Personality Assessment: Good, Bad or Ugly?

Have you done a personality assessment as part of a job application, or do you work in the HR function and use personality assessments as part of your recruitment and selection processes?

Perhaps many of you would answer YES to one if not both of those questions. Me too. I did my first personality assessment 25+ years ago, and I’ve done quite a few of them since, and commissioned them. But, ever since my first assessment, I’ve asked myself the same question –

Do they add value or are they a waste of time and money?

Since personality assessment in recruitment and other management areas (e.g. team/leadership development, conflict and stress management, career transitioning/planning, etc…) is big business, lots of people must think that they do add value. For example, two million people a year take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), generating ~$20 million a year in revenues for the Myers-Briggs Company – even though the MBTI has been consistently reported as being statistically invalid and of questionable practical use (Stromberg & Caswell, 2015).

To clarify, I’m not a HR practitioner. My background is in Operations, General Management, Transformation and Change. Neither am I against personality assessment. Quite the opposite. Having researched personality intensively over the last ten years, and during the course of my Doctorate, I genuinely understand the value of personality assessments using validated psychometric tools. I’m also aware of the immense opportunities they provide to develop organisational performance, maintain motivation, reduce stress, etc. Perhaps it’s because of this, that I’m confident that the ambiguous way that personality assessments are currently used within organisations, particularly for recruitment and selection, adds no value whatsoever, and only serves to, unfairly, undermine the credibility and reputations of those promoting them in this context – usually the poor HR team in setting expectations of de-risking recruitment decisions while achieving the polar opposite.

A Long Heritage

This isn’t a new view. We’ve been trying to find ways to predict behaviours using personality assessment for a hundred and fifty years. More than fifty years ago, Guion and Gottier (1965) reinforced the need to predict the work place behaviours influenced by personality and noted that the frequent failures of personality tests did not to diminish that need. But, they said, that made it all the more important to ensure that psychometric tools were properly validated for reliability, and used in relevant situational conditions. After all, it makes no sense to invest resources (money, time and effort) in doing assessments intended to predict behaviour if the behaviours being predicted are based on an unreliable source.

In fact, one of the main reasons I picked personality psychology as a research topic for my doctorate was that, as a career long operations guy, I was often disappointed by the lack of success these tools gave during hiring, and/or team composition. As a transformation and change guy, I also recognised that the lack of understanding about personality was the weakest link in the development of organisational operating models; and often the reason operating model implementations fail to deliver the benefits they were designed for. It doesn’t take a lot of understanding to realise that you can’t effectively implement Organisational Operating models that address Technology, Processes and People if there’s no understanding the Human Condition has on behavioural dynamics. If you’re sceptical about that, just think about how many times you’ve been involved in conversations about Organisational CULTURE that didn’t include a detailed review of personality. Since Culture is entirely dependent upon motivations and behaviours, and both are explained by Personality, this is a jarring omission.

Can Workplace Personality Assessment be used Effectively?

The short answer is YES it can… providing you understand the challenges, constraints, and opportunities. Here’s a few of the issues and opportunities that are worth considering: –

Faking and Impression Management

Faking is a well known problem for self-report questionnaires of the type used in psychometric assessments. It occurs when people complete questionnaires by responding as they’d like to be perceived, rather than as they are. Naturally, the more important the outcome of the questionnaire is perceived to be, like in a job application, the more likely respondents will ‘manage‘ the image they project in their responses. Of course, questionnaire designers try to trap these anomalies. That mainly addresses false and misleading responses, rather than inaccurate responses which could be innocent, i.e. although 95% of people think they’re self-aware, only 10 to 15% actually are.

NOTE – if accuracy is important, and it should be, consider involving ‘significant others’ in completing personality assessments about the person of interest.

Diversity and Individual Differences

Most people understand what diversitymeans. Similarly, most organisations have comprehensive Diversity Policies, though these often focus on ‘shallow-level’ diversity (i.e. demographics, ethnicity, etc) rather than ‘deep-level’ diversity (i.e. cognitive ability, personality, etc). While these policies aim to explicitly promote diversity (especially during recruitment, or when making decisions about work promotions), what actually happens in practice is completely the opposite. This is because we are attracted to people that are similar to us, not different. It is this that, over time, becomes the dominant, prevailing CULTURE of the organisation.

This process is called Homophily and it’s explained by two important theories in the fields of Psychology and Organisational Behaviour – Similarity Attraction Theory, and Attraction-Selection-Attrition Theory. Both have a number of PROFOUND consequences for organisational behaviour and organisational design as certain personality types become over-represented in particular organisations, or professions. The challenges faced by Google in recent times are a great example of uncomplimentary characteristics reflecting significant individual differences resulting in challenging behaviours. A challenge faced by many types of organisations, such as technology companies, financial services companies, and those undertaking numerical or, heavily scientific type work.

NOTE – you can’t develop organisation culture unless you understand the personality profile of the individuals in the organisation, and how their traits are likely to compile into organisational behaviour. so if you’re having culture change or operating model development conversations that don’t consider personality, prepare for the boss for disappointment.

Strength and Similarity of Individuals Characteristics

Extraverts – We recruit people that are Extraverted because individuals with this personality trait are sociable, gregarious, assertive, etc. In fact, organisational leaders tend to be Extraverts rather than Introverts, so there can be a tendency to think that more extraverts is best. Well, its certainly good for extraverts, as they don’t tend to bond well with introverts, but not so good for the organisation. Although having lots of high extraverts will result in extraverted behaviour, it will also result in unhelpful behaviours, like: conflict, unproductive competition, politics, undermining, and motivation loss because the ‘dominance facet of extraversion will result in lots of leaders and ‘few doers’. Conversely, sticking a highly introverted workforce into an open-plan office environment will have a similar effect, due to sensory over-stimulation. With this personality trait, it’s the difference in the strength of the trait across the organisation/team matters, as does its overall strength.

Conscientiousness – it’s unlikely organisations would actively recruit people that aren’t conscientious, so there’s a natural tendency to believe that the more conscientious the individual, the better. Wrong! Very high levels of conscientiousness result in inflexibility that can be counter-productive, especially when goals are unclear, constantly changing, require extensive collaboration, negotiation, consensus seeking and social-flexibility. Worst still, differences in the level of conscientiousness in highly conscientious teams creates a high risk of conflict and Social Loafing, which is contagious, destructive to trust and social-cohesion in group settings.

NOTE – the strength (elevation) and similarity/difference (variance) of personality traits across the organisation matter greatly and small differences can have disproportionately large consequences.

Personality Activation

Personality Traits only result in predictable behaviours when appropriate environmental situations trigger, or ‘Activate‘, trait relevant behaviours. This is explained by another important theory – Trait Activation Theory, which also has a profound impact on organisational behaviour. This is why personality traits should always be considered in conjunction with job relevant situational factors.

Example – an extravert attending a large social gathering is presented with the opportunity to socialise, which in turn will activate extraverted behaviours and result in intrinsic satisfaction. Put the same extravert into a situation where there is social isolation, like being alone while working from home on a task that requires intensive concentration, and the trait will not be activated, resulting in intrinsic dissatisfaction.

Example – we generally want people that are highly Agreeable, because agreeableness is a pro-social trait, which makes them pleasant to work with. Put an agreeable person into a team that is highly agreeable and the trait will be activated, resulting in agreeable behaviour. However, this also describes exactly the environment needed to create group think since conflict avoidance won’t lead to great problem solving. Present the team with a difficult, challenging, high conflict situation, like that faced in most leadership roles requiring difficult decisions, and agreeable individuals will not behave agreeably, and the environment will stimulate demotivation, dissatisfaction and stress.

NOTE – trait activation is central to organisational design and development since behaviours are influenced by situational factors, and organisations have a great deal of autonomy to create the necessary environment needed to motivate desirable behaviours. But it goes far beyond a few policies, procedures, rules and working practices, which can have unintended consequences. This is a complex area (motivation) as trait related behaviours are activated by a wide variety of circumstances, including interactions between personality traits themselves – positively and negatively.

Other thing to think about

This list of things to think about goes on –

  1. Personality traits are curvilinear which requires an understanding of the nuances of trait interaction
  2. Personality traits are stable in the long term but highly plastic in the short term(Personality States), making it difficult to be confident about measurement conclusions from a single self-report
  3. Personality trait related behaviours can be heavily influenced by situational factors. But, they can also be developed, if there is a desire to do so. Thats right. Research shows that a one-standard deviation change can be made to some personality traits in a just a few weeks. This is very significant for organisational development.
  4. Certain traits are especially susceptible to acute stress responses that, if ignored, fall short of good risk management practice and employer’s Duty of Care, apart from the negative consequence to organisational effectiveness, performance and individual wellbeing.
  5. Some service providers use Dumbed Down models of personality to address the presentation issues associated with complexity. Unfortunately, while this enables them to make a sale, it negates the usefulness of such models since thinking about personality in isolation of a wide variety of other real-world factors is pointless. We can all express every every trait if the situational circumstances trigger the associated behaviour.
  6. Since about 50% of personality traits are inherited, selectively filtering out individuals with certain traits during recruitment creates a potential risk of discrimination, particularly if personality assessment exposes highly sensitive issues of neurodiversity…

The Size of the Opportunity

An immense amount of effort has been put into researching the different ways that personality assessment can be used to predict positive organisational outcomes: performance, cohesion, satisfaction, team viability, conflict, wellbeing, corporate citizenship behaviour, etc., are just a small few examples.

This has led to inappropriate/ineffective practices, misunderstandings and disappointments in the balance between costs and anticipated benefits. For example, while incentive bonus schemes provide extrinsic motivation to some people (mainly extraverts), they can have negative unintended consequences, have no effect, or serve to demotivate. There are similar issues with other extrinsic forms of motivation, like appraisals and feedback, employee-benefits, work-autonomy, flexible working arrangements, etc. These are all examples of a scatter-gun approach to motivation based on the notion that if the shot-pattern is wide enough, you’re bound to hit somebody. However, considering the administrative effort and cost needed to maintain such systems, they’re not effective motivators – perhaps a reflection of globally declining levels of trust and employee engagement.

It doesn’t help that the field of Personality Psychology is esoteric and inaccessible to almost everyone except those involved in it. This makes it difficult to identify expertise, or distinguish between ‘experts’. Simply relying on a high profile Brand and a large invoice value certainly isn’t an indication of potential success.

The Upside of Getting it Right

However, the value of getting it right has never been as important. Neither has it offered as much upside potential as it now does. This is due to the rapidly evolving organisational environment creating new demands of organisational capability and on operating models. For example, the dominance of the knowledge economy increases work complexity, velocity and uncertainty. These create an alien environment for some, but not others. Flattening hierarchical structures increase demand on horizontal social interactions, again, alien for some but natural for others. Shared leadership in matrix structures results in a leadership deficit that requires to be addressed with emergent leadership from within teams themselves. Great if your teams have people that have the propensity to respond in this way. Not so good if not and where performance failure is the consequence. Distributed working creates shallow and deep level diversity, along with the associated challenges referred to above, which are further hampered by working virtually with technology mediated communications, and so on…

A new organisational capability is required. A capability where everyone is able to naturally display characteristics that promote pro-social behaviours and contextual performance. In an increasingly Agile world, we can’t specify every aspect of the job when work environments are as dynamic as they are. We need people that a re able to pick up the slack and work with the ambiguity, but not everyone is capable of responding positively to agile working. It’s not simply a skill learned on a course. It’s also an attribute that some individuals don’t have in abundance, or at all. Similarly, regardless of individual’s innate characteristics, desirable behaviours can be inhibited by interactions with uncomplimentary organisational situational factors (Hygiene Factors). Does your organisation know which policies, processes and situations hinder rather than help?

Finally, imagine a workplace that has an increased level of self-awareness. Where teams are composed for success based on evidence based practice. Where motivation across the organisation is inherently intrinsic, and the situational conditions are complimentary to desired outcomes. Where gaps in desired behaviours are identified, understood, and treated as a development opportunity, rather than a deficiency. Where the sustainability of high performance doesn’t rely on constant management interventions and Hero Leadership, but comes from within self-directing teams; and where multiple factors can be regressed through predictive analytics incorporating real organisational behaviours tied to actual organisational goals.

Done sensitively and properly, that’s exactly what personality assessment offers contemporary Organisational Development so it’s worth making the effort to do it well.

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Guion, R. M. & Gottier, R. F. 1965. Validity Of Personality Measures In Personnel Selection. Personnel Psychology,18,135-164.

Stromberg, J., & Caswell, E. (2015). Why the MyersBriggs test is totally meaningless.

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