Pattern matching at work
Observations and Annotations is a newsletter exploring leadership, psychology and organizational dynamics through real life stories.
Categorizing people and behavior provides shortcuts to make working together less painful. Pattern matching is a natural behavior. We all do it. One of the formal ways we categorize behavior in the workplace is through assessments. Most of us have strong opinions about assessments. Some embrace these frameworks, lapping them up like a thirsty person chugs water. Those who see them as useless at best, harmful at worst, eschew them or reluctantly take part.
I understand the skepticism about assessments. I've studied and used them most of my career and I still have a complicated relationship with them. I had a terrible experience at one company. I was hand-picked as one of the first hires in a department a former colleague was creating. The last step was an assessment. The person who administered the assessment told my new boss I’d need career development. They thought I wouldn’t be warm or empathetic enough in my role as a project manager. This opinion came from a question about whether you remember people’s birthdays. My guess is they used it as a proxy for generosity and thinking of others. Luckily my boss knew how I interacted with others — it's why he hired me. I knew how to make others feel supported, being terrible at birthdays didn't matter.
It took a long time to warm back up to these frameworks. A second experience changed my perspective. I took the StrengthsFinder assessment as part of my application for Gallup. They hired me as an executive coach. I worked with the Chief Scientist of the assessment. At lunch, I'd pepper him with questions about the assessment, the validity of results, and how to put it to use. StrengthsFinder gave me language for how to talk about my talents and how to talk with others about theirs. I still use it today in my work with leaders. Aside from a framework I created, it’s the only assessment I use.
There’s some trickiness with assessments. There are concerns about validity like the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator for example. Some are so broad they become meaningless. Some assessments need oodles of education to make them useful. Knowing how to apply them in the real world can be challenging which is bad as they can impact careers. They can support career development or be a way of putting people in narrow boxes. For example, if my boss didn’t know me beforehand, he might have spent months concerned about the wrong thing. I may not have gotten that job.
Despite some problems, frameworks for understanding behavior have value. They help us understand ourselves and our relationships with others. They give us ways to reflect on our behavior so we have a more realistic view of ourselves. We become aware of our strengths and where we’re less strong. We learn that our way isn’t the only way to work. Instead of making others wrong, we can see them as different. Frameworks give us a common language. This helps us understand each other better, reducing conflict. This understanding helps us find complementary partners, multiplying everyone’s efforts.
These frameworks provide a way to talk about who we are and how we relate with others. They describe various ways to get work done. Still, they don’t do the work all on their own. How we apply the material matters.
First, we must select the right one for the task. Some are better for personal introspection, others are better at helping us collaborate. For example, StrengthsFinder is fantastic for personal development, but not great for team collaboration.
Second, use these frameworks to help people grow rather than using them as prophecy. While there are some aspects of us that are stable over time, everyone has the ability to grow. We love to categorize, it makes the world less overwhelming, more orderly. Finding ways to understand the world is helpful. We just need to be careful not to turn our pattern matching into edicts.
These frameworks are best when used as guides for introspection and directionally for communicating with others. These frameworks shouldn’t be edicts. It doesn’t matter if you’re a yellow or red type — it’s what you do with that information that matters.
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