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Q: I understand that a majority of the leaders that take the LPI® (Leadership Practices Inventory®) are in general agreement with their profile reports—that they feel the results are either an accurate or a very close depiction of their personality. I wonder if this is because they are influenced by what is commonly referred to as the Barnum Effect, whereby people tend to see connections to things because they believe them to be true—not that they necessarily are true for them. Is there any research to prove or disprove this supposition?

A: Studies my co-author, Jim Kouzes, and I have conducted—along with hundreds of others who have used the LPI in their own research—have examined the LPI in relation to self-serving bias (like the Barnum Effect you mention) and have generally not found a strong relationship.

This “bias” you suggest could be most closely connected with a respondent’s concern about how the “test” results will be used. But it is essential to remember that the LPI is NOT a test. There is no right or wrong answer. Indeed, the LPI is intended to be developmental and descriptive. And in the greater scheme, it doesn’t matter what the individual’s “scores” are, as much as it matters that the person is motivated to take action to become a better leader.

When leaders are asked about their frequency of behavior on the 30 items listed in the LPI it is certainly possible to “game” the instrument by giving one’s self high-frequency scores (with the implicit notion that more is better than less). But in the end, the interpretation of that worst-case scenario would still be “what can you do to become an even better leader than you are today?”

Should your organization decide to use the LPI, you could study this question empirically for yourself. In addition, one of the most productive methods for dealing with potential self-serving bias is to ensure that other people provide feedback to the individual. For example, using the LPI 360 assessment would provide valuable 360-degree feedback to your leaders from a variety of manager, co-workers, direct reports and other observers.

Knowing that others will be responding about you to the same set of questions tends to place that individual (self) respondent into a more realistic context. The very notion of “reliability” in testing is that the more data points available the more “realistic” the results. Having data from “observers” also provides some evidence of the extent to which the individual self-score is representative of reality (or suffering from self-serving bias).

Barry Posner, Ph.D., is the Accolti Endowed Professor of Leadership at the Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University, where he served as Dean for 12 years. Together with Jim Kouzes, he is author of The Leadership Challenge—now in its fifth edition—and over thirty other books and workbooks on leadership and leadership development, including the recently released Learning Leadership, which was selected by Strategy+Business as one of the 2016 Best Business Books of Year.