Personality testing: pros and cons

There are downsides, but they can have a place in management decisions

I’ve always been fascinated by personality tests, in particular the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). As a young education major many years ago, focused on the psychology of growth and learning, it seemed natural to accept a need to categorize people, whether students or employees, with all of their variability and complexity, into types, identities and groupings. This knowledge could be used in many organizational ways including team building, workplace efficiency, student body cohesion, leadership training, personnel development and general hiring to name a few.

Today, there are many personality tests on the market with the MBTI remaining as among the most popular in use with HR departments and management/training teams. DiSC, Color Code, CliftonStrengths and Insights Discovery are also well-known tools in this field.

Other personality inventories are continuing to come on the scene as the science of type and application of AI become more refined. We are now looking at a $500 million industry with future growth rates estimated to be robust. Corporate, and in some cases small business America, are always in search of higher efficiencies. They see personality testing as a means of achieving such an outcome.

Why wait for organizational culture to evolve when it can be shaped and structured according to management’s wishes?

As flippant as this sounds, there may be sound rationale embedded in the question. Throwing a group of people together in hope that company goals will be realized based on strengths and experiences as seen on resumes and evaluations alone may be strategically weak. Individuals bring a myriad of personality characteristics, some of which may translate into positive contributions, while others may interfere with business processes.

By applying tools that assist management in assessing their direct reports’ strengths and weaknesses more effectively could potentially result in more efficient sorting and assignment of talent.

A doctrine underpinning personality testing is that there are no bad people, only bad fits of people. Someone who fits well with kindergarten students will probably make a lousy state trooper, and vice versa. Cooperation, collaboration and camaraderie are critical soft-skill practices for any workforce. Maneuvering conditions to enhance these activities can be a worthy management goal.

If the edges of chaotic interpersonal dynamics can be smoothed and negative workplace politics mitigated, then why not intervene with data internally yielded by widespread use of personality inventories? It stands to reason productivity will be improved within a more satisfying work environment.

A powerful criticism leveled for years concerns the lack of scientific validity of personality tests. Indeed, the MBTI is the least scientific of them all, despite its prevalent use.

Based on type theory developed by Carl Jung, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, it can be said to be more art than science. Despite the MBTI’s uncanny ability to accurately identify a range of personal attributes as noted by the many people who have used it satisfactorily, including myself, there remains a persistent skepticism of its applicability due to a lack of experimental stringency regarding its claims.

Additionally, there are claims by workers of being denied promotions, hiring or leadership opportunities because of personality instrument results. Is it reasonable to expect there won’t be misapplications of these tests by managers whose skills lie in areas outside of psychology? As one who was trained in the interpretation and administration of the MBTI, I can attest to the deep levels of complexity and nuance to be considered in its use. Worth mentioning also is the likelihood of having employees who simply are uncomfortable with the “hocus-pocus” of anything based in psychology.

Whichever test is used, there should be trained professionals involved in an appropriate application of results. Regardless of potential downsides, personality instruments can occupy a favorable and constructive place in organizational management.

Bill Ryan, who writes about career, employment and economic topics from his home in North Sutton, can be reached at bill@billryanwritings.com.

Categories: Workplace Advice

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