “If we could help him avoid one bad hire every three years. He wanted us to uncover the negatives before it was too late because he experienced the damage firsthand.
My friend, Dr. Bruce Leuchter, told me after a presentation on stress that we have eight times the number of neurons to identify the negative than we do the positive. This biological fact makes sense from an evolutionary perspective because our ancestors focused on the negative to survive. It also informs our concerns when we bring another into our circle. We often think, “will this person cause harm” before considering their effectiveness.
A thought experiment
Consider the following attributes measured by one of the core Psybil assessments. If you could choose only one column to know before hiring, which would it be?
Orange represents new scales in Psybil, released in August 2022.
|Positive Characteristics||Neutral (Related to Culture Fit)||Character Flaws|
|Desire to Make a Positive Impact on the World||Unconventionality||Lack of Self Awareness|
|Drive to Know and Understand||Need for Arousal and Adventure||Cunning and Manipulation/Cons others to obtain an advantage|
|Achievement Oriented||Opportunistic||Mistrust of Others/ Actively dislikes most people.|
|Energy||Drive to follow Rules and Boundaries||Woo and Seduce/Tendency to Flatter and Focus on Office Politics|
|Charismatic||Drive to Create Order||Sensitive (Emotionally)/Easily upset of offended|
|Cognitive Flexibility||Desire to Lead and Direct||Aggressive/Angry|
|Humility||Desire to Work Autonomously||Need for Social Recognition/ Demotivated without regular praise|
|Willpower||Interdependence||Need for Affection/ Prioritizes relationships over goals|
|Originality||Focus on Material Wealth||Need for Personal Significance (High Ego)|
|Organized||Stress Tolerance/ Inability to manage pressure|
|Team Focused||Perfectionism/Judgmental of self and others|
|Amicability/Easy to Work with or for.|
Which Column Did You Choose?
A highly unscientific pole of 32 friends and colleagues revealed seven preferred to know the positive, and 25 preferred the negative (None chose neutral). Several volunteered stories of how negative behaviors impacted their workplace.
- An angry financial services executive who had everyone in the office feel like they were walking on eggshells
- A CMO who cracked under pressure and came to work in her pajamas
- An employee group so easily offended that they wrote grievances almost monthly
- A sociopath who publicly humiliated people to motivate them and others watching
Whole Person Assessment
We built Psybil, our psychometric tool, to counter the trend of putting people in a box. Assigning a series of letters or colors to encapsulate a person dehumanizes them. Instead, we attempted to capture as many nuances and characteristics that matter as possible. Doing so allowed mandates we include positives and negatives as we paint a picture of the whole person.
In a culture where negativity abounds, it is tempting to swing the pendulum to the other side. Instead, I suggest that truly respecting a candidate’s humanity while getting the essential information requires allowing the pendulum to rest, in balance, in the middle. We can only do this by seeking the dark side and light side of a person.