If you’re like most leaders, at some point you’ll want develop a better understanding of yourself and your people.  This is probably because you intuitively know that a deeper understanding among and between your team can lead to improved cohesion and commitment.

Personality profiling tools are increasingly presented as a performance solution, yet current research shows that employee engagement is at all-time lows. Clearly something is amiss. In this post you will learn why profiling can be problematic, and what the best leaders do differently to build team capability.

By properly examining the underbelly of profiling, you will be better placed to use these tools effectively, instead of being used by them. Avoiding these common traps can help you develop a more nuanced view of your people, and improve your ability to unite, align and guide your team toward success.

Can Profiling Really Improve Performance?

Today’s glut of personality profiling tools has grown in response to a demand that reportedly exceeds five hundred million dollars a year. Almost one in five organisations use personality profiling for hiring, and just as many or more for team development.

Yet profiling as a method is not new. Actually, it is probably better described as an instinct than a method. People have been profiling each other since we developed the capacity to think, and it serves a very important purpose. Unfortunately, that purpose has little to do with relationships, teamwork or performance.

To profile someone is to assess them, to size them up and basically determine whether they are predator or prey. At its core, profiling is about survival not performance, judgement not understanding. The popularity of profiling tools is a largely due to our most primitive instincts.

One of the earliest methods of profiling was a pseudoscience called ‘phrenology’. It rose to prominence in the early 1800s as the means for determining a person’s psychological attributes. The methods creator – Franz Joseph Gall – argued that the brain was simply the hardware of the mind, and therefore the makeup of the brain could tell us something about a person’s mind.

The process gained popularity in no small part because of its simplicity. Essentially all that was required to understand another person was to observe the shape of their skull, and feel its surface for specific indentations. Sounds ridiculous, right?

Of course, no one today would accept such an oversimplified approach, and those who know their history would more likely condemn it.  This is because phrenology was commonly used to justify all kinds of prejudice and bias.

Unfortunately, today’s profiling methods are not much more effective than Phrenology when it comes to understanding people. Sure, they may seem a whole lot more scientific and comprehensive, but anyone who knows anything about brain research will tell you that we are still barely scratching the surface.

Personality is the result of a multitude of factors, each mixing together as the brain forms during our formative years. Patterns of care, life experiences, social and cultural norms along with plenty of other influences play a role in creating a world view that is as unique as a fingerprint.

The brain is a universe yet to be fully mapped, and every person is a galaxy rarely explored. Yet because profiling is viewed as a panacea, many leaders remain more tourist than traveller – relying on the same routes, and satisfied with only superficial experiences.

Knowing what someone is like does not help us understand them. To truly understand someone and develop a robust working relationship, we must understand why they are the way they are. To fully comprehend someone, we must work to learn how the watch works, not what time it is.

Of course, those who spruik profiling tools often sell improved engagement, commitment and or performance, but they are actually capitalising on our survival instincts. More often the process of profiling actually undermines the very relationships leaders seek to strengthen.

Why Your Lazy Lizard Brain Is Limiting Your Leadership.  

To understand why we find profiling tools so seductive, we need to recognise something about how the brain actually works. In order to do this, let’s play a little game. Please read through the following questions and their answers, then answer the last on your own.

What do we call a tree that grows from acorns? [Oak]

What do we call a funny story [Joke]

What sound does a frog make [Croak]

What is another word for cape [Cloak]

What do we call the white part of an egg [???]

If the word yoke popped into your head or you blurted it out instead of the word albumen (or just egg white), you just experienced the way your brain prefers to process the world. At our core we are hardwired for survival, and that means our brains are constantly detecting patterns and creating shortcuts that can cut cognitive load.

The brain is about as fuel efficient as a pickup truck. Lots of thinking drains your energy stores, and this is risky when it comes to survival. The animal inside you wants to conserve as much energy as possible in order to maximise your chances of survival in the event of danger.

The brain, at its best…

What Your Brain Looks Like

Lazy brains in busy people make simplistic solutions very seductive. We much prefer a soothing, oversimplified story to describe someone than the messy complex reality. Philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls this tendency the ‘Narrative Fallacy’, and it causes all kinds of misunderstandings and mistakes.

Because of these tendencies, we often interpret results from profiling tests as an accurate portrayal of people when in fact they are simply useful models. Our lazy lizard brain creates the illusion of understanding when in reality we have simply acquired new knowledge.

During an interview with Harvard Business Review, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic (the CEO of Hogan Insights, which is a prominent personality profiling company) explained that models are either useful or accurate but never both. No model can accurately explain the complexity of a person, and the assumption that it can is very damaging to relationships.

When we let these tools act as a substitute for our own thinking. We effectively outsource the effort required to build and maintain strong working relationships. This sends a very clear message to subordinates – ‘spending time to get to know you is too hard, I’d rather read a report’.

Unfortunately, the end result is usually the absolute opposite of the original intention: functional, surface level relationships characterised by transactional interactions. Potentially, we might become more efficient at working with others by avoiding certain ways of relating, but this should not be mistaken for cohesion or commitment.

Functional relationships frequently buckle under pressure. When things go wrong people will either be too afraid to speak openly and honestly about issues, or they will attempt to dominate their peers by using aggressive and antisocial behaviour.

This unsettling cycle of unhealthy repression or expression damages trust, and promotes survival of self over success of team. Obviously, this is hardly a recipe for loyalty, cohesion, commitment or performance.

If profiling is not the answer then, what is to be done?

How to The Best Leaders Really Build Their Teams: Three Steps For Success.

Management guru Peter Drucker was fond of reminding almost anyone who would listen, ‘what everyone knows is usually wrong’. He reasoned that uncommon results are rarely achieved through common approaches, and therefore convention should always be questioned.

In the case of building better teams, it would seem his philosophy stands the test of time. While many leaders continue to lean on profiling and other ‘proven’ methods, a few do things differently and predictably reap the rewards.

Success leaves clues, but not where most people look. Some leaders and their teams will succeed because of any combination of sheer talent, luck and or timing. There is little to learn from these examples. Instead, we are much better served studying those who succeeded in spite of the odds.

One recent example stands out. In September 2017, The Richmond Football Club capped off a stunning turnaround to win the premiership after finishing thirteenth in the Australian Football League the previous season. The championship broke a 37-year drought and caught the whole competition off guard.

At the beginning of the season, Damien Hardwick – the teams coach – was considered lucky to have survived a thorough review. In fact, few believed he would see out the season. His team had several established stars, and some smart recruiting added talent, but these were far from game changers.

Despite gloomy predictions from the pundits, the Tigers seemed to get better as the competition wore on. By the end of the season no team could match them for intensity, commitment or unity. Suddenly a mediocre group had become world beaters. Throughout the finals, they did not just beat their opponents, they eviscerated all who stood between them and success.

To understand how leaders like Hardwick turn talent into team, it can be fruitful to deconstruct their success. Knowing Damien, many of his staff and athletes quite well, I know they would not agree their achievement can be boiled down to anything resembling a formula.

I do not intent to oversimplify or trivialise their success, this would undermine the smarts, skill and effort the whole club invested over much more than one year. However, I do believe some important aspects of their story can provide leaders seeking unity with some very valuable answers.

In studying some of the changes Hardwick made, three key steps become apparent:

First create space.

Next, encourage disclosure.

Last, invest time.

Create Space.

The responsibilities of leadership can be overwhelming, and somewhere along the line it is easy to forget that the people part of the job, is the job. When you spend too much time placating the wrong people (anyone outside your team), you often neglect to invest time with your team.

After a disastrous 2016 season, Hardwick realised his relationship with his job, his team and the sport had degenerated to one he was not proud of. He did not turn away from the reality, he looked inward to understand it, and then went about addressing it.

The most successful leaders I have worked with have always been more editor than engineer. They work to strip away the complexity from their roles, and roles of others in order to make success more visible. Hardwick did this by working with his staff to get back to the basics.

This meant simplifying the strategy so that it could be more easily communicated. In doing this, he reduced the need for long technical teaching sessions, and created more space for meaningful interactions.

Encourage Disclosure.

One clear example of these meaningful interactions was dubbed ‘the HHH sessions’. During these sessions, one person stood up in front of their peers and shared three stories: one of hardship, another about a hero and another about a life highlight. Hardwick started this off, and his players followed in succession.

The genius in this simple initiative is in how it builds trust. When you share something personal with someone, you are essentially sharing a secret. Secrets are valuable and it is human nature to want to reciprocate when someone offers you something of value.

Social science studies show that disclosure is the key element in strong, lasting relationships. In fact, this one element when introduced to an interaction between any two people can create long lasting bonds. When people share something of themselves, the ensuing interactions go beyond the usual surface level.

The watch word frequently repeated among the tigers’ players during season 2017 was ‘connection’. When the chips were down or the stakes were high, the bonds built on the back of better interactions were there for all to see. The Tigers played for each other, longer and harder than everyone else.

Spend Time.

Sharing some secrets over a campfire while on retreat is not what the Tigers did. One of the main reasons initiatives like the HHH sessions are perceived as gimmicks is because they are almost always used infrequently. When we spend time on something, we show it is important. When we do things haphazardly and half-heartedly we don’t build trust, we breed cynicism.

The HHH sessions went on for not one week, not two weeks – but forty-four weeks. One team member shared themselves with their team each and every week. Carving out time in the weekly schedule sent a very clear message: this is not a gimmick, getting to know each other is vital to our success.

Instituting this as weekly ritual also gave each experience more gravity than were it to be done back to back over a period of hours or days. This was not a box to be ticked, this was something to take very seriously in service of shared success.

When the rhythm of day to day work is centred around on processes, functions, and results. You Get functional relationships that produce predictable outcomes. If you’re wanting more however, you need to invest time to unite and align your people. To avoid being gimmicky, create rituals like the HHH sessions that work for your context and embed them into your routine.

The Take Home.

Unity leads to improved capability, but beware of common mistakes. Very often tools are gimmicks, and gimmicks can be tools. Profiling is not a solution, it is simply information.

To build a better team do three things: create space for meaningful interactions, encourage disclosure to build strong bonds, and be consistent to avoid cynicism.