By Roy Childs PhD.

Most coaches subscribe to the received wisdom that ‘coaches help change behaviour, NOT personality’. But this is based on certain assumptions that may not be entirely valid – one is practical and the other is ethical:

  1. The practical element is that, if personality is innate, it is assumed to be relatively fixed. This suggests that it would not be a fruitful use of time to try to change it. To use a well-worn analogy, we should not spend time trying to teach a turkey to climb a tree.
  2. The ethical element is that, if personality is part of a person’s identity, we could be violating a core purpose of coaching which is that we are helping people to adapt and thrive. This means being the best version of who they are (given their circumstances and resources). Coaching is not about changing who they are!

So why am I challenging this received wisdom when I agree with the sentiment?

The reason is that the above assumptions are based on misconceptions about personality – or more specifically about how we identify and measure personality. Many coaches will use personality questionnaires which describe a range of traits or types. These are then endowed with both a deeper significance and a high degree of permanence which leads us to the somewhat controversial Nature versus Nurture debate.

Now, few deny that human biology involves underlying mechanisms that guide, and may even determine, certain behaviour. However, psychometric profiles do not measure our genes. Questionnaires invite people to answer a range of questions which capture their ‘story’.

In other words, their answers reveal the sense that a person has made of their life so far. Since personality profiles are based on self-report, it is self-evident that the answers must be influenced by the person’s life experiences. Furthermore, these experiences are necessarily filtered and moderated by different levels of self-awareness and self-protection.

I suggest that we reframe what we get from psychometric profiles. They are best viewed as ‘a method for extracting a person’s auto-biographical narrative’. This means that we are working with a person’s conscious belief about themselves. We are not measuring their DNA and those who claim that the stability of psychometric profiles is evidence of a genetic foundation are over-stating their case. People’s beliefs combine many influences. If we recognise that the questionnaires help a person to articulate their narrative, then most would recognise that narratives can change. Psychometrics can then align with coaching aims (i.e. facilitating change) rather than introducing concepts that cause some coaches to shy away from using psychometrics.

If we accept that psychometric profiles help articulate a person’s auto-biographical narrative, it introduces the potential for change since we can all change what we say and believe about ourselves. This is not to say that such change is easy, but we can now address the ethical element. We are working to help develop a different (and more authentic) self-narrative and not to change their fundamental biological self. If such a change is successful, we can expect some change in the way they subsequently answer the questions in a psychometric. Hence their psychometric profile could change. We do not need to take a position regarding whether this change reflects something more fundamental or biological.

It may help to use a metaphor which is to ask people to think of themselves as a book. This then suggests that they are an evolving story with previous chapters (which is sometimes what a profile reflects), current chapters (which is what we encourage the profile to reveal), and all the chapters yet to come. We can now focus on helping with writing the next chapter of a person’s life story – and coaches usually want to focus on creating the future rather than being overly anchored in the past. This is much more in accord with the philosophy and practice of coaching.

I do not deny that people often show a great deal of stability in their psychometric profile. But there are explanations other than claiming this as evidence that personality is innate. Consider Fleetwood Mac’s song ‘Man of the World’ which has the line ‘there is no-one I’d rather be, but I just wish that I had never been born!’ This looks like a paradox but if you ask most people who have survived bad times, many often say that although they may like to have avoided the situation, it has made them who they are. It is part of their identity and we all become invested in the person we have become ‘warts and all’.

In summary, I like to think of coaching as helping people to develop greater self-awareness, which is necessary for introducing a greater agency in what people choose to do. They are then in a better position to write the next chapter of their auto-biographical narrative. My view is that psychometric profiling, once detached from the baggage of innateness and permanence, can then become a tool to aid that process. A person’s profile becomes a barometer, highlighting factors that link to their identity and which make sense of this stage in their life.

Of course, identity is more than personality. In later blogs, I will build on the theme of changing other aspects of identity which include people’s attitudes, beliefs, motivations, behaviours, roles, preferences – and most importantly VALUES.

But for now, if you are interested in a more substantial critique of personality questionnaires you can view this talk given to the Association of Business Psychologists.

From Shakespeare to Gogglebox – a talk to the ABP on whether Psychometrics is going backwards

Roy Childs, Managing Director of Team Focus, is an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society and, like many other senior staff members, a Chartered Occupational Psychologist.  His background in psychometrics includes having worked with some of the best-known authors of personality questionnaires including Ray Cattell (16PF) and Will Schutz (FIRO). With Team Focus he has developed a new range of instruments designed to bring psychometrics into the 21st century. 

Roy runs the widest range of BPS recognised qualifying courses in the UK and his publications include “the Psychometric Minefield”; “Emotional Intelligence and Leadership”; “The Big Five – Bring a little colour into your lives”; “Coaching with FIRO Element B” published in the book “Psychometrics in Coaching”, ‘Action Learning Supervision’ published in the book “Coaching Supervision” and ‘The Relational lens’ published by Cambridge University Press.


Read more blogs from Roy Childs: How to challenge what I believe about myself