HR and OD practitioners use psychometric assessment widely in South African organisations. On a macro level and in our consciousness, such assessments have become trusted and valuable tools through their positive scientific and professional impact on talent management and organisational development initiatives. However, on the micro level and in our unconscious mind, many individuals experience receiving psychometric feedback as anxiety provoking. It implies hearing new and sometimes unexpected information about the self, followed by implications and expectations to adjust their self-concepts, self-worth, how they take up their work roles and how they relate to ‘the other’.
In this article, we would like to address this ‘dark side’ of psychometric assessment. These are concerns about the unconscious representation and impact of psychometric feedback on individuals. From our experiences in individual coaching with clients after group feedback sessions, we believe that individuals often walk away with unfinished personal business to the detriment of their work performance. For example, they may not fully understand the feedback, they feel scared to question it and are not given the space to process its meaning and impact. As a result, their confusion and anxiety are suppressed – hidden from consciousness where it often generates performance anxiety about their work. We base our arguments on Systems Psychodynamics – the study of the manifestation of unconscious behaviour in organisations. It assumes that anxiety (a natural dynamo of unconscious behaviour) triggers defences in the unconscious. The most primal defence is to split the system (in-the-mind) into a good and a bad. It is natural to own the good (called introjection – for example, ‘I am a good person.’) and give away the bad (called projection – for example, ‘They are the bad ones.’). Individuals identify (buy into) projections that are placed onto and into them by authority figures, more so when individuals have the valence to carry the specific projection. Such individuals then play out the behaviour as if it belongs to them. This dynamic is called projective identification and illustrates the unconscious power of authority figures in organisations. Teams also unconsciously use their members to carry specific behaviours on its behalf so as to relieve others from having to own or deal with it. Examples are becoming the hero (a projection of the good) or the dumb one (a bad projection). These projections often manifest in teams with high levels of rivalry, competition and envy.
The following coaching cases illustrate some of the above dynamics.
Case 1. As part of a team building event, psychometric assessment was used to measure thinking styles and preferences. The client (an engineer) measured as the only non-linear thinking team member. This matter was strongly singled out by the consultant. The team joked about this and kept reminding him about his difference. The client felt embarrassed, believing that he did not fit the team culture and was not clever enough for his professional role. He had to work hard during coaching to realise that psychometric assessment and the consultant represented authority figures in his mind, whom he found difficult to challenge. We hypothesise that the team’s competitiveness created envy towards a colleague who was being singled out, resulting in the bad projections onto and into him in order to feel good about themselves.
Case 2. The client’s life story was about working herself out of poverty and surviving several abusive relationships where she had become sceptical in order to socially survive. She compensated by working hard and performing consistently well over eight years without being promoted. Her relationship with her manager was filled with mistrust, which created the impression that the manager was threatened by her competence. The client experienced high levels of survival anxiety (fear of losing her job) and feelings of stuck-ness. She then received psychometric feedback labelling her as a ‘loyal sceptic’ which was congruent to her life story. Her manager then zoomed in on this label to support the decision to not promote her. We hypothesise that the manager’s personal competition with the client sparked bad projections (of not being good enough) onto and into the client, justified by the psychometric label of scepticism (which was incorrectly interpreted as incompetence). Also, the manager made the client the container for her own scepticism. These cases illustrate how psychometric feedback is used to unconsciously position individuals within the system making them the containers of a specific team behaviour.
We hypothesise that psychometric assessment can easily create labels of difference which, especially in highly competitively charged teams, become singled out and projected onto and into individuals as if they own only that piece of behaviour. These individuals identify with and introject the behaviour, often exacerbated by the authority placed on psychometrics. The result is that these individuals hold the specific (often unwanted behaviour, acting it out on behalf of the system. This dynamic also impacts the team – the projected behaviours are ‘locked into’ the receiver meaning that no other team member has access to the behaviour.
We suggest that practitioners give psychometric feedback with systemic awareness of its impact on the individual, consciously and unconsciously. Practitioners need to consider the context, the audience, the effect on the individual in the here- and-now, for example, in a group setting, and allow thorough personal and organisational processing of the feedback. We suggest that practitioners and organisations look at such dynamics from a systems psychodynamic lens to understand some of the unintended harmful effects of feedback.
Appropriate books as background to this phenomenon are:
Campbell, Groenbaek. Taking positions in the organisation. London: Karnac.
Huffington, Armstrong, Halton, Hoyle, Pooley, . Working below the surface. The emotional life of contemporary organisations. London: Karnac.
Calum McComb is a consulting organisational Psychologist with a special interest in coaching executives and teams in SMMEs, listed and global organisations. Frans Cilliers is a Psychologist and Emeritus Professor specialising in Leadership development and Coaching.