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Anyone using Assessment or Development Centres (ADCs) for promotions, selection into new roles or benchmarking employee capability, will be well aware of the challenges of creating a realistic, meaningful and valid (i.e. accurate) process. Providing the right level of challenge for participants, while giving regular opportunities for feedback and learning, is a difficult balance to strike.

With this challenge in mind, we have been working with our clients to design progressive, innovative, fair, flexible and accurate assessment and development centres to support talent management. We have designed centres with our clients that deliberately vary the context, the situation and the timing of meetings in order to achieve more realistic and varied measures of capability. For example, we have used short meetings, standing meetings, meetings that are frequently interrupted and difficult teleconference calls. And by doing so, we have been achieving stronger outcomes, increasing the realism of situations and improving the quality of observations and the usefulness of the feedback. None of these alternative designs reduced the validity of our observations – they only enhanced the flexibility and improved the experience for participants.

So it wasn’t a great surprise when, at this year’s BPS Occupational Psychology conference, a number of speakers questioned whether traditionally structured assessment centres were likely to be inconsistent or even inaccurate in what they claim to be measuring. These questions emerged based on recent studies into the effectiveness of assessment centres. Using a new and well regarded approach to analysing all of the possible effects that may contribute to variance in assessor ratings in a standard assessment centre, the studies indicate that less than 2% of the variance in ratings from that assessment centre could attributable to the actual measurement of competencies (see Dewberry, 2017 (in press)). In other words, the final ratings that came from the assessment centre bore little, if any, relationship to the behaviours that they claim to measure.
Why is this? It’s difficult to say exactly, but it would appear that assessment centres are actually better at measuring behaviour within a specific context (i.e. how somebody handles a particular one-to-one meeting or group situation) than trying to do so across a range of different contexts. This perhaps reflects the view that behaviours – and leadership behaviours in particular – are far more ‘situational’ than previously thought by most practitioners.

Our approach has been further backed up by the research of Filip Lievens (2016), which questioned the traditional format and construct of assessment centres. This research proposed that an assessment centre could break with the traditional format of two role plays, each lasting for 30 minutes, and instead run eighteen interactive role plays, each lasting three minutes. For an experimental approach, the results demonstrated good validity and identified, in particular, those most extravert and agreeable, which is ideal if the assessment centre is for a people or sales role. Other methods tested open-ended video responses, rather than written responses, and webinar facilities – in the same way that many employees work on a day-today basis.

All of this raises some critical questions for any organisations using standardised, off the shelf exercises in their assessment and development centre processes. It is impossible to ignore these findings. Instead, we need to embrace it as an opportunity to further question the approach and look at ways to reflect the constant changes in work environments.
Most importantly perhaps, as we make changes to assessment and development methods, we have to continue to improve fairness, reduce the bias that is so inherent in so many processes, and give everyone an equitable starting point, whether they are being assessed for a role or developed for a future position. We have a very interesting time ahead.

To read more of Stuart Duff's blogs on leadership and and other related business psychology topics, click here.

Following Laura’s recent blog (29 June) on how we respond to significant change, I wanted to share a number of practical insights into how leaders can help themselves, and their teams, to handle uncertainty.

There are many different ways to reflect on the challenges that will emerge from our decision to leave the EU. There are threats of the economy weakening and of years of uncertainty. Equally, there are opportunities for greater freedom and wider trading options. But for everyone, there is a strong sense of uncertainty about the future. And one thing is for sure: now, more than ever, people will feel the need for leadership.

A lot of Pearn Kandola's work in leadership development involves testing and challenging leaders in unfamiliar situations. We can gain a great deal of insight into a leader’s behaviour, mindset and decision making style when they are stretched and taken outside of the usual zones of familiarity. This is because intense pressure causes people to revert to a range of personal strategies that will either increase or reduce leadership effectiveness.

Many studies have made strong links between the ability to cope with uncertainty and our personality, while other studies have linked the use of positive affect and reframing (the capacity to see situations from a wide range of perspectives) as being critical to handling uncertainty. From years of observing leadership in action, however, there are a number of very important and practical strategies, some of which may seem counter-intuitive, that lead to greater effectiveness in leading others. These are:

Be aware

The strongest leaders have the ability to reflect on what they are thinking and feeling (it’s called meta-cognition) in a way that gives them more choices in their response and enables the leader to adapt and learn more quickly than their peers.

Zoom out

One of the hardest transitions for any leader is moving from being the expert to being responsible for experts. A strong temptation for many under pressure is to resort to seeking details and clinging to facts, in order to prove worth to others. Instead, this gets in the way of focusing on what people really need – greater vision, strategic plans and support.

Ease off

Some leaders, under pressure, feel an overwhelming need to take greater control. While clarity and direction from leaders can of course be important in handling uncertainty, taking control from others simply undermines the self-belief of followers at a time when they need opportunities to build and sustain personal confidence.

Be open

The temptation for many is to shoulder fears and concerns about the future. Again, nobody appreciates ranting or screaming in pressured situations, but being open about fears and seeking opinions and ideas from others enhances, rather than diminishes effectiveness as a leader.


The final point is the need for communication. Effective leaders know that followers need to hear and know what is going on. Bluffing, covering up or giving half-truths are obvious ways to destroy trust in teams – the only option is to communicate openly, honestly and frequently.

It is during times of turbulence, such as the collapse of the banking and finance system in 2008 and this latest decision to leave the EU, that organisations learn about the qualities of leadership. In the past, ‘charismatic’ and ‘inspirational’ leadership models were held to describe the essence of leadership, based on the notion that having certain (often male) characteristics was essential to leading others. In recent times, however, responsible, ethical and moral leadership have taken centre stage. Perhaps from here, in the constantly changing and uncertain times ahead, we will see an increasing focus on connected and inclusive leadership?

To read more of Stuart Duff's blogs on leadership and and other related business psychology topics, click here.

This article is a synopsis of the breakfast seminar delivered by Stuart Duff, Pearn Kandola’s Head of Development, in June 2015.

Many leaders in the workplace today struggle with empathy. At Pearn Kandola, our coaches report that 60% of all their workplace mentoring involves helping leaders with issues around empathy, and developing the skills to listen and understand.

Does this matter? For many, sharing feelings at work and showing empathy is a sign of weakness. However, when you consider that empathy enables you to connect with a wide range of people, it is easy to imagine a strong link between empathy and effective leadership.

If there is such a link, is empathy something that we are born with? Or is it a skill that leaders can develop?

Defining empathy

Empathy is essentially the ability to sense, perceive or conceptualise how another person is experiencing the world. In other words, it is our ability to see a situation from another person’s perspective. It is often confused with sympathy, which is a strong feeling of care for someone in need.

Empathy has two components:
  • Affective, which is the capacity to respond with an appropriate emotion to another's perspective or mental state. This type of empathy is emotional and spontaneous, and could be argued that it is ‘natural’ and something we are born with.
  • Cognitive, which is the capacity to understand another's perspective or mental state. This manifests itself as ‘perspective taking’ and is conscious and rational. It may be that this type of empathy can be developed.

While empathy might be considered a personality trait, Adrian Furnham (2008) says that empathy is not a personality trait, because it relates to both thought and feeling. Simon Baren-Cohen, however, points out that empathy is a measurable construct and that everyone falls somewhere within a ‘normal’ curved distribution, much like height or weight.

Degrees of empathy

On the empathy spectrum, those with low levels of empathy are likely to show traits such as being detached, self-interested, cold, tough and boastful. A significant deficit in empathy has been clearly linked to psychopathic, narcissistic and borderline personality disorders.

Those with high levels of empathy on the other hand will come across as being interested in and concerned for others, supportive, shy and concerned about being liked, with high pro-social behaviours (i.e. behaviours that go above and beyond expectations, such as volunteering). Brain scans of those with high empathy show much stronger responses when others feel pain.

Gutsall (2013) showed that our levels of empathy will vary depending on the familiarity of the other person. For people that were less familiar – i.e. not in our social grouping – people had lower levels of empathy. This has interesting implications in understanding our perceptions of others, our biases and our ability to take others’ perspectives.

Impact on leadership?

A useful starting point for considering the role of empathy in leadership is to consider the dominant leadership models, all of which mention empathic behaviours. For example:

  • Transformational leaders: “Transformational leaders demonstrate genuine concern for the needs and feelings of followers.” (Bass, 1996)
  • Authentic leaders: “Authentic leaders possess qualities like empathy, compassion and courage. They have the ability to establish deep, long-term and genuine relationships where others trust them.” (George, 2007)
  • Inclusive Leaders: “Perspective taking is one of the most significant tools in leadership to reduce bias and increase inclusive leadership behaviours.” (Kandola, 2012)

While the premise that empathy and strong leadership are linked seems reasonable, proving it is difficult as there has only been limited research carried out in this area, especially in the last twenty years.

One important exception is a study by Sadri et al (2011), which showed that leaders rated by subordinates as higher in empathic behaviours were also perceived as better performers by their boss.

In addition, Wolff et al (2012) found that empathy enables effective problem solving by leaders (especially regarding interpersonal issues). Ashkanasy et al (2002) showed that leaders who display empathy through their everyday behaviour are rated as more effective as leaders than those who do not, while Kellett et al (2006) showed that leaders who display empathic emotion are able to better understand others and provide support when required.

A link has also been identified between creativity in teams and spontaneous perspective-taking behaviour (van Knippenberg et al, 2012).

Culture plays an important role in determining the value placed on empathy in terms of leadership. Power distance (Hofstede) – the degree to which individuals accept that power is distributed unequally – is an important moderator. In cultures with high power distance, such as Malaysia and China, empathy is seen as less necessary for effective leadership. In low power distance cultures, such as Denmark and Sweden, empathy is seen as far more necessary and influential (Sadri et al, 2011).

Alternative perspectives

Not all research makes a link between empathy in the workplace and effective leadership. In one example, business and finance students on MBA courses consistently rated empathy as the least necessary leadership skill (Holt and Marques, 2010). Entrepreneurial leaders also rate significantly below average in terms of empathy capability (Bonnstetter, 2013). They tend to focus on vision and motivation to inspire their staff into action and achieve the results they require.

At Pearn Kandola, we ran a leadership programme with 408 high-performing business leaders. We found that as a group these leaders scored lower in ‘empathic’ behaviours than all other ‘task’ behaviours. This is perhaps unsurprising as Hogan and Hogan (1994) point out that leaders tend to emphasise task, while followers emphasise trust and integrity.

Most interestingly of all, this is reinforced by competency frameworks, few of which directly refer to empathy.

Can empathy be taught?

If empathy is beneficial in the workplace, is it something that can be developed?

It helps to consider the two components of empathy separately: affective (emotional) and cognitive (perspective taking).

Davis (1990) said that empathic emotion cannot be taught: “When empathy occurs we find ourselves experiencing it rather than directly causing it to happen.”

However, Rogers (1992) said that it may be increased or diminished by the environment someone is working in. For example, empathy diminishes in medical students over the first three years of their training.

What is more likely is that the skill of perspective taking can be taught. For example, the results of two longitudinal evaluations – where perspective taking was used as a key tool – demonstrated significant changes in perceptions of leadership (Kandola and Hammarling, 2013).

A meta-analysis of a range of medical school interventions (including training medical practitioners using patient interviews, role plays and communication skills materials) enhanced the perception of empathy in medical practitioners (Batt-Rawden at al, 2013).

Narcissists have also been shown to increase their sense of empathy when they are prompted to consider the position of another person.

An important ingredient in successful coaching is self-awareness. In fact it could be argued that it is the most important step towards successful coaching and that, without it, any positive impact of the coaching will be negligible and short-lived. I would go so far as to suggest that self-awareness is core to our behaviour, a control centre that monitors and regulates our interactions and our effectiveness in all walks of life, not least in managing and leading others.

In coaching, when you ask people how they feel, the vast majority of people will have a reasonably clear and articulate response. They may be happy, sad, frustrated, annoyed, excited and so on.

But the real challenge emerges when you ask people to describe how they make others feel. While some may be switched on to this, far fewer people are able to clearly express how they make others feel.

A recent paper in the European Journal of Personality builds on research into what’s known as ‘affective presence’. This is the extent to which we elicit emotions in others. Several different studies suggest that this is a trait that we all share - much like assertiveness or sociability - and that it varies between us.

To understand affective presence, the researchers measured the way that people consistently left others feeling over the course of several interactions. These feelings were then rated and the scores were correlated with other trait characteristics.

What did they find? Most importantly, the strength of our affective presence has a marked positive (or negative) impact on the degree to which: we connect with others; we leave others feeling positive; and the extent to which we enthuse and motivate others. Interestingly individuals with higher levels of affective presence also have higher levels of emotional regulation (they manage their reactions in pressured situations) and have higher emotional expressiveness (they share how they are feeling). They also have significantly higher levels of agreeableness.

So what? Well, if affective presence is a trait then it will be measurable. If it’s measurable, then it may provide useful feedback and insights that will be helpful in coaching and development to raise self-awareness. And in the process, it may be one of the keys to developing greater self-awareness over a long period of time and, with it, greater leadership effectiveness.

brainblog2"You can't teach an old dog new tricks." A well-worn phrase that hints at a rather negative relationship between age and ability to learn. Some of the most interesting areas of our work in psychology relate to the way that people change their mindset, behaviour and learn to develop new habits. As a coach, for example, I am often struck that both the ability and motivation to learn are not actually age related, but instead linked to mindset and attitude.

Back in the 1970's many scientists argued that the brain stops developing around early adulthood and then starts to deteriorate in function. Indeed, the belief was so strong that my mother still, to this day, discourages me from playing football on the basis that every time I head the ball I will never be able to replace the lost brain cells.

Recent advances in neuroscience have challenged this perspective considerably. Of course the brain stops increasing in physical mass - otherwise space within the skull would be tight - but there appears to be some fairly strong and consistent evidence that the brain has a plasticity which enables structural changes through learning. The term neuroplasticity has been around for a few years, but only recently are studies beginning to illustrate the vital nature of the way that the brain continues to change. The use of magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), for example, now enables researchers to observe changes in the brain during and following a wide range of different activities, including sport, problem solving and music.

One area of focus in understanding such changes in the brain comes from studies of mindfulness or meditation. While there is a degree of scepticism levelled at the practice - often seen as somewhat too transcendental and intangible for the workplace - the reality is that a number of studies of the brain seem to have identified significant changes in activity in different regions of the brain following periods of 'mindful' activity. A frequently cited paper (Davidson, 2003) reports significant increases, following participation in an eight week course of mindfulness training, in left-sided anterior activation (the left frontal area of the brain) which is associated with positive emotion. Equally, there were corresponding decreases in right frontal lobe activation, associated with negative feelings such as anger and depression.

In a later paper, Holzel et al (2011) cited changes in grey and white matter concentration in the areas associated with self-regulation and perspective taking. A more recent study published in Nature by Zatorre et al (2012) further highlights the structural plasticity of both grey and white matter that specifically occurs with repeated learning.

As with many aspects of neuroscience, findings at this stage tend to be inconsistent and need further exploration, but if these changes are found to be replicable then the impact on activities such as coaching could be huge, not least because it provides us with a greater and more specific understanding of what is actually happening when we develop new skills and behaviours at work. Let's face it, as coaches we are fundamentally interested in working with individuals to achieve significant and lasting changes in motivation, behaviour and attitude. The use of cognitive-based activities, such as learning new habits, learning to manage stress or even learning to manage bias could become more 'conscious' coaching activities with very concrete - albeit unseen - changes taking place.

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