Picture of someone completing a checklist and choosing introvert or extrovert. Title graphic for Personality Assessment; Dangers to Avoid and Strategies for Optimal Results

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The Allure of Personality Assessments

Many people love to be told things they may not know about themselves. Leaders often feel lost when dealing with the human aspects of a team, and “objective” assessments can help them feel secure.

For people who are fascinated by psychology or themselves, they are fun.

If a personality assessment captures what is true about someone, its face validity increases and it becomes a shortcut through the morass of human confusion because that person assumes it may be equally accurate in the conclusions about everyone else.

Personality assessments and the associated jargon give people a means to communicate about characteristics that are often muddy or ill-defined. Assessments define elusive concepts, so teams can have conversations about difficult-to-explain aspects of thinking and working.

The Psychometric Problems with Popular Personality Assessments

1. The reliability (test-retest) is notoriously poor. This problem means that a person may get different results over time. Core personality traits remain stable over time. The personality tests commonly used in workplace and leadership positioning tend to test our ways of interacting and working, which may or may not be linked to core personality traits. Thus, if we work to balance our workplace strengths and weaknesses over time, the test results may change.

2. Internal validity is poor. Validity means “is this measuring what we think it will measure?” To be fair to all assessments and psychology as a science, measuring humans is difficult. The complexity reflected in multiple interactions, correlations, and cannonical correlations (correlations with correlations) indicates that our standards of causality and correlation will be lower than sciences with more discrete variables.

3. They will resonate most strongly with people who have highly differentiated personality traits. Most assessment construction uses a forced choice method. (Choose a or b). Sometimes, additional questions are populated based on those choices. The underlying premise is that people will automatically choose “what is most true to me” in the moment and that choice will be an accurate reflection of their personality.

For analytical people who think, “It depends on the situation,” psychologists, or those who have worked hard to grow and think, “I used to be that way but not now,” answering the tests in a dichotomous fashion feels fake and frustrating. The test lacks the sensitivity to capture context and thus has lower face validity for the person taking it.

3. The tests assume that people are accurate reporters of themselves.

4. The results are based on a single test taken by an individual at a single point in time. Psychologists trained in personality assessments do a “battery” of personality assessments. This method means that we provide a variety of tests and look for themes instead of relying on a single test for a conclusion. Depending on the situation, we may also interview colleagues, significant others or family members for a more well-rounded picture of personality over time and across situations.

The Pitfalls, Ethical Considerations, and Diminishing Return on Investment

1. Most personality assessments are described as “objective, scientific measures.” Because of this language, people often take the results as truth.

At a personal level, this assumption can create harm if someone reads something about themselves that does not resonate with them or is even hurtful.

Organizations that use tests in isolation for selection, promotion, and decision-making risk making unfair decisions.

For example, most assessments are computerized or paper-based. Suppose an individual has written comprehension difficulty, assessment anxiety, or attention deficit disorder. These factors may impact both the test-taker’s experience and the assessment results. Similarly, situational stress such as a death in the family may impact the respondent’s answers. These factors will impact test validity and reliability. Thus, organizations may be making critical decisions based on faulty information.

3. They will resonate most strongly with people who have highly differentiated personality traits. Most assessments are constructed through a forced choice method. (Choose a or b). Sometimes additional questions are populated based on that answer. The underlying premise is that people will automatically choose “what is most true to me” in the moment and that choice will be an accurate reflection of their personality. 

For analytical people who think, “It depends on the situation,” psychologists, or those who have worked hard to grow and think, “I used to be that way but not now,” answering the tests in a dichotomous fashion feels fake and frustrating.

3. The tests assume that people are accurate reporters of themselves.

4. The results are based on a single test, taken by an individual at a single point in time. Psychologists trained in personality assessments do what is called a “battery” of personality assessments. This means that we provide a variety of tests and look for themes instead of relying on a single test for a conclusion. Depending on the situation, we may also interview colleagues, significant others or family members for a more well-rounded picture of personality over time and across situations.

How To Optimize the Use of Personality Assessments

Regardless of the above concerns, organizations will continue to use personality assessments. The desired outcomes are usually improved team communication and better comprehension of differing skill sets. Additionally, many people seem to be attracted to instruments that may tell them what they don’t know about themselves. One CEO summed up the decision to use personality assessments despite all of the pitfalls by saying, ” “Hedge funds don’t actually outperform other vehicles, but they are prestigious and we like them, so we use them anyway.”

RECOMMENDATION:

Use personality assessments as a starting point for conversation rather than a conclusion.

RATIONALE:

1. A conversation allows people to elucidate what they agreed with or disagreed with about the assessment results. Open questions such as “What resonated as very true for you and what didn’t?” encourage people to discuss their ways of thinking, feeling, communicating, and working.

2. A conversation helps to avoid people feeling unfairly categorized or “put into a box.” Some people like labels–it makes them feel secure. Others hate them. Thus, using an assessment with the explicit intention of conversation generation avoids alienating people.

3. When people view assessment results as primary assumptions, disagreement with the conclusions provides an “out” for further growth or conversation. If a person dislikes a question or the overall assessment, the participant views the premise for any follow-up conversations as inaccurate and flawed.

“I didn’t like this question. It didn’t make sense. I don’t trust the assessment; therefore, it seems like anything flowing from the conclusions is a waste of time.”

Pointing out an assessment’s limitations on the front end helps people feel more at ease if they disagree with the results.

4. A conversation helps to avoid bad decision-making. Some organizations wrongly use assessments as screening devices for hiring or promotion. Beyond the ethical implications of this practice, the organization may miss out on the perfect candidate. Using the results to ask questions can act as a guide for additional interview questions that allow more insight into the characteristics one is trying to assess.

RECOMMENDATION:

Give people options on how they want to address them. If they hate assessments, maybe they want to look at the profiles, choose what seems to fit them, and discuss it with the group.

OR

Gamify it. Allow people to choose their profile and then others to guess the profile. This strategy has the advantage of helping people see how others view them.

OR

Have them choose two assessments and extract the information they think is most relevant for each.

RATIONALE:

Personality assessments are, well, personal. In the same way that some people love the idea of bonding groups and others run for the mountains, some people adore personality assessments, and others loathe them.

Providing options instead of mandates feels less intrusive and puts the power back in the hands of the employees and colleagues.