Narrative Psychology as an Assessment Tool

LinkedIn Twitter Facebook

“We often get asked how Synthesis’ method for data collection is more effective than multiple choice tests when assessing candidates’ or executives’ leadership traits. The answer to this question lies in understanding how narrative psychology works and why.

Storytelling is an integral part of being human. We create and share stories with others. It crosses culture, gender, and socio-economic status. Throughout our lives, storytelling is used to teach us, shape our understanding of how society works and entertain us. Stories are the primary means by which we communicate meaning and values – to ourselves and to other people.

Narrative psychology looks at another type of storytelling which equally shapes our lives: the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Narrative psychology studies how human beings create meaning from experiences by portraying themselves as the central figures in their stories. Stories, rather than logical arguments, shape the way we perceive and react to the world.

In one of his most famous speeches, Steve Jobs spoke about connecting the dots of our lives. He said, “[Y]ou can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” Our life events are connected. Each important event leads us to the next. However, it is only in retrospect that we can see how the dots connect. When we tell a story about ourselves, we are connecting the dots of our lives. These stories provide us with a coherent perspective on ourselves. They give us a feeling of stability, meaning and control over our lives. Through our stories, we understand who we are and why we behave the way we do.

At Synthesis, we have read hundreds of personal stories. Each and every one is a unique compilation of meaningful, personal events. The stories always include life-changing events. Sometimes, these events are perceived as dramatic, even by an objective reader. Such events can be positive, such as winning an important competition, getting accepted to an Ivy League university, and founding a company. These events can also be negative, for example, the diagnosis of a severe disease, losing a parent in childhood or encountering a financial crisis. The specific event, the dot, is far less important than the interpretation the person gives to it. As children, things happen to us. We accept those events as facts. Only later, as adults, do we begin to ask ourselves: “How did that event influence my life?” and “What does it say about me?”

When Synthesis psychologists read a person’s life story, we look for the connections between the dots. Sometimes, there is one event that changes a life’s course. This event gives a specific meaning or perspective that guides the individual’s behavior from this point forward. In other cases, it is a self-perception that was formed early in life and continues to color their adult life, both personally and professionally. For example, think of a manager who describes herself as having been a happy, cooperative and pleasant child, as opposed to a manager who says that he was a socially awkward loner at school. Can you imagine how these two narratives influence the leaders they have become?

Specific to Synthesis, our questionnaire is answered online and not in an interview. Respondents are required to write their stories (as opposed to telling them). They are forced to face a blank page. They do not receive clues from an interviewer. This allows for maximum freedom to reflect on and then construct their life story. Reading these stories tells us a lot about the person: values they internalized in childhood, the meaning they find in their lives and the ways they interact with the world.

“Stories are the primary means by which we communicate meaning and values – to ourselves and to other people.”

Analyzing a person’s story to uncover their leadership traits, leadership potential and suitability to a specific role/team/organization takes training and skill. Integrating the content of the story with its structure is important to understanding the person. When analyzing the stories, we look for the inner schemas that make each person an individual. With these schemas, we can understand a person’s leadership abilities and predict their leadership potential and fit.

Equally important, people, especially leaders, don’t work in a vacuum. Executive teams are usually comprised of diverse types of people. The executives come from different backgrounds and hold different perspectives. They have different values and aspirations. Nevertheless, they are supposed to work together to deliver more value than were they to work individually. We use their personal stories to understand their teams’ dynamics. For example, think of a CEO who is characterized by conflict avoidance. This CEO needs to manage a team in which each member insists on their own agenda, while taking risks and rejecting feedback. Can you imagine what their team dynamics are like? Do you think that in this situation they can maximize their potential? Connecting the dots within an individual’s story gives us an understanding of that specific person. Connecting the dots between individuals’ stories can reveal even more. Are the team members’ values congruent? Are they working in the same direction and sharing the same vision? Are the conflicts among team members related to real, current challenges or are they the result of leaders’ past experiences? And, what is needed to help a team maximize its potential? Connecting the dots on both the individual and team levels allows us to understand the strengths and weaknesses of individuals and teams as a whole. We can see what isn’t working well and why, and then create a plan to help the individual and the team to be their best possible selves.”

Note: This is an article originally published on LinkedIn.

Author: Hila Segal, Synthesis Head Psychologist