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Personality Tests: Do They Have a Place?

When I say personality test, you are probably thinking of the online tests you may take to see which Marvel superhero you are or which Hogwarts house you belong to (at least before Harry Potter’s creator’s problematic views came to light). But these are not the tests I will be talking about. For this blog, I will be talking about the tests that are used as corporate group activities or as a barrier to managerial promotions. If you have been in the corporate world long enough you have probably either heard of or taken one of these tests before. They are designed to measure and gauge you as a worker and give insight into what your tendencies are not only as an employee, but as a person.

These tests, whether it is the Myers-Briggs, DiSC, Hogan, or another that I am unfamiliar with, all have some things in common.  Each claim to be based on science, and each are usually comprised of answering numerous questions, either multiple choice or Likert scale questions, that all seem to revolve around personality traits.  At the end of the tests, you will get a result lumping you into one or another “type” that will help you and your employees better understand how to work with you, and help you better understand how to work with them. Or at least that is the theory.

Here is where I will state my bias, although I am sure you could have read into this already by my choice of words up to this point. I am not a fan of using these tests for anything other than a fun team building activity. This bias was earned the first time I took one of these tests and ended up being singled out from my fellow coworkers as different than them – something I was already self-conscience about. To that end I want to ensure that I state that since that experience, I have read about these tests, and taken a few more of them, but I am by no means an expert, so I will constrain this blog to the two things that I have seen these tests used for, and why one is OK, while the other is not.

When these tests are used for team building, it can be an enlightening and fun experience, if certain facilitator principles are applied. When you are separating people by traits, which these tests do by their nature, you must be careful that no one is singled out as “different”. This is what happened in my first experience; I was singled out as different. I realize now that I have led a privileged life that it took well into my 20s until this happened to me for the first time, but it left an impression. These tests and activities are meant to bring the team closer together and give them insight into how each team member thinks and feels about work, and how they can all work better together, so in my case it did the exact opposite, because it made me feel like I was an outsider on a team that did not want me there, and that feeling never really left. I use myself as the example to show how these well-intentioned activities can have negative reactions if not delivered well.

The other way that I have seen these tests used is, in my opinion, never OK. I have seen these personality tests used as a barrier to managerial promotions. The process was: the potential new manager would apply and go through the first interview and the top 2-3 candidates would be selected. Then each of these candidates would take this test, and the results would be one factor, albeit not the only factor, in the final selection. One seemingly logical (if only on the surface) driving motivation behind companies doing this is insight into the working relationship compatibility the candidate might have with the team they’re being hired to manage, as well as those directly above them on the ladder. This use case is something that I cannot get behind in any way. These tests are not designed to determine who will do well in a managerial position, so I do not think they have any place in eliminating candidates. There are multiple reasons this can be a potential issue, including the fact that most of these tests do not make the science and formulas behind their results public, so you really do not know how they are getting the results they are supplying. In addition to the ambiguity of the science, you must factor in that many standardized tests have come under scrutiny of discrimination because they are designed and tested on young affluent white males. This means that any company that values DEI in their hiring practices should steer clear of using these tests as deciding factors for hiring.

In the end these tests were created with good intentions, and if used that way they can be of help to learn how your team can work better together. When used properly and with the correct facilitator principles, these tests can help your team learn more about each other and themselves, however there are things that you should be aware of when using these tests. Ensure that no one is singled out as “the other” and make sure that all usage of these tests stay far away from any hiring and firing decisions. And for any readers who are wondering, my test results were: I was Captain America and I was sorted into Hufflepuff.

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