How Psychometrics can support business and sporting success

 
England’s successful run in The Ashes has led to an interesting debate in the pages of the press about the use of psychometrics in sport. Sadly some of the coverage has been a little misguided and has perpetuated some of the common myths about how psychometrics work and what role they can play in raising both individual and team performance.

Added on 29 August 2013 by John Neal

How Psychometrics can support business and sporting success

England’s successful run in The Ashes has led to an interesting debate in the pages of the press about the use of psychometrics in sport. Sadly some of the coverage has been a little misguided and has perpetuated some of the common myths about how psychometrics work and what role they can play in raising both individual and team performance.

England cricket’s use of psychometrics – tools which help players develop a better understanding of themselves and others – is not new. It has been part of the development process for players for many years. But it’s important to understand that psychometrics is an intervention which takes place as part of a much wider developmental strategy – not some kind of horoscope that can be used to predict sporting success or a magic bullet that has propelled the team to success in the current series.

English cricket has a long term strategy for developing players from the playground through to the international arena. It places a high priority on investing and coaching and employs a whole array of development processes to bring new players through and help those already on the field compete successfully at the highest levels. Psychometric tests – such as Myers Briggs and the Strengths Deployment Inventory (SDI) – are used as part of this strategy to help players understand what motivates them and how they typically react under pressure.

When we use these same psychometric tools with business leaders at Ashridge we see them as the start of a journey towards greater self-awareness. Managers (and players) who understand what makes them tick what drives them insane and how they are likely to react in any given situation will be able to lead people much more effectively. This is because once they understand themselves they are better able to recognise what drives and engages others and to adjust their behaviour and approach accordingly to achieve a win-win situation.

So often in business conflict arises because people don’t understand where others are coming from. Problems that could easily be resolved with a better appreciation of what drives individuals are allowed to fester resulting in an unpleasant working atmosphere and a corresponding drop in performance. It’s no different in sport – witness the high profile spats that divided the Australian cricket team last winter and no doubt had a negative impact leading into the Ashes series.

The point can be illustrated neatly in business terms with the example of the ‘messy desk’ – a small but significant issue that can cause enormous frustration and ill-feeling amongst peers. To one individual a tidy desk is hugely important both in practical and emotional terms. It means they can find what they need and gives them a clear runway to approach their day in an organised manner and maximise their chances of success. For their colleague who operates amidst a sea of discarded paper and used coffee cups time spent tidying their desk is an unnecessary distraction from the task in hand. They would rather spend the time phoning clients and driving sales than organising files and emptying the rubbish bin. Both parties are driven by wanting to succeed they just go about it in different ways – but if they both take the time to understand each other’s perspective harmony is much more likely to reign.

The sporting world has also developed a good understanding of the role psychometrics has to play in team dynamics. There are a number of tools (Belbin Team Roles for example) which can help teams develop a better understanding of how they behave when things are going well – and how they react when they are not.

Here at Ashridge we have recently been working with a business who wanted to get an insight into why an important project had failed to deliver. Psychometric tools – used as part of a wider programme drawing on some of the latest research and neuro-science around performance under pressure – provided a fascinating insight into what went wrong.

Analysis of the results showed the team that when they were under pressure they typically resorted to highly analytical behaviour spending their time obsessing about what had gone wrong rather than making important decisions and taking action to turn the situation around. For this particular team the insights they gained were transformational. They told us it was like a ‘light bulb’ going on that helped them become much more alert to their behaviour and make the changes that would lead to success next time round.

Psychometrics is at its most useful when used as part of the bigger picture. It should be the start of an enlightening conversation which helps people move from hindsight to foresight – and which ultimately can give them the edge over the competition.

Psychometrics can’t take the credit for England’s Ashes victory – there was a sound long-term strategy behind their success – but the use of personality tools coupled with top quality coaching undoubtedly will have played a part.

John Neal is an Ashridge associate and director of the Sport Business Initiative at Ashridge