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April 2012

Assessing Yourself

The world can be a bleak place. Of course, there are always those, in Ian McDonald’s wonderful phrase, who “live lives of sweet and seamless gold”; for whom privilege and a sense of entitlement irrespective of merit smooth the way. But for the rest of us there are problems.

One core source of problems comes from our earliest years and what we come to believe about ourselves and others. The belief becomes so entrenched into our psyche it manifests as a reflex behaviour or action.

I refer to the ubiquitous social conditioning of comparison. God bless them! – but our parents started it: my behaviour is not as good as Johnny’s next door, and he is a ‘good’ boy (or girl).

And this goes on into school years. Not only is our behaviour being compared with others, but so too is our performance: be that in mathematics or sport. In all endeavours we find it is rarely good enough to be second – second is still to be a loser.

This is normative assessment: comparing ourselves with others.

Alongside normative assessment goes another – more insidious because seemingly more fair – type of assessment. Do we measure up? Do we meet the standard?

The standard is, for example, you never tell lies. Sounds good? Yeh, but my family life is entirely dysfunctional – oops, but can’t tell the truth about that, can I? Can we? Strict moral codes that selectively apply.

And on to education. Re-design examinations and assessment so that a ‘standard’ rather than a comparison is the basis of the result output. National Curriculum in Science level 5, which means you understand … a, b, c, d, e and blather to infinity. But do they understand – in a real sense of that word? – and do they love science?

This is criteria-referenced assessment – comparing ourselves with an external standard.

Both normative and criteria led assessments seem to leave everybody in the system disgruntled, dissatisfied, and generally uneasy: there is always somebody better and the standard is always arbitrary – a line is drawn, but whose line? Plus, we all go round internally judging ourselves as unworthy; there has to be a better way – and there is.

The third kind of assessment is called ipsative and this I like: ipsative assessment is where you compare yourself with … yourself! Yes, what is the best I can do? Am I achieving all I am capable of? What do I need to do to motivate myself that bit more in order to gain that bit more success?

So, parents everywhere, stop beating up your children with comments and comparisons of your child with all the others. Instead, identify his or her strengths and cultivate them.

And, employers everywhere, stop being obsessed with competencies and standards that fail to inspire. Instead, focus on personal development and the individual, Ask, what can this acorn become if nurtured properly?

You see, that what normative and criteria referencing have in common is very simple: we can see ‘them’. We can see how other children are different from our own – an easy point of comparison. And we can see – usually in writing – what the standard is. But we cannot ‘see’ – easily – what the child
or the adult may become. As Christ himself said: “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment”. Look beyond appearances.

Thus it is that the obsession with normative and criteria referenced assessment is often done purely because it is easy – it is lazy too. Let’s end this slackness; let’s make an effort, starting with our self, to ask ourselves what is the best possible me I could possibly be?

Lessons will be Learnt!

Recently I did a 20 minute talk at a University for the RSA Fellows in the area (of which I am one). This had been initiated by a friend who has the foresight to realise that with the imminent shut-down of quango-business services there may be an opportunity for organisations like the RSA to fill an important gap. Part of the RSA’s remit is about ‘manufactures and commerce’ as well as society and

I started my talk by saying that I had been in business for 17 years, had trained thousands of people, worked with hundreds of businesses, and mentored literally dozens and dozens of directors and managers. Thus, what had I learnt from all this experience?

My talk, then, was about the three things I had learnt. First, I had learnt that people are not the most important asset in organisations. That’s right, they’re not. There is a mantra, of course, that says they are – one sees directors beaming with moral self-satisfaction as they repeat – with that rabbit in a headlight look on their faces – ‘People are our …’.

There are organisations where they are, but they are few and far between. The game is given away by the phrase Human Resource management and Human Resource Managers. People don’t want to be a Human Resource (or ‘Asset’) – they want to be people. And they want to be treated as people should be treated. One of the core principles underscoring the development of healthy self-esteem is respect. Whether we are children or adults we need to be treated with respect.

The core skill that delivers ‘respect’ is listening. As we look round the waste of top-down management styles – the ‘Fred Goodwin Effect’ as its latest incarnation might be called – where do we see the listening? The tragedy is that after a while people become inured to being treated badly – even get to expect and like it. An addiction to punishment sets in: the public sector is especially aware of this.

The second thing I have learnt is that leaders don’t lead. Yes, there is a lot of management going on, but although management is necessary it is not leadership. At the top level it is not management we need, but leadership. Part of the reason for this is that most people are secretly crying out to be led – and for a good reason: leadership removes uncertainty and creates stability and security, a primary human need.

Management - all operational stuff. We need a leadership that is genuinely visionary – that creates those images that inspire people to give of their best. Leaders – to be a leader – must engage people, and engagement is what people want.

Finally, the third thing I have learnt is that managers know little or nothing about the nature of the universe, and so ‘go astray’. Why wouldn’t they? Imagine being transported to the most fertile farm land in the world and told to till the ground, but you know nothing of farming. Of course you could expect disastrous results despite the fact that you can create ten thousand amazing Excel spreadsheets!

Perhaps part of the problem is the specialism of the education system: the process by which we come out ‘qualified’ but not educated.

I explained to my audience very simply that if we understood the Tao Te Ching we might understand something about the universe. First, we needed to move away from fruitless speculation on the nature of God: as the first line says, The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao. What wisdom is there!

Second, having established not talking about the Tao – the Way – the One because to do so was itself self-defeating, we come on to the real profundity: from One comes Two, from Two comes Three, and from Three comes Ten Thousand things. What does this mean: the immortal, invisible, ineffable One produces Two – Yin and Yang – and Yin and Yang produce Three – Heaven, Earth and Humans – and these Three create all things that are. Oh my!

You can see, as you say this, people thinking – is he off his trolley? What has this to do with business? Everything. Let’s just take one point: if we understood the Two – Yin and Yang – and their ceaseless opposition, we would have known the economic downturn had to happen. The Yang of success had reached such overblown proportions that a Yin correction was inevitable – a correction, incidentally, of the same magnitude as the bubble which spawned it. So this means, if we understand the nature of the universe, the recession is far from over: we have a lot further down to go. But knowing this is reassuring, because we are no longer acting in uncertainty, but preparing for the storm.

The lessons from this are simple and come in the form of three pressing questions: first, how do we make people truly central in our organisations? How do we develop leadership at the highest levels? And how do we educate people so that they ‘see’ more?

No one said, of course, learning was easy!