Pick the assessment best suited to the kind of change you want to make

Some psychological and psychometric assessments are designed to tell you who you are so that you can figure out how best to be happy and successful.  Others are designed to give you insight into who you are becoming or might become so that you can make conscious choices about your own growth over time. Knowing what kind of changes you are trying to make can help you decide what kind of assessment you should use.


Accommodative vs. Developmental

We can call this distinction the difference between accommodative and developmental assessments.  These tools are all designed to help (and often do), but they make fundamentally different assumptions about the self and about how we do or do not change over time.


Understanding your best fit

Accommodative assessments such as MBTI, Birkman, and Disc, belong to Popeye’s “I yam what I yam” school; they take as a given that who we are gets established relatively early in life, if not at birth, and that we remain more or less the same throughout life. The help these assessments offer is in getting a clearer understanding of our essential, largely unchanging nature, and then helping us figure out how to disentangle mismatches and stress points. Often, this means making changes to what we do, where we do it, how we do it, or who we do it with. The goal is to maximize the extent to which we put ourselves in situations that accommodate our strengths and preferences.

These instruments do not assume that no change is possible, but the changes they focus on tend to be described as “learning to flex your style,” and they focus on gaining awareness of which behaviors are most likely to succeed with specific individuals (depending on their preferences or characteristics) or in specific situations (e.g., delegating authority, attending to details) and learning to produce appropriate or at least useful behaviors. There is no assumption that adopting these behaviors fundamentally changes our core selves; they do not lead us to stop being one type and become another type. They simply make us a more agile, sophisticated, and hopefully successful version of our self. And to be clear, making such changes can be both pragmatic and high-impact.


Becoming your best self

Developmental assessments, as the name would imply, are built on the assumption that people do grow and change over time. These assessments belong to Wordsworth’s “the child is father to the man” school, and assume that just as an acorn becomes an oak tree, but is not just a small oak tree, our “selves” contain a teleological principle of development that, over time, expresses itself in changes not just of degree but also of kind.  In other words, they assume that people really can and do change in meaningful ways.

It follows that Developmental assessments are most useful for determining not who you are but where you are and the road you are traveling along. It is an unfortunate corollary that, because place, trajectory, and path are so different from person to person, it is extremely difficult to develop a standardized instrument that quantify developmental data. Developmental assessments such as Robert Kegan’s Subject-Object Interview and Kenning Associates’ Narrative 360 offer protocols rather than question sets. They suggest how to create a unique conversation or set of conversations that can point to a person’s entire sense-making system.  The Leadership Circle is perhaps the only question-set based instrument to date that offers indices that can suggest level of cognitive development, but even here a unique personalized debrief conversation is required to begin getting at where someone is in their meaning-making system and what changes are in process for them.

Aside from this difficulty in standardizing and scaling developmental assessments, it is also true that the guidance they suggest can be difficult to implement or even confounding. The whole point of developmental work is to help someone become a person who is meaningfully different than who they are at the moment, so even when they can imagine a different way of being in the world (e.g., “I can see now what being less driven by a need to be in control would look like”), it is often very difficult to produce the new behaviors they wish to cultivate (e.g., “But, how do I stop feeling that need?”).

In other words, if you tell an acorn to try being a tree, the acorn may not find that advice very helpful. Developmental change requires a deep, sustained commitment to reflection, experimentation, and observation, and it can often feel unsettling until new “operating model” takes root.


What changes are you working on?  

At Kenning we think both accommodative and developmental tools can help leaders be happier and more successful. The key is to understand the ways in which the two are different and how and when to apply each. If you want to find ways to play to your strengths, to improve the fit between what you are good at and what you enjoy and the work you do or the way you live your life, accommodative assessment are likely your best bet. If you feel like you are on a journey, that you are becoming something that is a little different than what you were before, and you are looking for ways to understand and pursue that change, developmental assessments are likely to prove more useful.