What your Personality Test Report says about You

Business man's hand plotting people's personality test report scores on a grid

People are frequently amazed at the accuracy of their personality test report. These reports can be powerfully enlightening as they describe an individual’s tendencies and character traits from what appears to be an objective point of view. When given the opportunity to review their report, I haven’t had one person defer. Everyone wants to know what their report says about them – whether they agree with it or not.

But sometimes personality test results are misleading and of no use at all. And it happens more often than you’d think.

In an experiment with college sophomores, a traditional favorite for academic researchers, the accuracy of personality tests was put to its own test. Following completion and scoring of a personality test given to all of the students in the class, the researcher asked for a show of hands from those for whom the test report accurately described them. A sizeable majority of hands went up – the report was an accurate depiction. There’s one thing they didn’t know:

Everyone got exactly the same report.

Yep. {I wish I’d thought of this first.}

Despite everyone completing the test in their personally distinctive manner, only one report was copied and distributed to the entire class of subjects. No matter how similar you may think college sophomores are, they’re not so identical as to yield precisely identical personality profiles. But still, a “J. Doe” report was viewed as a perfect fit to most. How does this happen?

Take a read of one of your personality test results. If you’re like most, you’ve completed several of these assessments and probably still have a report or two laying around. When reading your report take note of the following indicators of BS reports:

  1. Conditional Statements: The number of times the words “may,” “might,” “sometimes” show up

Example: “You may be unsure of yourself in a group.”

How “may?” Like, maybe, “90% unsure”, or “maybe completely confident?” The reader typically fills in this blank unwittingly giving the report a “pass.”

  1. Compensatory Observations: The number of times opposing behaviors are presented next to each other

Example: “You have a hard time sharing your feelings in a group. However, with the right group you find it refreshing to get your emotions ‘off your chest.’”

So which are you? A paranoid prepper? Or a chest pounding demonstrator? Either one of these opposing types could fit by this example.

  1. General Statements: The specificity of the descriptions, or lack thereof

Example: “You maintain only a few close friends.”

This statement is pretty much true by definition. It’s certainly up for interpretation such that it is befitting for all.

  1. Differentiating Statements: {fewer is worse} The uniqueness of the descriptions.

Example: “Privately, you feel under qualified for the things others consider you to be expert at.”

The lack of differentiating statements is not exactly the same as making general statements. A specific statement may not be differentiating. The above example is specific, but not distinctive as a fairly large percentage of people do feel under qualified for even their profession.

The point is, anyone can be right when they:

  1. Speak in couched probabilities,
  2. about “both-or” samples of a given behavior,
  3. in very general terms,
  4. about things that many people experience.

These four “hacks” provide all the latitude needed for ANY report to make you think it has “nailed you.”

Beyond these tactics, many give too much credit to the personality test. Frequently reports are simply feeding you back EXACTLY what you put in via your responses. For example, the item, “I like to organize things” may show up in a report as, “You like to organize things.” There were probably more than a hundred items on the test – you probably don’t remember every response you made for every item.

Another way folks give too much credit to the personality test is by holding the belief that the instrument should be right. Beyond your general position on the validity of personality tests, publishers have various tactics to make the test report more "scientific."

  1. Lots of statistics
  2. Lots of figures
  3. Distinguished endorsers
  4. Techno-babble

None of these things may have anything to do with the actual validity of the test. But research shows these things enhance people’s opinion of its validity.

What’s a good report look like?

  1. Good reports take a point of view. They provide specific summaries of behavioral style that really are uniquely you. If you gave the report to a friend and told them this was their report, they’d honestly say that it doesn’t accurately depict them – even if the two of you are inseparable. Fit is determined by both accommodation and exclusion. A good report speaks to you and no one else.
  2. Better reports don’t provide any narrative at all. They simply provide normative scores on the various dimensions (i.e., characteristic behaviors) covered by the test. This type of report allows an expert to interpret the full spectrum of dimensions in the broader context. Good interpreters know what to look for in terms of how the dimensions interact with each other and can further specify the evaluation with just a bit of extra information on the respondent. This does not mean that they already know the subject. It may be as little as knowing why or when the person completed the assessment.
  3. Great reports present just the facts. The report is a fairly straightforward summary of your responses, organized by dimension (trait) and compared to a group of others’ responses/scores. Better still, great reports provide more than one score per dimension, or the average. They also give some indication of the variations in responses by dimension. This allows the interpreter to know just how confident a given score is. No variance = high confidence. Wide variance = low confidence.

So, what does your report really say about you? Depending on the factors I’ve outlined – it may say nothing at all (or worse).

It really helps to know some of this stuff.

The best way to cure hiccups: A little psychology delivers the strongest medicine

Woman hanging upside down and driking from a cup to cure hiccups

A lot of “techniques” are used to cure hiccups, few really work. The procedure I'm about to describe is backed by psychological, scientific research and is absolutely the best way to hiccups. Guaranteed. There’s only one “but:”

It’s for adults only.

Well, it’s not entirely exclusive to adults, but it does require very strong concentration. {Also, you wouldn’t believe what adding “adults only” does to my SEO score.}

If you really want to cure hiccups you need to invoke the psychology of,

Automaticity Interruptus. {More SEO points!}

I’ll get to exactly what this is all about and how to do it but want to debunk some of the most popular “cures” for hiccups first. Beyond the fact that none of them actually cause the cure for hiccups, most come with unpleasant side effects.

Downing a spoonful of sugar shoots up glucose levels like fireworks (i.e., a rapid rise and explosion followed by complete burnout). Drinking from the other side of a cup upside down can result in nasal reflux (you can picture this, I’m sure). And scaring the crap out of someone speaks for itself.

To the extent these really do work at all it’s because they contain a smaller amount of the active ingredient, Automaticity Interruptus.

I made up this term, so I can’t link it to more information – but you will find some interesting results if you google it. It’s basically a means of “breaking the habit,” but it sounds more erudite. {minus SEO points}

Here’s what I mean:

Behavior falls into one of two categories, controlled or automatic. Sorting behaviors by these categories would appear to be pretty obvious based on the transparency of the two terms, but it’s not. Most behaviors can be both. BUT, (and this is key):

Not at the same time.

A (single) behavior can’t be both automatic and controlled at the same time. This doesn’t mean automatic and controlled behaviors (plural) can’t exist together. “Close calls” occur when there are differences between two or more behaviors (e.g., meditation to reduce anxiety) or the behaviors switch back and forth from automatic to controlled so quickly you don’t notice.

Hiccups definitely aren’t controlled behavior – not “for real” hiccups. They belong to a special form of automatic behavior. Hiccups are spasms of the diaphragm, but they act a lot like automatic behavior because they occur without effort and are "generally" uncontrolled. (Just give me some rope here - I'm not being greedy).

Reflexes you ask? Reflexes are really not in the zone of behavior as described here even though they seem like automatic behavior since there is no cognitive processing at all. Many reflexes don’t even loop through the brain. So, reflexes can’t be controlled at all except by eliminating the stimulus.

To point: If hiccups are automatic (in some way) AND automatic and controlled behaviors are incompatible, a logical cure would be to make the automatic behavior controlled.

And that’s it. If you work hard (really hard) to deliberately hiccup when you are in the grip of automatic hiccuping, the hiccups will go away.

But you have to work really hard to make a hiccup deliberate. Here’s how I would use Automaticity Interruptus on my friend, Mo:

Me: “Got the hiccups, huh?”

Mo: “Yeah – {hic}”

Me: “I’ll bet you $10 that you can’t hiccup after I start a rigorous technique on you. Don’t worry, you won’t get hurt and don’t even have to move. All you have to do is follow my orders.”

Mo: “OK”

Me: “When I say “go” I want you to hiccup as quickly as you can”

Mo: “OK {hic}”

Me: “GO! Hiccup NOW! C’mon. Do it NOW! Quick. I want you to REALLY TRY to hiccup. I dare you. I double dare you. I TRIPLE DOG DARE you! What’s the matter? Just DO IT. Hiccup damnit!”

Mo: "Gosh, Chris, you're amazing! How is it that someone can be so sharp and good looking?"

The “patient,” Mo, will NOT be able to hiccup under conditions of strained, deliberate effort. No matter how hard they (or you) try, you can’t hiccup on command. Try it now. You can’t do it. AND if you try it even when you already have the hiccups, you can’t do it.

But you have to REALLY TRY to hiccup. Give it your full attention.

This will flip an automatic behavior to a controlled one. And no one can hiccup by simply trying (eating a dozen donuts doesn’t count).

This technique is the driving force behind the downfall many experts with highly skilled behavior when put in a stressful situation. “Icing the kicker.” "Game winning free-throw." Even simple acts like, “breathe normally” get twisted when a lot of deliberate effort steps in.

Automaticity Interruptus.

Psychology at work.

Stop thanking your team

Notebook with handwriting to suggest that the leader stop thanking the team so much

Most leaders don’t know it, but the way they’re thanking their team is actually self- and team-defeating. Before making an error that is at best as useful as watering the ocean, or at worst as appreciated as making a “tiny correction” to the Mona Lisa, stop thanking your team.

Here’s why.

People want to make a difference. It’s what defines and realizes us. To everyone besides your mom, you are what you do. Even in a team people want to know that they, personally, are making a meaningful contribution. It’s not just the most motivation a person can have – it’s the only true motivation there is (Hertzberg, 1959). One of the biggest problems leaders have is thanking their team too much.

You have this problem, too.

When you thank someone for their work, you think you’re expressing genuine appreciation. But “genuine” is in the eye of the beholder. And for 90% of the “thanks” out there, you’re not doing it right (authentically). In fact, you’re actually making things worse.

To be a great leader you’ve got to stop thanking your team – at least the way most do. Most feel an irrepressible need to add on to “thanks” with some thoughts of their own.

Bad move.

stop at "thanks."

If anything more than gratitude is expressed, all they’ll hear is “BUT.” Just stop at “thanks.”

With one exception.

Your thanks will be most impactful if you are able to fully subordinate yourself to the other’s act or idea.

Your thanks will be most impactful if you are able to fully subordinate yourself to the other’s act or idea. The best way to do this is with a simple nod that says “tell me more.” (Or you can actually say the words).

Next to making a difference, and actually a form of it, people need to feel a sense of power. Not necessarily via pure dominance, but yes, by some means of rising above others. High potential workers are especially motivated by power. The power to make a difference through others.

So, why does thanking your team actually demotivate them?

First – You’re recognizing the obvious

You demote and demean the high potential by thanking them for something that they feel is their normal order of business. It’s like telling someone, “Thanks, Mary. You’re very articulate.” To most this is a “left-handed” compliment at best, judgement in disguise. To some it’s an outright slap in the face.

NEVER thank someone for something that the target of thanks believes is an innate capability of theirs. I use the word, “thank” but the general act is one of praise. Be very careful that when you allocate praise that it is for something truly extraordinary. Something you REALLY appreciate, as in, “you really saved my @ss”.

Second – You’re improving "good enough"

You hijack – or “seize and one up” the individual’s contribution. Yep, by thanking someone you are basically saying, “I know that was a valuable contribution because I already know {have done, etc), ….”

Have you ever edited someone else’s email? (you know what I'm talking about then)

This may be a bit of a stretch presented as is. Let me offer another example to illustrate the harm in “blessing” another’s work.

TEAM MEMBER:  “We should put gears on the engine.”

LEADER:  “That's a great idea {because I gave it to you}. Thanks. That will also help us to make more ground rutabaga.”

TM to Self: {“I know it’s a great idea, Jughead, that’s what I deliver. Why can’t you leave it alone?”}

This power move takes (seizes) Team Member’s idea by acknowledging (“You’re right”) and taking it where it wasn’t going (hijacks it).

Don’t think you do this? Have you ever edited someone else’s email?

Moving on.

Third – You don’t really mean it

Some people are inveterate "Thankers." They thank someone for stepping on their toe. Over thanking is dilutive. The more you thank someone, the less they hear it or appreciate it (and you).

Did you know that you can stop your squawk box, I mean, “Alexa”, from repeating everything you tell it? Google it. I bet you will because you get sick of hearing your echo every time you give an order?

YOU:      “Alexa, turn on the lights.”

ALEXA: “Sure, I’ve turned on the lights.”

YOU:      “No duh. I can see that.”

ALEXA: “Sorry, I don’t know what you mean.”

Alexa’s no good-natured woman, she’s a heartless hockey puck.

You get sick of hearing the same words. You get sick of hearing the same intonation. You realize Alexa’s no good-natured woman, she’s a heartless hockey puck. (AI still has a long way to go).

Yep. This is what over thanking sounds like to your team – a hockey puck. Enough already!

The science of motivation (simple version of Victor Vroom's Expectancy Theory)

In Physics, Work = Force x Displacement.

In Psychology, Valued Work = Quality x Instrumentality. (this is a 3rd person derivative of V. Vroom, 1964)

People want to deliver value at work. Let them do it.

Properly motivated, most deliver a quality product that makes a difference. People want to deliver value at work. Let them do it. Don’t stick your finger in a humming machine. Save your gratitude for the truly unexpected result and avoid over engineering another's pride.

Oh. And thanks for being a good reader.


Google can’t solve all problems. For hands on expertise, get in touch with me at Talentlift. (You can click the word. It won’t send an email or make a call).

Personality disorders at work: When you see this person coming, run

Business man with hand extended to the viewer

Personality Disorders at Work

Nearly everyone I encounter when I have my I/O psychology hat on claims to know somebody at work with a personality disorder. “My boss is Narcissistic and OCD.” Or, “I can’t even ‘borrow’ her computer, she’s so Paranoid.” C’mon. Right? (there’s something about that word, “right” that’s beginning to bug me in today’s lingo) Can everyone possibly know someone – at work – that’s crazy?

They probably do. Really. (I bet that surprised you.)

But I don’t mean they’re right regarding the arm-chair clinical diagnosis they usually share with me in hope that I’ll “fix” the deranged individual. Most just happen to be right in a statistical sense that I’ll explain in a sec.

Time Out: I AM NOT A CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST. I do not specifically diagnose or treat mental illness in my capacity as an I/O professional. Neither does any other I/O psychologist that doesn’t also have a PhD in clinical psychology. But I do deal with it – probably more effectively than the average person. “Psychological types” is really a misnomer because all expressions of psychology operate within a range, not at discrete points. And so do clinical disorders. Experts in psychology know how to work with a range of “types.”

Almost all of these amateur psychologists are wrong regarding their “remarkably precise” assessments. The person they work with that they think should be “taken away” probably does NOT have a clinical condition personality disorder. And if they do, the assessor frequently misdiagnoses the given disorder.

Breaking News: “Schizo” does not actually mean split personality and “Psychopath” is no longer used as a formal diagnosis for a personality disorder anymore. My advice, stay in your lane.

Where they’re right is in recognizing and calling out dysfunction at work, just not the specifically dysfunctional.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t any clinically affected people at work.

There are.

It doesn’t mean that they (and you) needn’t fear the behavior of some nefarious colleague.

You should.

Prevalence of Personality Disorders at Work

over 4% of people have a personality disorder

Data: A Serious Mental Illness (SMI) is one whereby an individual’s behavior is disruptive to the point of interfering with a significant life activity. Based on findings from a 2016 national survey, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that about 4.2% of US adults suffer from SMIs. Yes, over 4% of people have a personality disorder. (The estimate includes all forms of mental illness beyond personality disorders, but personality disorders are much more prevalent than the rest.) This is higher than the January 2019 unemployment figure of 3.9% (and that was up .2% versus the previous month).

Do the math.

Dangerous Types at Work

Most instances of mental illness at work are not the kind that others need to fear for their safety – especially the personality disorders at work. But this isn’t always the case in an environment where legitimate power by authority is the norm. Here the individual with an SMI can do harm to others – especially, but not exclusively, to direct reports.

There is one clinical personality type (I use, “type” but this type is exclusively a disorder) that should be feared, not for physical safety but for psychological safety. When you see this type of person at work, RUN. These are the folks that can hurt you. These are people of the dark triad type.

The Dark Triad

This “type” is actually a combination of several personality disorders, or traits (“traits” are the behavioral form of “type” and these become “disorders” when they become SMIs.) For this reason, it’s called, “The Dark Triad.” And it’s THE most dangerous of all personality disorders at work.

The three personality disorders that comprise the dark triad include Narcissism, Antisocial, and Borderline. (The original conceptualization of the dark triad specified “Machiavellianism.” Other than Antisocial, “Borderline” is the next closest – but not equivalent – type by conversion of Machiavellianism to the new terminology.)

Here I provide a brief summary of the corresponding behaviors typical of each of the three disorders:

Narcissistic Personality Disorder – Extraordinarily self-confident; grandiosity and entitlement; preoccupation with self; over-estimation of capabilities

Antisocial Personality Disorder – Enjoy taking risks and testing limits; manipulative; deceitful, cunning, and exploitative; disrespectful of people and normative values

Borderline Personality Disorder – Moody; intense but short-lived enthusiasm for people, projects, and things; instability in relationships; hard to please

Essentially, the dark triad individual is self-absorbed, malevolent, and callous. You don’t want to bunk with this person on your team building adventure.

The especially insidious thing about this disorder is attributable to two facets:

  1. Appeal. People with the “dark triad” traits are especially cunning, colorful, charismatic …. And deceitful. They are not only incredibly difficult to identify for their pathological behavior, they’re actually quite charming – on the surface. Even they have themselves convinced that they’re extraordinarily good people. Don’t buy it.
  2. Leadership Potential. Some elements of the dark triad are in fact predictive of leadership. (Guess which ones?) Narcissists tend to rise to high levels in the organization on their own coattails. The intensely enthusiastic traits of the Borderline personality, even if episodic, provide the reinforcing motivation of compliments and appreciation others are comfortable promoting.

And the dark triad is especially hard to assess. On personality tests, these types present themselves as being inclined toward leadership roles, outgoing, conscientious and likeable — all the characteristics that typically predict a high potential leader. I’ve written about how personality tests don’t tell the whole story. Well, the dark triad type comes from one of those books.

people who exhibit dark triad behaviors are attractive

This is a wolf in sheep’s clothing if ever there was one. What makes these features so dangerous is that people who exhibit dark triad behaviors are attractive (they get more dates) and ascendant (they get more promotions).

In terms of risk of impact – it’s high. If you work for someone like this you will be the primary target of attack. It’s important to watch yourself and them. They can do things that are highly disruptive while gliding along the lake like a swan, only you get kicked with their webbed feet (with talons).

Taken separately, each of the three components of the dark triad can deliver a real blow to the self and others’ psychological well-being. However, the antisocial component is undoubtedly the most dangerous of the three.

They don’t just not care about you, they want to hurt you.

People with antisocial personality disorder have a history of delinquency, whether they got caught or not. They push limits over the line not because it will offer them any actual advantage – they simply HAVE to feed an insatiable need to disrupt others. They don’t just not care about you, they want to hurt you. If this is the predominant trait you see in someone – duck and cover (not sustainable) or jump and run (also has its downsides, but generally better than hanging around).

Dealing with the Dark Triad

People with the dysfunctional types of the dark triad can’t be fixed. Even with intensive therapy the recidivism is very high where there is not a co-dependence (i.e., addiction) driving the condition. So, when you see these people coming, you need to take the wheel of your “magic bus” or, be thrown under it.

Here are some tips that may help you to deal better with a person with these co-morbid character traits:

  1. Know the enemy. Identify or validate your suspicious character carefully. There are some known flaws in their game. They tend to lie a lot — and well. Listen for evidence of contradiction or rewriting their past. One of their biggest lies is covering their tracks. They rarely keep a job for longer than 18 months but have excellent “reasons” for why they resigned – most having to do with the former employer’s unethical behavior.
  2. Be sure to include an assessment for the dark triad in your selection and recruitment systems. This assessment needs to be thorough. Simple testing or interviewing will reveal a star that knows how to interview and has plenty of impressive work experience because they’ve been fired so many times. An expert helps here. You do NOT want to hire or promote them. This is a clear case where character counts more than expertise.
  3. Avoid letting them get hyper-angry. Never fight back (especially if it’s your boss). Don’t talk when they’re ranting. Just let the bluster blow itself out. (They like hearing themselves anyway). You’ll have a better chance with them tomorrow – or even later that day. Their attitude can change with the weather.
  4. Feed their need for adoration. As cunning as they are, narcissists can’t resist the Siren’s songs of praise. This tactic can defuse an otherwise explosive situation and give you time to execute your exit strategy.
  5. Protect your actions and behaviors. These liars will stop at nothing to serve themselves and deny others. Keep a third person around to serve as a witness and confidant. Take notes of any/all interactions. Do nothing you wouldn’t do on trial.

If you know how they operate, you can best control, or at least influence, how they behave. But be warned, the Dark Triad is notoriously difficult to outsmart – especially with trickery. They know a thing or two about being manipulative and tend to think others act this way, too. They’re generally a bit on the paranoid side looking out for the types of things they would do to others. A defensive posture in attitude and behavior is the best default strategy.

Now that you’re adequately scared, I’ll remind you that all personality types, including personality disorders at work, exist in degree. I’ve painted an especially dark case to make my point. Most are not this extreme. A sophisticated and level-headed style of communication will help to keep things civil with less explosive outbursts, threats, lies, etc.

Remember, all humans are animals. Some are brutal sluggers. Don’t fight a slugger with your fists.

With “big data” come big risks

Cartoon showing people considering crossing the valley of big data

Prebabble: Sound research is backed by the scientific method; it’s measurable, repeatable and reasonable consistent with theory-based hypotheses. Data analysis is a component of scientific research but is not scientific by itself. This article provides examples of how research or summary conclusions can be misunderstood by fault of either the reviewer or the researcher - especially when big data are involved. It is not specific to psychological research, nor is it a comprehensive review of faulty analysis or big data.

When I was a grad student, (and dinosaurs trod the earth) four terminals connected to a mainframe computer were the only computational resources available to about 20 psychology grad students. “Terminal time,” (beyond the sentence that was graduate school) was as precious and competitively sought after as a shaded parking spot in the summer. (I do write from the “Sunshine State” of Florida)

Even more coveted than time at one of the terminals, data from non-academic sources were incredibly desirable and much harder to come by. To gain access to good organization data was the “holy grail” of industrial organizational psychology dissertations. Whenever data were made available, one was not about to look this gift horse in the mouth without making every effort to find meaningful research within those data. Desperate, but crafty grad students could wrench amazing research from rusty data.

But some data are rusted beyond repair.

One of my cell-, I mean class-, mates came into the possession of a very large organizational database. Ordinarily the envy of those of us without data, such was not the case here. It was well known that this individual’s data, though big, were hollow; a whole lot of “zeroes.” To my surprise and concern, this individual seemed to be merrily “making a go of it” with their impotent data. Once convinced that they were absolutely going to follow through with a degree-eligible study (that no one “understood”), sarcasm got the best of me, “Gee, Jeff (identity, disguised), you’ve been at it with those data for some time. Are any hypotheses beginning to shake out of your analyses?”

“Working over” data in hope of finding a reasonable hypothesis is a breach of proper research and clearly unethical whether one knows it or not. But it happens – more today than ever before.

"Big data" has become the Sirens’ song, luring unwitting, (like my grad school colleague) or unscrupulous, prospectors in search of something – anything - statistically significant. But that’s not the way science works. That’s not how knowledge is advanced. That’s just “rack-n-hack” pool where nobody “calls their shots.”

It isn’t prediction if it’s already happened.

The statistical significance (or probability) of any prediction in relation to a given (already known) outcome is always perfect (hence, a “foregone” conclusion). This is also the source of many a superstition. Suppose you win the lottery by betting on your boyfriend’s prison number. To credit your boyfriend’s “prison name” for your winnings would be a mistake (and not just because he may claim the booty). Neither his number nor your choice of it had any influence in determining the outcome – even-though you did win. But if we didn’t care about “calling our shot’s” we’d argue for the impossibly small odds of your winning ticket as determined by your clever means of its choice.

This error of backward reasoning is also known by the Latin phrase, post hoc, ergo propter hoc, or, “after this, therefore because of this.” It’s not veridical to predict a cause from its effect. Unfortunately, the logic may be obvious, but the practice isn’t.

Sophisticated statistical methods can confuse even well-intended researchers who must decide which end of the line to put an arrow on. In addition, the temptation to “rewind the analysis” by running a confirmatory statistical model (i.e., “calling my shot” analysis) AFTER a convenient exploratory finding (i.e., “rack-n-hack” luck) can be irresistible when one’s career is at stake as is frequently the case in the brutal academic world of “publish or perish.” But doing this is more than unprofessional, it’s cheating and blatantly unethical. (Don’t do this.)

Never before has the possibility of bad research making news been so great. Massive datasets are flung about like socks in a locker room. Sophisticated analyses that once required an actual understanding of the math in order to do the programming can now be done as easily as talking to a wish-granting hockey puck named “Alexa.” (“What statistical assumptions?”) Finally, the ease of publishing shoddy “research” results to millions of readers is as easy as snapping a picture of your cat.

All of the aforementioned faux-paus (or worse) concern data “on the table.” The most dubious risk when drawing conclusions from statistical analyses – no matter how ‘big’ the data are – is posed by the data that AREN’T on the table.

A study may legitimately find a statistically significant effect on children’s grades based on time spent watching TV vs playing outdoors. The study may conclude, “When it comes to academic performance, children that play outside significantly outperform those that watch TV.” While this is a true conclusion, the causality of the finding is uncertain.

To further complicate things, cognitive biases work their way into the hornet’s nest of correlation vs causation. In an effort to simplify the burden on our overworked brains, correlation and causation tend to get thrown together in our “cognitive laundry bin.” Put bluntly, correlation is causation.

Although it’s easy to mentally “jump track” from correlation to causation, the opposite move, i.e., from causation to correlation, is not so naturally risky.

Cigarette makers were “Kool” (can I get in trouble for this?) with labeling that claimed an ‘association’ between smoking and a litany of health problems. They were, not-so-Kool with terminology using the word “causes.”

Causal statements trigger a more substantial and lasting mental impression than statements of association. “A causes B” is declarative and signals “finality,” whereas “A is associated with B” is descriptive and signals “probability.” Depending on how a statement of association is positioned, it can very easily evoke an interpretation of causation.

Sometimes obfuscation is the author’s goal, other times it’s an accident or merely coincidental. Both are misleading (at best) when our eyes for big data are bigger than our stomachs for solid research.

Leadership in Crises: Remembering 9/11

On the anniversary of a life-, and world-changing disaster, I’ve prepared a list of leadership qualities undoubtedly demonstrated on that fateful day in 2001. Like any earth-shaking crisis, memories of where we were and how we felt are vivid for those alive and witness to the tragedy. However, the specific behaviors of the many heroes of that day and event are probably not as vivid for you. Details blur with the overwhelming fear and flood of emotion. This is truly the way that day should be remembered, in our souls – not our heads. But there are notable actions that should be tucked into our memories. Behaviors that saved lives and souls.

This essay is devoted to the heroism of those selfless men and women who paid the ultimate price to save others. May they be forever remembered.

A definition of leadership

One definition of leadership is that leaders reduce uncertainty. This is especially true in crises or disasters. Strong leadership is of paramount importance through crises where lives are at risk and nothing is dependable. No disaster plan can fully prepare for either the particulars or gravity of a catastrophic event. Regrettably, crises and disasters of natural or manmade nature are becoming more common. It’s not a matter of if one will be impacted, but when. As such, leadership through crisis should be a part of every leader’s skillset.

Guidelines and toolkits for managing through disasters have been developed by humanitarian agencies – and they have made a substantial, positive impact. However, as the relatively “obvious” aspects of disasters (infrastructure, rescues, command centers, etc.) these have received more attention than deeper wounds. I’m not against the need for water and shelter, but the psychological impact of such catastrophes can be life-long and warrants improvement. In fact, psychologists have already addressed the psychological factors most prevalent in crises. Here I specifically address some of the primary psychological considerations for leadership in crises. (Note: This is NOT an exhaustive list. There is evidence supporting these behaviors, but this is a guide, not a prescription.)

Leadership Needs in Major Disasters

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a useful framework for “need triage” in major disasters. For most, it’s only during life-changing crises that we are reduced to the most basic of human needs – physiological. For others, this stage of need is chronic. While there are similarities between event-based need states of decimation and chronic need states, the differences are greater. Chronic crises are not the topic here.

The physiological needs characterizing the most fundamental stage of Maslow’s model are clearly the most important and urgent. These define life or death. The immediate treatment for these needs is more about survival than psychological well-being. Psychological factors are absolutely present at this stage, but I do not address them here. These are better for clinicians, both medical and psychological, to address. Leadership is less in demand when biological survival is at risk.

Unlike physiological needs, safety needs are not as easily addressed, and their remediation is not as clear. Psychological security and health are obviously challenged in times of crisis, but we are much less prepared or effective in properly attending to them as the vital, observable and relatively quickly addressed physiological needs. These aren’t overlooked, but the means of dealing with matters of psychological nature is complex, frequently requiring scarce, specialized services that require more time.

Beyond medical or serious clinical needs, leadership is paramount to allay fear and promote psychological safety. The behaviors most effective in times of crisis are not completely different from those typical of comprehensive leadership, but the situation calls for very different use.

In no particular order, the following leadership competencies are recognized by psychologists with additions from myself as being especially important when guiding an organization, or any group or person, through major crisis.

  • Resilience – You’ve heard it, “Put the oxygen mask on yourself first.” No amount of preparation or resolve will work if you don’t. Do whatever it takes to insure or regain your physical and mental well-being. You will attract attention like never before, and it will be remembered. Every move should say “I have control.”
  • Decisiveness – Crises are no time for a census. Decisions must be taken with speed and confidence. These times call for a more concentrated, reassuring source of power that people expect from their authorities.
  • Integrity – Here I mean consistency of behavior more than moral integrity. In a crisis people’s ability to process information is dramatically curtailed. It’s important to send consistent, even predictable, messaging (via action and word) to make things as easy to understand as possible. Radical changes in direction can add to the psychological challenges already at work. Hold the line, as it’s said.
  • Clear direction – As stress limits psychological well-being and functioning, guidance must be provided at a more granular level. The environment is threatening and unfamiliar; step-by-step guidance is frequently necessary.
  • Justice – It is critical that leaders enforce and maintain equitable treatment through crises. Similar to integrity, human expectations of fairness and consistency should be met with just behavior. Together, acting with integrity and justice conveys a reassuring message of control over the situation.
  • Inclusion – This does not negate the need for authoritative control but does temper it. By including others, some who will disagree, a leader entertains a broader set of options. This is important to avoid potentially erroneous “self-generated validity of thinking” and builds acceptance with key constituents.
  • Compassion – This isn’t the time to get “mushy” but subtle acts that stem from a mindset of compassion are especially noticeable among the victims of disasters – and they benefit from it.
  • Presence – Here I mean just show up. The adage, “misery loves company,” bears merit when disaster strikes. If you were not directly impacted by the disaster, go to it. Nothing is as reassuring as “being there” for someone.

There are many more that could be included, and I could have been more efficient via a shorter list. It may not be perfect, but perfection isn’t my goal.

These simply represent a list of potential use to us all, hopefully well before necessary.

Why picky selection is even more important when pickins are slim

Duck, duck, goose: be careful with selection

We’ve been here before. In the late 90s the demand for technical talent was so great that organizations engaged in bidding wars simply to stay in business. Dubbed the War for Talent, management experts warned about the perils of relaxing standards for the selection of talent at such time as when organizations were in the most need. For most, it was too late.

Fierce negotiations and skyrocketing compensation packages were the talent-based equivalent of surging petrol prices during the great oil embargo of the 70s. For some, no amount of money could buy the talent so desperately needed. They were stuck with what they had - and what they didn’t.

Here we go again.

With unemployment rates at historic lows, organizations once again find themselves confronted by the fool’s choice: bad (or, expensive) talent or no talent? (Ironic, isn’t it, that the same organization that matches employees’ contributions to retirement plans and maintains a succession plan for top executives with two “ready” candidates, finds itself overspent and understaffed on talent?)

From a safe distance we can see the folly of hiring at a time of dire need, just like we can see the wisdom of contributing to a compounding savings fund for future financial needs. Nevertheless, the firestorm of desperation hiring burns the fuel for future growth. I see it all the time: buying at the peak of the market and selling at the first sign of a lull.

Regardless of how we got here, we must face reality. Hires must be made. Sticking with reality, that hire is going to cost you more, now that you need them, than they would’ve when you didn’t {seem to} need them so desperately. You have a choice, pay big bucks for some body or paying big bucks for the right body. The difference between the two hangs on the rigor of your hiring practice. Do you have the skill to assess talent well? Do you have the discipline to select only the well qualified?

Selection using proper psychological assessment is like pan-seared salmon; it’s both rare and well done.

Some will claim that I’m out of touch with what really happens on the streets of Poughkeepsie. After all, I am at that “safe distance” from the action. Don’t I know about fundamental economic principles of supply and demand? Don’t I understand the lunacy of forgoing business for lack of workers?

Actually, I do. And it’s still wrong to relax hiring practices or standards – especially when desperate for employees.

Desperation is a symptom, not the cause. When an organization finds itself desperate for employees, for any reason, whether surging sales or shrinking productivity, it’s the result of poor talent management and planning. The organization isn’t ready. And when an organization isn’t ready, it’s missing out on profits. Economics 101.

You don’t have time for bad firemen when Rome is burning.

But here’s why a bad hire in bad markets (sales or labor) is worse than the same hire in kinder markets. You don’t have time for bad firemen when Rome is burning. Moreover, the damage of retaining a bad hire can be seemingly apocalyptic.

Hiring talent is like a setting fishhook; it’s easy to put in but difficult to yank out.

I’ve made my case for “front end” selection, but dealing with the “back end” of desperation hiring is worse. Hiring talent is like a setting fishhook; it’s easy to put in but difficult to yank out. And it creates considerable collateral damage. A bad hire is lame at best; lethal at worst. And that doesn’t include the joys of their removal.

Two large-scale studies I did in an organization comprised of multi-unit restaurants revealed convergent results. The first found that 50% of all employees that quit did so due to their "brow beating, denigrating, micro-managing boss." {My words to approximate the emotional translation} Even if this number is inflated by sore quitters taking a free jab at their boss, it still dwarfs any other reason given for quitting, including pay and promotion opportunity. The second study found that using a validated personality test successfully predicted which new hire restaurant managers became high producers (i.e., greater sales) and better leaders (i.e., well run, low employee turnover).

But there is a limitation in my research. While the results suggest that good leaders get good results and have low team defection, the story may be more truthful centering on bad leaders that get bad results and have high team defection. Either way you look at it the results are in the same ballpark. It is possible that the bad managers pull the lion's share of the results of this study, thus lending stronger support to my argument against hiring questionable talent.

At the end of the day, you have a decision to make. It would be a mistake not to have good selection.

Psychology is clear: We’re not.

Beautiful, mysterious woman. What is she thinking? Who is she? Industrial Organizational Psychology knows.

Perspective.

In a word, that’s as close as it gets to a synonym for psychology – at least the type I practice. Many may debate, “It’s too narrow”, or, “It’s too broad.” But that’s their perspective. {Don’t you hate clever, contrived?}

Here’s mine.

Everything we “know” (i.e., that which we perceive via our senses or cognitive processes), is psychological. Some represent psychology with a lens metaphor.  I.e., “We perceive the world through the ‘lens of psychology.’” Not bad as metaphors go, but definitely not good.

In the movie, “A Beautiful Mind” (based on the book by Sylvia Nasar), Dr. Rosen, a psychiatrist, attempts to convince and calm a defiant and skeptical, John Nash, who Dr. Rosen believes to be psychotic.

Rosen: You can’t reason your way out of this!
Nash: Why not? Why can’t I?
Rosen: Because your mind is where the problem is in the first place!

Psychology is not only the “lens” through which our viewpoint of the world passes, it’s all the “stuff” on either side of the lens as well. And that “stuff” is passing through as many other lenses as there are viewers. Your experience of the color red may be quite different from mine. Who knows? The “truth” doesn’t simply sit on one or the other side of the lens. What’s “right” is simply what’s generally accepted (i.e., conventional), not some absolute “truth.” Essentially, we choose to agree even though we don’t know if we’re agreeing on the same thing or not.

No, it isn’t 3am as I write. And I’m not cross-validating a Ken Kesey experiment. But I can see how I may have complicated things trying to “fix” a flawed metaphor. (I can hear a former colleague’s corrosive – whoa, I mean, "corrective," no, no, "constructive" -- feedback, “Don’t let great be the enemy of good.”)

Backing up.

We all make the error of John Nash. We all believe that we have some control over our mind, as surely as we do our behavior. Both beliefs are delusions. No matter how much you think you really do “know” or “control” your mind or behavior, it’s DEFINITELY less than you think.

Don’t believe me?

Try verbalizing how you tie your shoes. Can you do this in less time than it takes you to actually tie them? Didn’t think so. The reason is because you just don’t think about it when you're tying your shoes, even though you’ve done it thousands of times. (Actually, that’s precisely WHY you can’t explain it.)

Free throws are anything BUT free.

In psychology we have a very innovative term for behavior so routine it's as if it was automatic; like tying our shoes. The term is, “Automatic.” Automatic behavior falls into the category of “unconsciousness” but it's not the same. The difference between the two is that automatic thought (behavior) can be accessed (with effort), while unconscious thoughts or behaviors, can NOT. When we don’t notice anything about some behavior until it’s actively brought to our attention (e.g., a tangled knot, or a deliberate request – like my question), that’s automatic behavior. We CAN get to it. But when we do, we don't perform as well as when we let it lie. (Think "buzzer beaters" vs. "free throws." Free throws are anything BUT free. (Ask Shaq).

When asked, people underestimate the percentage of time they spend on “autopilot.” SIGNIFICANTLY. For example, while you’ve been reading this, how many times have you swallowed? You don’t know. But if I had told you beforehand that I would ask this now, you could answer.

At any given time, we’re aware of a mere speck in the spectrum of what’s sensible. And it goes beyond simple attention, but that’s another flavor of psychology.

Let's add just one more "flavor" to our model of perception: We tend to believe we know ourselves better than others do. Sometimes, yes. But mostly when it serves our need to be sensible or valued. When it comes to the "unvarnished truth?" ..., out goes self-accuracy.

The kicker is in a question made famous in my era by the rock band, “The Who.”

Who the f*ck are you?

Seriously, who are you? {sorry to paraphrase; I can't scream-sing}

A.  The you that you “know?”
B.  The you that they “know?”
C.  Both A and B.

If you answered, "C," you’re more likely to be right than not. “A” may be your identity, but “B” is your reputation. And "C" requires perspective. (If you’re wondering why I left out, “D. None of the above,” that’s a great question, better for a topic outside the realm of this article.)

A day in Chris’ life:

Subject: “They just don’t get it.”
Chris: “What do you mean?”
Subject: “I’ve explained X a hundred times and they still don’t do it right.”
Chris: “Are you sure it’s X they don’t understand?”
Subject: “You mean, maybe they don’t understand me?”
Chris: “Well, ... could be half of it.”
Subject: “What’s the other half?”
Chris:

Over 80% of my job is providing perspective; helping folks to see themselves from a “different pair of shoes” or in comparison to a larger group of folks similar to them (i.e., via norms).

And, “No,” I didn’t forget to add the last line for Chris. You already know the answer.

Like a lens to a lens, I don’t clear everything up. My aim is to provide better perspective, not perfect vision in a murky world of psychological errors, both known and unknown; accidental or deliberate.

From Robert Burns’ poem, “To a Louse,”

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

One doesn’t need to be, "some Pow'r", to do powerful things. My "giftie" is the perspective I provide from disciplined study and well-tried experience.

Which "who" matters most to you?

To close, I refer you back to "a day in Chris' life" and ask, "Which “who” matters most to you?"

{Hint: “Would you rather be right? Or influential?”}

The Best Advice for Delivering Bad News

Deliverging Bad News

I once listened to a coaching client describe (vent), in great detail, the multitude of deficiencies of one of their direct reports. This wasn’t the first time this topic had come up in our conversations, so I knew it was more than a “sore spot” for the frustrated leader. Bad news was more than simmering.

This time they meant business.

It was apparent that the “plan of attack” had been refined and rehearsed to ensure that nothing could dislodge the “facts.” Every objection covered, all evidence compiled, I even got a little rattled as my client grew more incensed.

But even hurricanes take a breather. Once the wall of my client’s fury yielded to an "eye" of tranquility, I asked: “Do you think this individual knows how disappointed you are?”

“Absolutely!” my client proclaimed. “There’s no way they can deny it.”

“And how do you think they feel about this?” I asked.

“I can’t see how they could feel anything but shameful” was the reply.

“So, let me get this straight. You intend to deliver negative feedback to someone that already knows they’re falling short of expectations? And, they feel badly about it?”

My client’s shoulders dropped and their once riveting eye contact broke off as they gazed toward the floor. It was obvious where I was going.

To meet the obvious, if regrettable, expectation, I continued, “Why don’t you start your conversation with them by simply asking, ‘How do you feel?’”

“I get it,” they replied softly, “And if I ask in that manner, they’ll probably talk about the performance problems I’ve been ready to unload on them?”

Probably so.

How many times has someone crammed something down your throat that you already knew? What was your reaction?

The great detectives -- Columbo, for example, use riveting questions to tell of their knowing, “Oh, oh, oh, … just one more thing, ma’am. If you weren’t at the scene of the murder of your husband, then how is it that your beloved and loyal guard dog, Gunter, isn’t it, never barked? You see, your neighbors were recording a Youtube video on mindless tranquility at the exact time of your husband’s murder. He pleaded for his life – it’s on the tape – but, Gunter? No, Gunter never barked. Not a whimper.”

The same strategy is employed by the great lawyers, like - Perry Mason. “In closing, I ask the jury, ‘why would anyone actually go ‘coo-coo for coco-puffs?”

Let the jury connect the last dots. It’s far more powerful, psychologically, to come to one’s own conclusion (as it seems) than to have it shoved down their throat.

And the target of question or criticism? They know more than you’ve prepared for. (Incidentally, research proves that punishment is reinforcing to the punisher, so don’t believe your parents' claims through your childhood, “this is going to hurt me more than you.” B.S.) Besides, going into the conversation with “both guns loaded,” will only invoke defense. And this usually doesn’t end well.

Find that moment of tranquility when preparing to enter a tough conversation. Is it possible that other/others know what you’re about to say or do concerning their behavior? If so, ask yourself, “Am I really teaching them a lesson?” or “Am I actually reinforcing my ego?”

Bad news needn’t be badly delivered. It’s usually not news, anyway.

(Favorable comments, only, please)

Want to stay ahead of machines? Think like a four-year old.

I was surprised, and disappointed, that the 2016 presidential debates never addressed the explosive growth of technology. Nothing. National borders, the economy, the environment, ethical behavior, etc. Same deck of cards. All important; none as imminently disruptive as the proliferation of technology. It would have comforted millions to hear candidates say, “Here’s what I will do to protect your job from technology.” But it wasn’t mentioned. Technology was summarily avoided like a port-o-pot with a moist seat; you just don’t go there.

I believe the candidates and networks/discussants worked out a deal to keep the topic out of bounds. Why?

Because technology is rapidly becoming more ubiquitous, unpredictable and disruptive than we thought. Restated in candidate speak, “It’s about the technology, Stupids.”

It absolutely amazes me to understand how one can run a campaign on job growth without addressing technology? News break: Undocumented immigrants, offshoring production and bad international trade agreements aren’t taking jobs. Technology is.

Culture may eat strategy for breakfast. Technology eats whatever it wants.

And one of its favorite appetizers is your job. Continue reading “Want to stay ahead of machines? Think like a four-year old.”