All personality tests are not equal

Posted 26 July 2012 by
Penny Moyle
Personality and self awareness

Did you catch this week’s BBC World Service broadcast, ‘The Business of Personality’, and the associated online news article, ‘Personality tests: Can they identify the real you?’? Lucy Ash’s exploration of this topic has got me thinking about how the rise in popularity of personality assessments all too often goes hand in hand with fear and scepticism, based on common misconceptions about how personality assessments are are used, and why.

In the radio programme it was reported that there are around 2,500 personality assessments available in the US, of which the MBTI questionnaire is the most popular. Although noting that the MBTI assessment should not be used in the hiring process, the programme went on to express several concerns about how personality tests are regularly used for employment selection. It presented the MBTI tool as representative of all personality assessments, and spoke as if it was routinely being used to inform hiring decisions.

It worried me that this seemed to be confusing two rather separate applications of personality assessment: selection versus development. When undertaking DIY it is important to choose the right tool for any particular job, and this choice is equally important with personality assessment. No matter how good the tool, if it is misused it will give a poor result. The MBTI framework is excellent for self-exploration and the constructive understanding of individual differences. However, if hiring someone for a specific job role, you should use a trait-based assessment (such as the 16PF questionnaire), mapped against the competencies required for that role.

My attention was caught when one of the commentators (Barbara Ehrenreich) was railing against the value that corporate America places on Extraversion. The bias towards Extraversion is a persistent theme in some cultures and some organisations. I have blogged about it previously and discussed Susan Cain’s recent bestseller on the topic in detail. Ehrenreich also noted a bias during the 1980s towards more Charismatic Leadership, which she felt was underpinned by a bias towards an iNtuition preference in MBTI terms.

Whilst it is true that personality prejudices and fashions exist and can even predominate in some organisations, to blame personality assessments for such biases seemed to me to be missing the point. Indeed, the use of a scientifically validated personality assessment, in conjunction with a thorough job analysis, is an excellent way to avoid such recruitment mistakes. In the absence of system and rigour, it is all too common for unfounded prejudice to influence hiring decisions – even without any form of personality assessment being administered. The benefit of basing a corporate leadership and management development intervention on an instrument like the MBTI is that it provides a framework to ensure that all personality types are valued. This can help eliminate positive bias towards a particular personality profile in an organisation.

As a self-confessed proponent of personality assessment, I am familiar with all the criticisms and concerns raised by Lucy Ash, but it worries me that as an industry we have not yet made these distinctions sufficiently clear to the wider population. The result is that there is a persistent scepticism about personality assessments in some quarters, and a lack of recognition of the value that they can bring – either by providing additional objective data to a hiring decision, or by providing personal insight in a development context.

I had hoped the BBC programme would examine just why it is that the MBTI tool has become so popular and enduring. They referenced its “seductive simplicity”, but also said that this simplicity is precisely what makes some people so sceptical. My experience is that the MBTI framework simplifies elegantly a complex and powerful theory, making it accessible, memorable and useful in practice. However, it is not always realised that the MBTI framework does not stop at the four well known preference pairs. MBTI type dynamics and development theory, as well as the MBTI Step II facets, provide depth for those who wish to take their learning further.

Concerns were also raised in the programme about ‘pigeon-holing’ on the basis of personality type. In fact, people who have worked through the MBTI best-fit process typically feel an ownership of and pride in their personality type. This was exemplified in the programme by those who wanted to share their preferences with colleagues in order to promote teamworking and mutual understanding. Even the commentators on the show – who were broadly critical of personality assessment – admitted that using assessments for self-exploration seems to be a positive experience. And of course, this is precisely what MBTI assessment is all about.

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