Personality tests are bogus, but you can use them anyway.

personality tests

The debate on the value of personality tests is the HR equivalent of the OS or browser debate for IT people. Some swear by the tests and believe they can improve performance, while others cry out charlatan or humbug the moment they are asked to participate in one. Can personality tests be of any use?

What are personality tests?

Personality tests originate from the phrenology part of psychology. The very first tests (late 18th century) aimed to deduct a persons personality by the measurements of their skull. This evolved over the 19th and 20th century into tests mostly based on many questions which require a person to score statements and questions on a (Likert) scale. In order to interpret the results, they are compared to the norm of other test subjects. The result will then put the person in 1 of 3/4/8/N types of personalities and show the associated characteristics. Famous examples of tests are:

  • MBTI – Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
  • MMPI – Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory
  • FFM – Five Factor Model / Big Five personality traits

Other famous tests which are not true personality tests but are often used in the same context:

What are personality tests used for?

During the first world war the US military used personality tests to see whether soldiers were susceptible to shell shock. During the forties and fifties they were used to scientifically discover the basic traits of human personality. Nowadays personality tests are often used to see whether a someones personality matches a certain job or will fit in a team. There are even companies whose sole product is providing personality tests during job selections for big organizations.

What’s wrong with personality tests?

The tests aren’t really the problem here (although some of them really shouldn’t be labeled scientific); it’s the people using them. People have the tendency to view the results of tests as the absolute truth. In their minds, the tests results are a fact just like gravity is, and they act accordingly. While I strongly believe in the added value of social sciences, I also strongly believe that results from social sciences should be used correctly. There should be room for interpretation and in the case of personality tests people should be aware of biased test taker interpretation, social factors  and respondent faking influencing results. That is why I think you should not use a test as the main way to determine ones personality in order to see if you should hire a person for a certain job or not. I believe having a decent job interview (using the STAR method for example) with multiple people will have a much better result in finding out whether a person fits a job or team.

personality test meme

So you have just taken a personality test, and the results clearly show you are a pink-purple-with-gold-flakes personality type. This is by no means an excuse to explain all your actions based on this result. Nor is it a decent way of forcing all your colleagues to approach you in a certain way. And it is certainly not something which you should bring up in every conversation remotely related to how you act.

Results from a personality tests are not absolute and should not be used to determine everything you do.

Why you should use them anyway.

If you have read all of the above, we can proceed to the useful stuff. Personality tests can be a nice tool if you would like to give people a better understanding of different types of people and how they work. It can broaden peoples perspective and help in explaining the added value of each person.

I think it can be especially fun and useful to do a certain test with your entire team in order to learn people are different. Evaluating the results together and learning each others preferences can help improve the cooperation within the team. We occasionally do a test in our HR team and find them both entertaining and insightful. As long as you keep the dangers I mentioned above in mind, they might be of use for you or your team as well.

 

What’s your stance on the use of personality tests? Can they be of use to an organization, or are they an insult to science and complete waste of time?

Since my previous blog on Catbert was well received I leave you with another great Dilbert comic.

dilbert personality tests