If you’re job hunting, you may have noticed that the recruiting process has gone digital in some organizations. Innovative tools like smartphone profiling apps are being used to identify candidates with the right skills and experience.

This same digital revolution has also brought an array of tools that hold promise for leadership development. Among them: virtual simulations of real-life work experiences; the use of social media content to assess and predict personality type; and small wearable computers that record and store physiological data such as heart rate to give us an objective assessment of our stress state.

Are these new technologies a fad, or can we expect them to become commonplace in the leadership development field? And if they do gain acceptance, how will we handle issues such as privacy and quality control?

We don’t have definitive answers to these questions today, but we can take a closer look at some of these new tools and how they could change the ways we assess and develop leaders in the future.

Virtual Simulations

We’ve recently seen an increase in the use of virtual simulations to train and assess leaders. The military has been using the technology for years, and the U.S. Army has invested in a virtual reality training center at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. While these high-tech, 3-D simulations can be expensive to develop, the usage cost per person tends to be low.

To increase motivation and retention, many of these sessions incorporate the same features that make video games so popular, including scorekeeping. With a higher level of engagement, leaders are better able to transfer the concepts and skills they learn in training to the work setting. The sessions also give leaders a safe environment for practicing the skills they need to be effective in their organizations.

Consider a face-to-face coaching session with a problem employee. In a virtual reality training session, the leader’s responses in the simulated meeting would be scored and then ranked compared to his or her peers. Participants in the training also receive developmental feedback based on their performance.

Because of the benefits, virtual reality training shows real promise as a reliable tool in the leadership development field. But it may not be the best solution for every developmental need. Is 3-D virtual reality the best way to train leaders on giving feedback, for example, or are we recommending it because it’s trendy? In some cases, a more low-tech approach such as reading a description of the situation online, listening to an audio presentation or watching a video may be sufficient.

Social Media

Did you know the information you share on social media could be used to determine your personality type? Several studies have shown that a linguistic analysis of content on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, blog posts and other websites can predict or assess a person’s personality with a fair degree of accuracy.

These analytic tools are not being used widely today, if at all, for leadership development. But sites like www.crystalknows.com could change that. Users can get detailed, freely available information about an individual’s personality as it relates to the Big Five traits: extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism. Leaders can then use this information in addition to 360-degree feedback reports in their coaching sessions. For people working on their own to improve their leadership skills, having a profile derived from their social media content could supplement the self-reporting tools commonly used today. As with other personality assessments, the information provided from these tools can help us understand why we engage in specific behaviors that are revealed through other means.

Sites like www.crystalknows.com can also help leaders communicate and work more effectively with people across their organizations. Once they know an individual’s personality profile, they can get tips on the best way to deliver feedback, resolve conflicts, and provide mentoring or coaching. Because leaders can get the assessment data they need in real-time, they’re more likely to be successful in applying it on the job.

Despite the benefits, however, using social media analytics for leadership development has potential drawbacks. Because some sites may use better algorithms for predicting personality than others, not all of the profiles generated will have the same degree of accuracy. With traditional personality assessment tools, the vendor shares details about the process used to determine an individual’s type and preferences. Similar information may not be available from tools that assimilate and analyze social media content.

Using social media analytics for leadership development also raises ethical concerns. In traditional programs, individual personality assessments are confidential, and it’s up the individual to decide whether or not to share the results with others. When a report is automatically generated from online content, anyone can get the assessment without consent. Whether valid or not, the profile could potentially be used against a leader in performance evaluations and hinder the chance for a promotion.

Wearable Devices

We don’t plan to get stressed out. Stress can arrive unexpectedly in response to people and situations, and it can change over the course of minutes or even seconds. Now one of the newest products in the self-assessment arena – a wristband with multiple sensors – can monitor and record the changes that occur in our bodies in response to stress. The device’s sensors pick up multiple physiological signals, including skin temperature and heart rate, and an algorithm is used to interpret the signals as stress.

Why is this important for leaders? Because these products can give us an objective measure of the unobservable – those internal or automatic processes that affect how we behave and can accelerate or impede leadership development (see Leadership Development Beyond Competencies: Moving to a Holistic Approach). The devices can show us if we’re stressed, or assess our degree of resiliency and level of engagement. Having a more objective lens for leader assessment can help us understand why we think, feel and act the way we do in certain situations and with specific people.

While traditional workplace assessments like self-reporting and 360-degree feedback are useful for assessing leader and organizational challenges at a high level, the feedback is nonetheless subjective. We all have biases that affect how we see ourselves and others. Our biases are part of what makes us human, but they can cause us to make incorrect assumptions about people and situations. These mistakes in judgment can lead to poor decision-making and affect a leader’s performance.

By incorporating both subjective and objective methods in our development programs, we can help more leaders identify and manage blind spots in themselves and others. Using these tools together also helps us answer these types of questions with greater accuracy:

  • What causes leaders to be stressed?
  • What makes leaders resilient?
  • How do effective leaders manage their emotions?
  • How do we best engage leaders?

But there are downsides with these new wearable devices. High-quality products that provide accurate assessments are cost-prohibitive for many people and organizations today. But as more models are designed and introduced to the market, we need to be prepared to use them appropriately for leadership development. As with social media content, privacy issues are the primary concern. We don’t have agreed-upon standards for using these tools in an organizational setting (see WSJ article), but allowing organizations to view individual data is never recommended. Leaders who wear the devices should be able to act on the feedback in a safe environment that allows them to experiment with new skills.

As practitioners, we have an opportunity to advance leadership development by helping organizations better understand how new assessment and training tools can be used most effectively. But we can’t do it alone. The skills needed for product development and training span multiple disciplines – from neuroscience and computer programming to game design and data science. We also need experts who can create the best possible user experience – one that generates reliable feedback leaders can use to achieve their developmental goals. Because psychologists have experience studying and assessing people based on an accepted code of ethics and research standards, they too have an important role in deciding how best to use these new tools.

It is time to join the conversation.