The bind of binary tools
Sometimes a piece of research just takes hold; especially in the world of coaching and ‘people development’. There are a few things that are held as universal truths by this industry that really intrigue me. How did they get a grip? How true are they? What made them stick?
I’m sure anyone who has sat in a training room since the 1980s has heard the stats about what makes the impact, when we are presenting: 7% of our impact on an audience is through our actual words; 38% through tone of voice; 55% through body language, the story goes. Our man, Mehrabian, combined some (rather tenuous) studies about verbal vs non-verbal communication and the summary says that only 7% of the importance in our presentations is in the actual words we say. This statistic is used across the training rooms of the Western world despite being a misquote of a miscalculation..and yet?
We like it. It works as an idea so we hold it dear.
Are we sure? And how does that message fit now as we mourn the loss of truth and facts in our leaders? Maybe our current politicians simply take Mehrabian to extreme – build the hype and the pizazz and never mind the facts. Certainly at Clearworks, when we work with medical leaders in pharma, biotech and medtech to develop presentation skills and ‘charismatic leadership’ no one would suggest for a moment that they leave the facts aside.
It IS totally true however, that two different humans can present the same tricky, detailed data slide and one can make it deathly boring, and one can bring the house down. That is the place we can go hunting for growth. What behaviours, style, techniques can we develop that help us to remain very much our real-selves and also develop new ways of presenting with confidence and charisma?
So the Mehrabian proposition is easy to go along with. When we're coaching presentation skills it helps us move technical experts out of their heads and into their bodies. Believing this story certainly helps me cope with the fear of losing my memory on stage, knowing I can style it out if I need to..it’s nice to know that we might survive a hole in our facts by assuming a better pose.
But there are some beliefs and assumptions that pervade the training room that are more problematic to me. One of the these is the idea that profiling people with binary terms is helpful. Can a person really be ‘thinking’ and not ‘feeling’ as proposed with the Myers Briggs construct - a psychometric test used so widely that it must have a near100% recognition in UK business. Would someone with a good brain for information not use gut and instinct in any circumstances? I’m not suggesting that people don't tick differently. Of course they do. But my objection is to the linear, polar opposite language used in casual ways.
And I don’t think the best practitioners of MBTI really mean this binary notion. They tell me it’s more sophisticated than that and I imagine there are many skilled coaches using the tool to great effect. The challenge with it though is the language that’s now out and about in the workplace. The binary introverted-extroverted language has been adopted and is now used as a weapon in an assessment centre near you.
People love a test and and a big reveal – but it’s uncomfortable to condone when the fact is that we’re mostly under a bell curve. Nearly everyone falls somewhere in the middle on some of the measures, with a tendency to prefer bits of one and bits of another.
For sure, I am less likely than most to choose to focus on detailed work in the middle of an open plan, noisy office and if you whistle as you work next to me, I might just scream, cry or leave – classic introvert, they say, But I’m much more likely than some to stand on my bar stool and sing the Welsh National Anthem at full belt in the rugby world cup. I’m more likely than some to work in groups of noisy collaborations, and yet, way more likely than some to book a week away alone in the mountains, walking in silence. What do we make of that? What would you like to deduce about me as you interview for your team? That I can lead? That I can’t? That I can collaborate? That I can’t?
I fully agree that raising our understanding of ourselves is step one in any path to self-development, whether that's in leadership or life coaching. Until we know how we roll, how we land on others and what makes us excel or lose our what-not, we can’t hit our top performance. I believe that to be true. But the 2D measure is irritating at best; dangerous at worst.
A great deal of our work at Clearworks these days is with very smart leaders. Techies, geeks, engineers, medics, researchers, pharmacists, mathematicians and all the people who are so often described as “classic introverts”. But this doesn't sit right with me. From what I experience in my clients, the “set” of attributes given to introverts is a flawed concept. We are all a unique combination of quiet and loud, with changing energy and requirements depending on so many factors, including context, subject matter, wellness, audience, even the amount and menu of what we’ve had to eat!
I encourage every leader to notice difference; to stay, as we say in coaching, “in the curious”. How does this manager like to be spoken to? What seems to motivate this employee? Ask them, stay interested and know that they will not tick like you tick. But I beg you not to submit to the simplistic binary either/or.
I haven’t written the PhD and I bow to the work and the stats of those who have, but I know this for sure – the hundreds of hours I’ve spent in the coaching room with ‘The quiet clever people’ tell me that they are not binary, not “Blue”, not one way or the other. Often they have outstanding attributes and some gaps that need some work.. same as we all do; and putting someone in a pink or blue; black or white; introverted or extroverted doesn’t help.
My rejection of the binary measures influences the psychometrics tools that we use at Clearworks. The three key tools that we now use most often here reject the binary measures and look for nuance. They are:
- EQ-I 2.0 which is a superb emotional intelligence awareness tool, based on noticing overlaps and gaps in the way we see ourselves compared with how others experience us. This gives many more opportunities to explore the light and shade, the mutually supporting behaviours and the ones that impact in combination. For example a recent client assessed himself to have ‘low emotional expression’ in combination with ‘high impulse control’. You can see that that combination would present itself as a leader who can be difficult to read – tricky to get close to. That’s one dimension of a classic introversion, but only one. He is also a charismatic public speaker, leader of people and member of a rock band. A complex story, on account of being a human.
- Facet 5 which is based on the Big 5 Personality Traits. By including “Emotionality” as a fifth dimension, we can see how our introversion/extroversion for example may be totally different depending on context and circumstances. We'll explore Facet 5 in its own blog soon.
- Strengths Profile which is a really inexpensive and highly impactful, evidence based tool. Exploring the difference between our natural strengths vs the things we have grown to be good at, that steal our energy.
Let’s stop with the either or and get more curious about the detail. Inclusive and diverse thinking includes the differences in the way we think and operate, and just as we should avoid stereotypes in the case of background, ethnicity, age, ability, so we must avoid stereotypes in function.
Inclusion is linked profoundly with innovation. Let’s avoid a new form of -ism that has crept in. Let’s not let introvertism or extrovertism become a thing.
Now I’m on a roll I could also start to rail against the ‘scientist/creative‘ binary scale that I hear mentioned so often, but I’ll leave that for later. May your scientists be recognised in their creative power every single day.
Thank you to Unsplash Artist Franck V for the cover photo.
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This article is written by Aly King-Smith, Organisational Development Consultant, Executive Coach and Director of Clearworks Coaching.
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