Explainers

Personality Tests Don’t Work, Here’s Why and The Alternatives

Personality tests, we think, help us understand ourselves better. But in reality, they are often a self-gratifying exercise that gets us no closer to understanding ourselves or others.

This article was written by Dr. Kim Perkins, an expert on positive organizational psychology.

We’ve done a deep analysis of the people who seek out and read our content and here’s what we know about you:

You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. You have a great need for other people to like and admire you, while also tending to be very critical of yourself. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety, and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not yet turned to your advantage.

Did this ring true for you? I hope so. Because I just described pretty much every human alive.

These statements come from a famous experiment about personality, demonstrating that people will believe anything about themselves as long as it is generally descriptive of humans, slightly flattering, and presented as the result of personalized, scientific inquiry.

What psychologists mean by “personality” is a set of personal characteristics that do not change over time. With a few exceptions, that is not something the most popular personality tests can deliver: your MBTI profile, for example, is about as scientific as your Hogwarts house or zodiac sign.

Nonetheless, managers often use personality tests in situations that do more harm than good: 1) to help leader self-development, 2) to influence hiring decisions, and 3) to help solve conflicts.

Here’s why that doesn’t work, and some alternatives.

Personality and self-development

It’s a reasonable proposition: if we understand our own personality better, we will be better able to understand and influence the effect we have on others.

However, there is surprisingly little hard evidence to demonstrate that personality tests help us become more self-aware. We expect tests to predict our behavior IRL, and by and large, they do not. What they are great at, though, is reinforcing stories about ourselves—ones that often get in the way of our growth.

And this is where using personality as a test of who we really are can get us in trouble: it makes it harder to embrace change. The more committed I am to my identity as an INTP, the more I will believe it is normal and right for me to take forever to get around to tasks, and I will have an excuse not to change – even if it is clear that learning not to procrastinate would be a big win for my team and me.

And yet change we must. If there is one truism in leadership, it is that what got us here, won’t get us there. So thinking of your personality as fixed and static? Not helpful. At all.

Instead of relying on personality tests for leader development:

  • Habit checks. Much of what we consider our personality is just a collection of habits, which can easily become outmoded as our lives and circumstances change. Instead of looking for a core personality, ask yourself: What’s important to me now, and who do I want to be in the service of those things? What habits are serving that end, and which are not? You can learn more about habits here.
  • Questioning your motivation. What if your personality isn’t driving your choices, but rather, your estimation of risk vs. reward? If you believe you haven’t lived up to your capacities, for instance, instead of looking for a “fatal flaw,” ask yourself what’s demotivating you from doing the things you should. Often this can yield valuable insight.
  • High expectations. When you are in a position of authority, people grow (and shrink) according to your expectations. When your coworkers express ambitions that make you skeptical, instead of laying odds on their chances or making sure they have thought through the unfavorable conditions, just suspend disbelief and act as if success is a foregone conclusion. Then ask how you can help.

Personality tests for hiring

Quick, imagine your typical software engineer. What traits do you expect them to have? Attention to detail, analytical ability, stamina for coding. Sounds like someone who’s a thinker, prefers data to people, is cool and objective, maybe even a little blunt.

If you’re applying for an engineer position and you’re given personality test, you’d hope to come out something like an ISTP or J. And you’d probably be able to: the more accurately you can generate a map of the “ideal” candidate for any job, the more easily your candidate can suss out and fake exactly that personality. When a desirable outcome is at stake, the rational person enhances their answers. In fact, it’s so easy to fake answers on personality tests that it’s surprising more people don’t do it.

But what if I told you the most desirable engineers weren’t much like that stereotype at all? The very best engineers have highly developed social skills, demonstrate warmth and empathy at the right times, and play really well with others. Due to our cognitive biases—our desire to see the complex world as a simple, cohesive story—the more someone displays traits that contradict the engineer stereotype, the harder time you will have trusting their engineering skills.

Instead of relying on personality tests for hiring:

  • “What you do” even over “who you are.” Consider behavioral and situational interviewing questions instead. Behavioral questions sound like: “Please describe a time when you had to work with someone who was difficult to get along with.” Situational questions sound like: “Imagine you were working with a fellow worker whom you knew greatly disliked performing a particular job task—how would you motivate them to do it?”
  • “Culture add” even over “culture fit.” Most of the time, diversity in thinking is desirable on a team (as long as your team also has high trust and an ability to handle conflict). Despite this, we tend to favor people who think like us. Instead of trying to bring in new team members to fit the culture, consider opportunities to add new perspectives instead.
  • “Onboarding” even over “hiring.” Diversity isn’t enough—make sure you are being inclusive with smart and thorough onboarding. People self-organize into in-groups and out-groups over the smallest things. Don’t make personality characteristics one more reason to separate “us” from “them.”

Personality and conflict management

In theory, personality testing should help us understand each other, and therefore interact, better. If I know that you’re an extrovert and I’m an introvert, and we’re both aware of our biases, then surely we can avoid escalating matters.

If only! When we blame conflict on personality differences, it usually just entrenches the conflict by making it personal—and competitive.

Instead of invoking personality types to handle conflict:

  • Get curious. Instead of thinking of a person’s positions as who they inherently are, think of it as somewhere they’ve been. What are they seeing that is different than what you’re seeing? Question their position with a tone of curiosity rather than doubt.
  • Focus on shared outcomes. What does the other person want that you also want? That’s your biggest lever for turning conflict into a satisfying outcome.
  • Allow room to grow. The people around you are not sitcom characters, falling into the same patterns week after week. If you want to get to know them better, try Peter Drucker’s trick: write down your predictions about how the people around you will ultimately behave in a given situation, then follow up to see what they actually did. There will be plenty of surprises.


Published March 13, 2019

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