Use of psychometric testing in coaching

CAMeO (the comprehensive coaching and mentoring online encyclopaedia), September 2009

September 2009 by Lynne Hindmarch | No Comments

What is psychometric testing?

Psychometric testing (also known as occupational or psychological testing) is a term used to describe sophisticated tools (usually questionnaires) designed to measure differences between people.  Psychometric testing divides broadly into two areas.  The first area covers ability tests, which have a wrong or right answer and are designed to measure a person’s cognitive ability (such as verbal, numerical and abstract reasoning).  The second area covers personality assessments, which are self-reports questionnaires where there are no wrong or right answers.  Although certain situations may suggest that one behavioural style is more appropriate than another, there is no wrong or right in terms of behaviour per se.  This is why personality questionnaires are known as assessments, not tests.

In order to be described as ‘psychometric’, ability and personality tools have to conform to four principles (also known as psychometric properties):

  • They must be reliable (consistent across time with different people and different applications).
  • They must be valid (measure what they say they are measuring).
  • They must be free from bias (provide consistent results for everyone regardless of gender or ethnic origin, for example).
  • They must be standardised (be administered, used and interpreted in a standard way to minimise human error and bias).

There is a wide range of tools available in the marketplace that claim to measure ability and personality.  Not all of these will fulfil the stringent psychometric criteria outlined above, which means that they may not produce meaningful results.  It is therefore important to check that an assessment has psychometric properties before using it.

To access and use psychometric assessments, one needs to be trained in their use.  In the UK, the British Psychological Society sets minimum qualification requirements (and ethical standards) for using ability tests and personality assessments.  It also registers psychometric assessments.  Details for accessing the BPS website are given at the end of this article.

Which psychometric assessments are used in coaching?

Both personality and ability assessments are widely used in an occupational setting for selection, assessment and development.  As coaching is a goal-oriented activity that often involves helping the client change or manage certain behaviours, personality assessments are likely to be of most interest to the coach.  These can measure attributes such as conscientiousness, interpersonal style and management of pressure.  Other assessments in the field of personality which coaches may use include career interest inventories (identifying, for example, analytical, artistic/creative, caring/social interests), values questionnaires (identifying values such as helping others, loyalty, independence) and those assessing motivation (identifying drivers such as status, money, praise and recognition).   All these fall within the domain of personality assessments.

It is impossible here to list all the assessments which may be used in coaching.  Further sources of information are given at the end of this article.  However, in the UK, the following are among a number of assessments that are widely used:

  • The Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) which identifies an individual’s personality type and what that means in terms of how they interact with the world and other people.
  • The Sixteen Personality Factors Questionnaire (16PF) which measures an individual’s typical behavioural style.
  • FIRO-B which assesses three interpersonal ‘need areas’ and explores how an individual behaves towards others and how they would like others to behave towards them.
  • Schein’s Career Anchors, which explores an individual’s key career motivators.

What are the benefits in using personality assessments in coaching?

The most important aspect of using a personality assessment in coaching is that the assessment used must be ‘fit for purpose’.  In other words, it must benefit the client in moving towards his or her goal.  Just one assessment may be sufficient, or a number of assessments with different purposes may be used in combination.

Personality assessments provide data that allows the coach to form hypotheses about the client’s typical behavioural style.  It is not a final judgement on a person, but rather a springboard for discussion.  The real value of an assessment lies in feeding back the results, where the coach verifies the evidence by asking questions such as: ‘How does this seem to you? How does it fit in with how you see yourself?’  The client’s answer is the best opinion on the topic.   Feedback is a two-way process, enabling the client to learn more about him or herself, and also allowing the coach to gain a deeper understanding of the client and engage more fully with the client’s world.

Personality assessments are tools, and their skilful used by a coach who is also a trained psychometric practitioner can greatly enhance the coaching process in a number of ways:

  • They can help to develop a deeper rapport and stronger alliance with the client, which is why it can be beneficial to use assessments fairly early on in the coaching process.
  • They can speed up the diagnostic stage of coaching, raising issues which may otherwise take a number of sessions to identify.
  • They can provide information on the client’s learning style, which can help the coach in working with the client.
  • They can raise the client’s self-awareness by identifying strengths and development areas, and possible new areas for exploration. Increased self-awareness can help the client realise that they can act and feel differently and experience the world differently, if they choose to do so.
  • They can provide baseline information on where the client is now in terms of behavioural style, and initiate a discussion on flexing their style.  Discovering how a client thinks, feels and behaves in certain situations may help develop more appropriate behaviours, and aid the client in moving towards their coaching goals.
  • They can be used alongside other sources of information, such as a 360 assessment, to provide additional insights into the client’s perceived work behaviour.

Last but not least, personality assessments can help the coach understand him or herself better, and the nature of the way he or she interacts with the client.  The coach’s blind spots and biases may be identified, which may lead to reflection on style and behaviours and how these may be adapted if appropriate to become more effective in helping the client.

Considerations in the use of assessments

Ethical and confidentiality issues are always paramount in any coaching relationship, and it is important that the client feels confident that assessment results are kept within the boundaries of that relationship, and are not shared with the organisation.

The coach needs to be aware of issues around the balance of power.  Using personality assessments can move the coach from the position of partner in the relationship to the position of expert.  A skilled coach will be aware of this potential pitfall, and emphasise the importance of sharing and jointly discussing the results.

There may be times when the use of personality assessments may not be appropriate.  The client may not want to take them, and feel that they may be exposed in some way.  The process must be voluntary.  If a client is very anxious, or ill, this may affect the results and not give an accurate picture of how they typically behave.


Personality assessments can be a valuable aid as part of a wider development conversation.  The results can support each aspect of the GROW model (Goals, Reality, Options, Will).  They can help the client clarify their goals, better understand current reality, reflect on their options in terms of behavioural style, and consider their level of commitment.

Further reading and sources of information

McDowall, A and Kurz R (2007), Making the most of psychometric profiles – effective integration into the coaching process. International Coaching Psychology Review, Vol 2, No 3, 299-309.

Passmore J (2008) How to …use psychometrics for coaching, People Management Magazine Online:

Passmore J (Ed) (2008) Psychometrics in coaching, London: Kogan Page Ltd.

Passmore J, Rawle-Cope, M, Gibbes, C and Hollway M (2006), MBTI types and executive coaching. The Coaching Psychologist, Vol 2, No. 3, 6-14.

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