Fuck StrengthsFinder

Recently, my friend and colleague Becky Elliott took one of those popular self-assessment tests, and blogged about the results and her reaction to them.

Why am I sobbing over test results? At 42, aren’t I too old for this sh*t.?! These results aren’t even a matter of sickness or health.

From https://beckyelliott.com/2019/10/07/finding-your-strengths/

As strong as her reaction was, mine was equally visceral. Because I hate those damn tests. It’s not that I hate the results; or that I hate the process of taking the tests; or that I hate the way people who love the tests identify themselves using their test results. I hate the way these tests work and their methodology (or lack thereof).

You know that common-sense, simple diet advice from Michael Pollan that was all the rage a few years back?

“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Well, I have my own version of that advice for self-assessments. It’s based on

  • 50+ years on this planet
  • Working in tech (jobs and companies) and out
  • Working for people and having people work for me
  • Working at companies that ranged in size from small to large to ludicrous
  • Suffering through all manner of assessments from Meyer’s-Briggs to StrengthsFinder to home-grown, custom-crafted, artisinal, bloviated, navel-gazing

That common sense advice is this:

“They don’t tell you anything your Mom, or a good friend, and (probably) you didn’t already know”

They are no more a reliable indicator of your patterns of behavior than your astrological sign. They reinforce your own confirmation biases. They maybe (MAYBE) tell you something you suspected but were afraid to face (again, you could have just asked Mom). And they offer precious little in the way of suggesting meaningful actionable changes or adaptations.

They are a cheap way for corporate HR departments to get out of the real work of fostering a positive corporate culture (or at least facilitating the creation of that culture by management).

It’s not even therapy. Because if you think that

  • Taking a 1 hour online exam
  • Plus (maybe) reading the book that came with the test
  • Plus a (maybe) getting a four-hour offsite company meeting that (maybe) describes either how to take or how to interpret the test

…is going to be a good substitute for the hard work of therapy, self-reflection, analysis, and improving personal accountability, then I’m sorry to be the one to inform you, but you’re going to get exactly what you paid for (in time and effort, if not money).

Obviously, I have a lot of strong opinions about this (no surprise there, right?). But this post isn’t just about me venting my spleen. I’d like to think this blog is (usually) about offering some of that meaningful, actionable solutions I whined about earlier.

What are the alternatives to these tests?

Like any system, what you want to know is how you are performing, where there are repeatable failure modes, and which subsystems or elements contribute to those repeatable failures.

The first step in that process is to put some monitors in place. That includes

  • A diary (ie: logging)
  • Checking in with Mom or a trusted friend or a professional (poll-based metrics)
  • Giving permission to trusted advisers to stop you when they detect you doing something sub-optimal (trap-style messages)
  • Role-playing situations you find challenging (synthetic transactions)
  • Becoming more aware of your inner thoughts and emotions and observing how they affect your actions (tracing)

Next, keep your IT Practitioner hat on, and that means “follow the data”. We’ve all seen monitoring or test results that confirm our suspicions, only to have both the results and suspicions contradicted by subsequent investigation that yields better information.

At the same time, don’t obsess. You don’t run the same code through the test suite 20 times if you get the same results back after the 3rd run. You don’t monitor at one-second intervals if the 1, 5, 10, and 15 minute averages all show consistent responses. Good enough is, in fact, good enough.

What I’m saying is, somewhere between “single anecdote” and “incontrovertible proof” lies “compelling insight”. And when you have that, you should accept it and move forward.

When you have what you consider to be compelling data about the current state of your (physio-psycho-emotional) systems, move to the phase where you plan out your next actions. Maybe that means mitigation of potential risk; maybe it means investing in additional resources. But it also means acknowledging where our systems are running smoothly, where they are strong and performant, where they shine because they were well designed and well maintained.

This is something we IT folks don’t do enough of – not for our systems and certainly not for ourselves. Now is your change to change that anti-pattern, and by “now” I mean the actual function “now();” – whatever “now” you are experiencing as you read this, that’s the “now” I’m talking about. Get to work!

Of course, the data feeds the action plan. At this point, you are able to take the steps you need because you know they’re needed. Not because someone else reads the tea leaves of a ones-size-fits-all assessment and tells you; or because you hope it will help in some vague way. If the data shows you are impatient, you can work on that. Work better in seclusion? Need to be surrounded by activity? Prefer to work on multiple things at once? Get along better with x type of people? Have trouble with y type of people? Any and all of those can be worked on and “solved” for, once you have the data.

“So how is that different than StrengthsFinder?” you ask. Because that’s one data point, and (In My not-so Humble Opinion) not a very good one.

After all of that, what’s the take-away?

If you want to take StrengthsFinder, or Meyers-Briggs, or have your star chart created, or your palm read, great. If it offers you comfort, great. If it makes you uncomfortable in a healthy way, great. Many of us – especially those working in tech – find things that motivate us to improve ourselves in the most unlikely of places.

But if you take – or are told to take – one of those assessments and you experience frustration, confusion, disappointment, or stronger negative emotions; or if those assessments will be used by the company to affect your work or career; then I would say find a way to opt out. If the company won’t let you opt out, then at least make sure folks know you are taking it under protest.

One good part of opting out or taking it under protest is that your company’s response is actually a VERY strong indicator of whether this is someplace you want to continue your journey.

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