Managing Your Basic Assumptions: Behind the Scenes of Assessment Processes

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“Humans are social animals and one of the most basic behaviors we do constantly is assess the other humans we interact with. For example, as children, we look at our classmates to decide who can become our friends, and gauge who our allies are on the playground. Later, we determine who is the best student to study with, and when dating, who has the potential to be our soulmate. We make ongoing informal assessments of people on a daily basis.

Assessing people is also part and parcel of being a business leader. Sometimes the assessment is done as part of a formal process, for example when interviewing candidates for positions. However, leaders also assess people in informal settings, as in cases when they try to estimate their team members’ commitment to a new vision during a meeting. Being able to make quality assessments of people is essential to being an effective leader – both in informal and formal situations.

Understanding the Assessment Process

We all hold basic assumptions about how to assess people which we are not always conscious of. These assumptions shape our expectations and interpretations. Being aware of them and the mechanisms which underlie how we form assessments, and by following simple guidelines, you can make your assessments much better, know when to rely on your own intuition and how to overcome biases.

Actively wearing “assessment glasses” and focusing on the assessment at hand will help you notice and analyze the interaction with the candidate or employee in a holistic, more accurate way. The first step needed to improve your ability to make accurate assessments is to be aware of several basic assumptions. The second step is to actively manage them. It can truly make your assessment of employees deeper and more accurate.

Basic Assumption #1: “Faking it” is inherent to assessment processes.

Almost always, it is safe to assume that the assessed individual wants to leave a good impression. Whether a candidate for a position or a new employee to a company, people want to impress. When we say, “impress,” we are not referring to lying; we are talking about emphasizing strengths and downplaying weaknesses. We expect candidates to “fake it” a little. Overly honest conduct is inappropriate for these types of situations and could hint at underlying issues related to low self-esteem or underdeveloped social skills.

Given the fact that individuals being assessed will try to mask their weaknesses and make their strengths sound greater to some extent, you can:

  • Pay attention to your feelings when the person is speaking about their strengths. Our feelings can work as lie-detectors. If you feel uncomfortable with the person’s answer, this could indicate that they are embellishing or exaggerating.
  • Ask more questions. When you are uncomfortable with a specific answer, trust your gut and start digging. Don’t hesitate to ask deeper questions regarding issues that seem unclear or incoherent. Have the person explain in more detail and notice when there are holes in the story. More information will give you a better, more holistic, understanding of the individual’s strengths and weaknesses.

Basic Assumption #2: What happens in the assessment session is a representation of a broader picture.

Among psychologists, we have a saying: “What happens in the room, probably happens outside the room.” In other words, what happens during the assessment session probably characterizes the individual in real life. For example, if the individual creates a pleasant environment during the assessment session, they will probably do the same in other situations. If they seem overconfident, and avoid sharing difficulties or asking for help in the assessment session, this also probably characterizes how they will perform in general.

“When assessing an individual, everything counts: the person’s answers, their questions, their body language, and even the silences. It’s not only what is being said and done, but also how it is being said and done.”

Since the variety of situations you can expose the individual to is limited, to get a deeper understanding of how the person will most likely perform later, you should:

  • Be keenly aware of everything that happens during the assessment session. Don’t just pay attention to what the person is saying. Rather, notice the individual’s behaviors, the feelings they arouse in others, and the impression they make. Most likely, these are characteristics that go with them everywhere.

Basic Assumption #3: We form impressions quickly, and we are not always correct.

Our brains constantly process information. From this information, we form impressions intuitively and quickly. After forming our first impression, we tend to collect evidence to support this impression and ignore information that contradicts it. Unfortunately, our first impression might be inaccurate. As the first impression tends to strengthen itself, an endless loop might begin. In order to fight this phenomenon:

  • Keep asking questions to refute your assumptions. Try to prove to yourself that your first impression is wrong. Collect data until you’re confident of the impression you have of the assessed person.
  • When a piece of information about the person doesn’t fit in with your impression, pay attention to it. This could be a sign that your impression is too narrow or biased. Integrate this new piece of information into your understanding of the person to broaden your perspective.
  • If you have colleagues in the assessment session with you, consult with them. They might have a different impression that can help you see additional sides of the individual.

Basic Assumption #4: Interactions have two levels: a concrete level and a meta level.

When speaking with a person, their words convey a lot of information beyond the literal meaning of the spoken words. Listening to the message is important, but sensitivity to the meta-level is also highly beneficial. When assessing an individual, everything counts: the person’s answers, their questions, their body language, and even the silences. It’s not only what is being said and done, but also how it is being said and done.

The meta-level analysis requires a slightly different perspective on the answers – a shifting of your attention to the deeper meaning of the choices that the assessed person made in their answers. It can shed light on the individual’s values, priorities and way of thinking. This kind of analysis is even more useful if you notice a discrepancy in the answers (For example, if a person tells about a past success and their body language seems uncomfortable – there might be a discrepancy in the story). Looking at the meta-level will help you understand when to ask more questions to help you close gaps in your understanding. In order to become aware of the meta-level:

  • While listening to the assessed person speaking, ask yourself the following questions: “Why did they choose to say what they said?” “What did they actually try to say?” “What didn’t they say?” Understanding what wasn’t said or why the candidate chose a specific answer, can make your understanding of the individual broader and deeper.

Basic Assumption #5: Personality assessment isn’t a side job. It requires focus.

Sometimes the assessment session is informal (as in a conversation at the water cooler). These occasions are great for assessing people. The assessed individual may be off guard and reveal different aspects of themselves as compared to a more formal setting. These informal events are excellent opportunities to observe the individual in a natural interaction. However, while the assessed person can be off guard, you need to be focused. In order to do so:

  • Plan ahead what you want to achieve and how. Prepare questions or topics you want to talk about in advance, so you could focus on the individual’s behavior and answers.
  • Actively assess (wear your “assessment glasses”). Seize any opportunity you have to deepen your understanding of the individual. Remember: everything the assessed person does counts. The interaction can either reinforce your impression or lead to more questions you need to ask.

Assessments are a kind of “game.” There is a setting where it takes place: an informal gathering, an interview, a presentation, etc. which defines the boundaries of the interaction. There are rules regarding appropriate conduct and predefined roles and hierarchy. All players know their parts, and follow similar rules. People who conduct psychological assessments professionally are constantly aware of these rules and their role in the interaction and remain in role throughout the interaction. When they are working, they don’t just pay attention to what the other person is saying but also to the myriad of data that can be gathered from the interaction. They are acutely aware of the feelings the other person arouses in them. They contemplate what the person is saying and what not, and how the person is saying it. Also, maybe most importantly, they constantly question their own impressions of the person and use this information to direct their attention to where to dig deeper in their assessment.”

Author: Hila Segal, Synthesis Head Psychologist

Note: This is an article originally published on LinkedIn.)