Talent Assessment Tools: Key to Talent Development OR Talent Destruction?

69% of learning and development professionals say that talent is the number one priority in their organizations. 90% of executives believe that learning and development programs would help close the skills gap – yet 50% of learning and development professionals are challenged to get their employees to make time for learning and development.

Sure, there’s a plethora of talent assessment tools on the market which claims a range of benefits. Ranging from work samples and simulations, cognitive ability and problem-solving tests, personality tests, structured vs unstructured interviews, skills assessment surveys to skills and competency mapping frameworks. So why is it difficult for organizations to get employees to make time for learning and development? I believe it’s because of the way organizations are assessing their employees’ skills.

The Role of Assessment Tools

I am not convinced that learning and development professionals or executives truly put themselves in the ‘human emotion shoes’ of their employees to fully understand the skills they feel are important to develop and then subsequently demonstrate through the required learning and development programs. And I believe this ultimately comes down to the talent assessment tools lacking the ability to truly understand how human emotions impact the assessment process and the learning and development motivations of those being assessed.

Does the typical person (some call this person – employee, staff, talent or even subject, but they are human beings who are characterized by a smorgasbord of emotions) really care about all of the shiny features, graphs, charts and reports that these tools spit out……?

A role for these types of assessment tools certainly does exist. They often help decision makers, hiring managers and, to a lesser extent the person being assessed, to see where they and how their ‘talent’ stack(s) up against the competition in today’s ever increasing ‘war on talent’. Terms like ‘do more with less’, ‘put the right person in the right role’, to ‘organizational efficiency enhancement’ abound, and the exhaustive range of assessment tools has certainly been a lucrative business for many involved…though not perhaps the actual ‘person’ being assessed.

Don’t Overlook the Human Touch

Mounting research and practical real-world experience of conducting these types of assessments present a different picture. The use of assessment tools is not consistent, nor are the results generated through them always used in an intended way. Often, data can be presented that falls by the wayside in the recruitment, selection and promotion (talent development) processes used in small and large organizations.

Or even worse, this data is conveniently overlooked as part of the decision-making process on where to ‘put’ the person who has been assessed. Not to mention that very few, if any, organizations and the assessors consider the true, human impact of what it’s like to actually go through one of these talent assessment processes…think about George Clooney’s character in 2009 film, Up In The Air to see a fictionalized (yet true) account of what it’s like as the assessor and the person being assessed. It can be crushing for the person being assessed (and in fairness, can be hard for the assessor if they know the outcome of the assessment may lead to ‘talent exiting the building’).

I’ve sat through a number of talent assessment processes in which I’ve encountered people breaking into tears, to admitting their perceived incompetence (they were actually highly competent and emotionally self-aware) to verbally attacking me.

All this to say, that we are dealing with real people, who have real emotions that are based on real-world experiences. And we sometimes don’t appreciate this, overlook it or don’t recognize it as an important part of who that person is when they ‘show up’ for the assessment session (their ability to display or develop the required skills is affected by this) ….

So I want to say to those being assessed by these tools, those carrying out the assessment using these tools, and yes, those consultants out there who use the results of these assessments do help their clients ‘do more with less’, ‘put the right person in the right role’, and support ‘organizational efficiency enhancement’ initiatives.

The next time the tendency to define or allocate a person to a particular position on a ‘talent grid’ rears its head…stop and think about the following:

  1. People are people: A one-sized approach to assessing a person’s current ability and/or their future capability does not exist. Seek first to truly understand the person you are interacting with and refine your approach accordingly
  2. Human emotions are natural: Everyone reacts differently to the process of having a stranger or member of the HR Department ask them to rate their top 5 skills and areas of development. Consider that this person is your equal, that they will often have an emotional response to being asked these potentially intrusive questions (yes, even a non-response from a person is an emotion) 
  3. Consider the bigger picture: Because humans have emotions, this also means we have so many other things going on in our lives concurrently to having our skills questioned and assessed by a relative stranger. Think of the bigger picture, acknowledge the bigger picture and incorporate this knowledge into how you conduct this process because it will dramatically increase the chances of bringing the person’s best side out (and hence, then making them want to complete those learning and development programs they are enrolled in)
  4. Things can and will change: An assessment of a person’s skills (both current and needed) is only ever accurate as a ‘point in time’ snapshot. All too often, those being assessed or those doing the assessing don’t account for the fact that assessments are not static – they can and will change as the person learns and applies new skills, including if they are placed in another part of the organization, so bear this in mind

I’ve picked up these learnings over a career spent working with organizations to support them as they seek to use talent assessment tools as a key tool for talent development rather than talent destruction.

 I’d love to hear your thoughts – what do you think about this topic? Have you seen something similar or dissimilar to this?


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