As an occupational psychologist recently undergoing full Executive Coaching accreditation (thanks to the excellent Ashridge Coaching for Consultants programme) – I have experienced the interesting challenge of coaching without the use of my beloved psychometric tests. The closest description to how that feels is that it is like having one hand tied behind my back. At least, that’s how it was initially. My Ashridge tutor Erik de Haan, who has written eloquently about the dangers of “instrument attachment” in coaching (1), encouraged me at the start of the programme to shed my comfort blanket and just see what it was like to work without the “prop” of the test results (I emphasize that this is my paraphrase of his advice, not his words). Whilst feeling initially a little resistant, I saw real merit in what he was suggesting: I could focus 100% of my attention on listening to the client, attending to cues, working with what comes up in the session, preventing pre-conceived ideas, and avoiding too much focus on intellectual interpretation rather than the coaching relationship. I learned to tolerate the discomfort of parting from what had been a backbone of all my previous coaching work. I paid close attention to what was happening in the room between me and my client. I used what was happening between us to reflect what might be happening outside, in the client’s workplace. I learned to pay greater attention to what I was experiencing within the coaching relationship and what that was telling me about the client and their particular challenges. So did I need to understand more about the client’s personality traits? Would a psychometric profile have really added to our work; enriched the relationship; improved the outcomes of the coaching?

I am left to conclude that for some clients, deepening their insight into how their personality is likely either to help or hinder their leadership and personal effectiveness is undoubtedly helpful, for the following reasons:

  1. Psychometric profiles provide a framework for a different sort of conversation: whilst for some clients it feels intrusive, for others, focusing on data (i.e. the results of the psychometric tests) can come as a relief from some of the more introspective and emotional elements of coaching.
  2. Certain traits and facets of personality do not necessarily become clear through a client’s narrative, unless they are exceptionally self-aware or, more importantly, “psychologically minded”. One of these is anxiety. Understanding how much resilience is “hard wired” is invaluable as a predictor and contributor to leadership effectiveness.
  3. With skilled interpretation, subtle patterns can emerge from a set of psychometric data which, when put together with observations from the coaching dialogue, can provide a powerful source of information for the client which, in my experience, can lead to real break-throughs in the coaching process. Understanding, for example, how certain traits such as conscientiousness are likely to play out, depending on how resilient, agreeable or open-minded the client might be: a highly reactive, tough minded leader who is also highly conscientious will potentially be more inclined to antagonise others than a conscientious leader who is calm and compliant. Both may be effective but in different ways. These tend to be the “aha” moments for many clients.
  4. For some clients, having an evidence base is important. Arguably, coaching is a useful opportunity for them to experience working without one (rather like I am trying to work without the tests!). But for some clients, understanding the basis for some of their reactions and behaviour, particularly when under stress, proves invaluable to their development. There is a significant evidence base underpinning the relationship between personality and leadership and some clients find this helpful. Most are astonished at how accurately the personality profiles portray them.

All that said, I continue to coach many of my clients without psychometric tests, at least initially, until something might emerge in the coaching that makes them more relevant and desirable for a client to explore. I am no longer wedded to introducing them as almost a compulsory “baseline”. I am over my separation anxiety! I am increasingly comfortable to go with what emerges in the discussion rather than starting with a specific set of tools. I recognise the risk of a flight into intellect that comes from having a set of data on which to focus the coaching conversation. Yet I continue to miss some of the information that good psychometrics can give me about a client. I am, at heart, a psychologist who remains fascinated by personality and the enormous impact it has on everything we do. I recognise that context and learning also play a significant role. For me the challenge is how to weave all these elements together to develop a client’s understanding of themselves and their impact on others. I have learned, however, that I can do this through a rich coaching relationship as well (I hope!) as I can with any psychometric tool.

As ever I would be really interested to hear of others’ experiences in relation to the use of psychometrics in Executive Coaching.

1. De Haan, E. and Metselaar, C. Diagnostic tools in executive coaching – more harm than good? Coaching Today, July 2015, 16-17