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The value of psychometric testing in crisis management teams

Posted on 20th July 2016 at 11:22am

Based on his full article in the current edition of CRJ, Rob Shimmin looks at personality types and asks if there is any benefit in constructing a team with individuals with known differences in personality.

There’s no getting away from it: if you’re responding to a crisis, natural or corporate – at some point you’re going to have to make a decision. Usually lots of them and in a highly constrained timeframe. It’s the quality of those decisions and the ability of the team around them to execute that can make the difference between a favourable and disastrous outcome in crisis management.

Knowing the personality make-up of each team member can ensure you give the lead to the personality best suited to the situation (Viktoriya Malovo / 123rf)

In his book Primal Leadership (2002) Daniel Goleman describes six styles of leadership and suggests that great leaders are able to select the style appropriate to the situation. A crisis that has dramatically damaged morale in the workforce might require an affiliative or democratic style to improve the situation whereas a natural disaster requiring immediate and rapid action may dictate the need for a more commanding style, as illustrated in Figure 1 (right).

Even the best leaders sometimes struggle to adapt their style. Look at Churchill – invaluable as a wartime leader and unceremoniously dumped by the British public immediately after the war. Now think of the people who have made the big decisions in a crisis you have been involved with. Has their selected style matched the need perfectly? Did they dominate decision making with a ‘their way or the highway’ approach? Did they fall victim to analysis paralysis and fail to make the tough calls in a timely manner?

To understand more about style adaptation, I spoke with Adrian Bassett, an Occupational Psychologist at global executive search firm Odgers Berndtson.

“Our approach to executive assessment includes psychometric profiling.” He said. “We look for behavioural evidence that mirrors the attributes highlighted by the testing. We’re also very interested in behaviours that might derail performance when the pressure is on such as in a major crisis. Essentially it’s about ‘over-played’ patterns of behaviour. There is a fine line between a confident leader and an arrogant leader, or a conscientious leader and one who is unwilling to delegate.

“What we find is that effective executives can usually manage these risks well. For example, a candidate who is aware that they prefer to decide on ‘gut-instinct’ without gathering broader opinion may overcome this by disciplining themselves to involve others in the decision-making process. On a day-to-day basis this executive will probably show inclusiveness in decision-making but the risk is that when workload and pressure increase in a crisis their tendency is to revert to norm.”

So if psychometric testing suggests a weakness that might emerge under pressure, should that executive or officer be relegated to the bench when a crisis hits? No, the secret to better decision-making is awareness, both personal and group. In the above example, a mitigating action would be to place senior team members around the leader who are more inclusive and can redress the balance.

Crisis simulations and exercises are a powerful way of ‘knocking the corners off’ teams but psychometric testing can take that art form to a more precise science. Knowing the personality make-up of each team member can ensure you give the lead to the personality best suited to the situation. Too often we use a much blunter tool in Gold Commander or crisis-leader selection: Seniority.

TMS Development International Ltd (TMSDI) is a UK based organisation skilled at profiling team members. The company uses tools like the Margerison-McCann Team Management Profile, which seeks to measure personal preferences for different types of work as well as overall behaviours. Working on a crisis simulation with the UK’s SO15 Counter-Terrorism, my contact told me that an above average number of his colleagues fell in the ‘Thruster-Organiser’ major role preference – indicating a collective drive for action, plans and structure (see Figure 2: the Margerison-McCann Team Management Wheel, Reproduced by kind permission of TMS Development International Ltd, 2016 - right).

I asked TMSDI Joint Managing Director Mark Gilroy what the significance of such a finding might be. “We see that a preference in the Thruster-Organiser area of the Wheel is quite common. This can often be the result of a culture which rewards certain behaviours or tasks, or simply a ‘halo’ effect of recruiting in the same image. One of the key benefits of profiling a team is to elevate their awareness of any potential bias in the group, and to help put systems in place to ensure the best thinking is always applied to a problem,” he said.

Mark also recognised the tendency for individuals to revert to type under pressure: “Our observations have consistently shown that, without the enhanced awareness that psychometric profiles offer, our personality traits can become accentuated and entrenched when the going gets tough. In times like this, if left unchecked, ‘groupthink’ can occur and teams may find themselves making poor decisions with incomplete information.”

You might argue that one place where ‘groupthink’ might be dangerous would be an airliner cockpit. British Airways probably leads the world in its rigorous and continual examination of Cockpit Resource Management (CRM). In essence, this involves getting the very best from the crew when things go wrong in the air.

I asked British Airways Senior First Officer Allan Bailey if he fitted a ‘BA pilot type’ and what his view was on the potential for differing personalities to affect decisions in the event of a crisis. He told me: “Most airlines tend to recruit stable extroverts, it’s true that pilots can be a somewhat homogenous group. However, there are still differing styles of working which can be accommodated in a meticulously safe operating environment.

“The biggest learning over the years from CRM has been the importance of a junior first officer feeling comfortable and able to question the decision of a 30 year-plus experienced captain if he or she deviates from Standard Operating Procedure. There have been avoidable accidents in the past (with other airlines) where ‘saving face’ has come at an unacceptably high price.”

When all the decision-making’s done, it has to be communicated. The decision as to who speaks to the media is often (again) driven simply by seniority. Putting the right rank or board level spokesperson in front of the cameras should (in my opinion) be secondary to finding a spokesperson most likely to resonate with the audience we’re trying to influence.

In conclusion I might offer this suggestion. Prior to your next crisis simulation, consider offering psychometric testing for key players in the decision making team and use what you learn to build awareness not just of what decision was made when and with what information... but why a decision might have gone a certain way.

It will take your readiness to a new level.

Rob Shimmin is the founder of Shimmin Communications which advises global brands and organisations before, during and after a crisis. He is also a qualified executive coach. This blog is based on a more in-depth article in CRJ 11:4

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