Personality Tests Can Have Unintended Consequences

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Jun 13, 2019

It’s generally accepted that personality tests are not a reliable tool for making employee selection decisions.

But how about other management and OD uses? Some folks consider personality tests to evaluate cultural fit. Others for promoting diversity and team play. Personality tests are also valued as a coaching and career counseling tool.

I’m not one to pass judgment on any of these applications. But my experience suggests that even with the best intentions, personality tests can have unintended consequences.

Not Innovative?

It was all very mysterious.

John, our business unit president, asked the leadership team to clear our calendars for Wednesday afternoon and report to the corner conference room. No agenda was circulated.

When we arrived, John introduced us to Tony, an organizational psychologist in a brown sweater who he announced would be facilitating our meeting.

Tony explained we’d each be completing an exercise that would reveal powerful insights about our managerial inclinations and strengths. Not to worry, he added, this was not a test, there were no right or wrong answers, and we would, no doubt be fascinated and empowered by the results.

We set to work and were confronted with sets of statements of meritorious management behaviors. For each set we were required to agonize over and rank which statements best and least described us. Then we completed an abbreviated version of the test as it applied to each of our peers. We had a cup of coffee while Tony scored the results and then reported back to the conference room to be debriefed.

Tony began by explaining that the exercise was all about determining whether our individual gifts lay with innovation and change management, or administration and operations. He added that all organizations need both personality types in order to succeed. Then he presented our individual test results.

We had all scored ourselves as innovative change agents.

Before we had a chance to savor these findings, Tony shared how we had been scored by our peers and our unit president. Seven of our nine leadership team members were not seen as possessing any innovation qualities whatsoever.

People were devastated, even though Tony amplified that any organization without a cadre of operations stalwarts would crash and burn. They didn’t want to be bureaucrats. They didn’t view themselves that way.

The debriefing went downhill from there. Here’s what I took away.

  1. The findings of the 360-degree personality test were substantially accurate as to whether team members were inclined to be innovators or administrators.
  2. However, the test did not discriminate as to how effective people were. One of the “innovators” was a loose cannon. Two of the “administrators” were undisciplined and muddle-headed. Like many personality tests, the results were a zero sum game. everyone’s score adds up to 100 — regardless of their composite business acumen and managerial prowess. So an A player who scores a 20 on innovation just may be more of a change agent than a marginal performer who scores 80.
  3. Any personality test that relies on individuals to assess themselves is subject to operator error. We are not always the best judge of where our strengths lie. There is value in having some sort of 360-degree component.
  4. The purpose of this self-awareness exercise was never evident. Any benefit did not offset the unintended consequences.

You’d have thought I learned from this experience.

We’re All CEOs

An IT services organization hired me to build a professional sales and marketing organization. When my new team took a while to jell, HR suggested it could be a simple clash of styles. It proposed a group-wide personality test so folks would better understand and value where their peers were coming from.

A professional facilitator was engaged, intoned “this is not a test, don’t worry there are no right or wrong answers” and we all set to work answering a battery of forced choice questions.

When we re-congregated, our facilitator explained that there were 16 personality types, and an organization needs all types to be successful. He added that about half of my leadership team represented the personality type that predestined them for executive leadership. They were CEO material. The other team members had equally important complementary attributes.

Unfortunately, all of my team saw themselves as CEO material. Bitterly upset, some individuals insisted on being re-tested. Offered this opportunity, they indeed moved into the pre-CEO ranks.

As I reflected on the unintended consequences of this exercise, I made the following observations.

  1. Two or three of the individuals classified as executive leaders were legitimate CEO material. Indeed, one individual became president of an up-and-coming firm within the next three or four years.
  2. Other CEO material candidates were marginal performers who I wouldn’t trust in a leadership position.
  3. The test was subject to being manipulated once folks knew what kind of outcome they wanted.
  4. This test was not a unifying experience for my team.

Based on these, and other experiences with on-the-job personality tests I have come to the following general conclusions.

  1. Avoid launching work-group-wide personality tests where the results will be publicly shared. You may proclaim there are “no wrong answers” but that’s not necessarily what people will perceive. There are better ways for achieving unit cohesiveness and team play.
  2. While a personality test may reveal whether someone is drawn to sales or leadership or financial analysis or software coding, it cannot predict whether they will be successful. There are better ways (and better tests) for determining hiring and promotion decisions.
  3. Consider reserving workplace personality tests for individuals seeking career guidance. Make participation elective and provide results only to the test taker. Be candid about personality test limitations. Do offer professional facilitation, but let the individual take leadership in how the results apply to their situation. Encourage the individual to seek out someone they trust for a reality check.
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