News & Insight
December 2004

Understanding the Benefits of Personality Assessment Tools

At one time or another during their careers, most executives have been asked to complete questionnaires that identify their preferences for gathering information, making decisions and performing other tasks essential to success in business. Known as personality assessment tools, these instruments -- when used in concert with 360-degree interviews and other techniques -- enable psychologists and executive coaches to help executives reconcile differences between how others see them and how they see themselves.

What can we learn from personality assessment tools?

Assessment tools are very useful in a number of situations. I like to say that they show an individual’s “hard wiring, ” or built-in preferences for dealing with various situations and other people. Combined with 360s, they can give us a fuller picture of someone and show if other people see the same traits in themselves that others see. For example, someone who is innately shy might actually appear aloof to others, and understanding how this trait is perceived can be valuable in helping the individual adjust his or her behavior.

What are the major assessment tools in use today?

Two of the most widely used assessment tools are the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the 16PF. The Myers-Briggs uses four scales that measure opposites. Each end of a scale is represented by a different letter, so there are 16 possible combinations. Some executives have taken the Myers-Briggs before and will tell me, “Oh, I’m an ENTJ.”

The Myers-Briggs has been around for decades, so there’s an established data base to compare results with and WJM Associates is able to provide those comparisons because we have used this instrument with a large number of executives in many different industries. In addition, some larger organizations have been able to build up their own data bases of results, so they can compare results among their own executives from different functional and geographic units.

What do each of the scales measure?

One scale measures how individuals relate in the world, where they get their energy, and whether they are introverted or extroverted. It’s not always obvious who’s an introvert or an extrovert. Just because you have good social skills, you could be someone who gets energy from reflecting on ideas (introverted). It therefore takes a lot of energy for an introvert to go around and be social that way. And that’s important for people to know, because if they assume you’re an extrovert and you withdraw sometimes, or you go into your office, then they may presume that has something to do with them.

Sensing vs. intuition is the scale that measures how you become aware of information. Sensing means you’re interested in what your five senses can show you, what exists in the present, people who are more grounded in reality. Intuitive people are more inclined to use their imagination, see new possibilities, and trust interrelationships. High-level strategic thinkers tend to be high in intuition.

The third scale is thinking vs. feeling. These are types of judgment or decision-making. So a thinking person would base her decisions on logical objective analysis; a feeling person makes decisions more with their values and emotional considerations for other people.

The final scale is judging vs. perceiving. Essentially, this reflects how you live in and deal with the world. More judging people like things decided, planned and are rules-oriented. More perceiving people don’t want to miss anything; they’re spontaneous, flexible, they go with the flow.

Don’t a lot of people reflect both ends of these scales?

People can be extreme on these scales or centered. When people come out down the middle, that’s often telling as well, because when you’re centered on characteristics, it can indicate that you are quite balanced. In other words, you have either end of the spectrum at your availability depending on the circumstances.

But sometimes if you’re too much in the middle and you’re gray on a lot of these characteristics, that can be really difficult for other people because they just don’t know how to predict how you’ll react under different situations. All the more reason to be increasingly open about who you are and help others understand where you do feel strongly about things.

What does the 16PF measure?

The 16PF is similar to the Myers, but it has 16 scales instead of just four. One scale measures whether someone is reserved vs. warm, another measures reasoning, such as concrete vs. abstract, and so forth. So we can see if there is consistency with the Myers-Briggs, and that is why it is valuable to use more than one type of questionnaire. The 16PF also adds other things. It rates people on emotional stability and emotional responsiveness, which are important factors. Do you remain calm in stressful circumstances? Are you aware of how your behavior affects others? It also rates how forthright you are with information. It gets into several measures that describe how you are emotionally, how expressive you are personally, how well you understand other people’s emotional states. It therefore adds a lot of social and emotional dimensions, what other measures call emotional intelligence.

What do you do if you see differences between the two assessments?

We sometimes do and it’s because of the breakdown of the individual factors. As I said before, introverted reflects several different things, so sometimes in the 16PF I’ll see that broken down more clearly. With the Myers-Briggs, more recently it has broken down each of the characteristics into five others. If you’re extroverted, you’ll likely come out high on the extroverted factors, but there may be one or more where you seem to fall on the introverted side. So that’s helpful in explaining the discrepancies that others might be responding to. I just don’t put a lot of stake in that particular characteristic if I see a lot of discrepancies because I would tend to think that that’s not a consistent characteristic.

So assessment tools help create an objective picture of an individual.

That’s the real value of having these instruments, actually, because a psychologist could easily just meet with the person and use his or her own professional judgment, impressions and instincts. But these are objective measures, and they can get to so many dimensions that you couldn’t capture in a single interview.

Chrys Kasapis, Ph.D., a member of WJM Associates’ executive coaching and organizational effectiveness faculty, finds growing interest in assessment tools among the corporate clients she serves. A graduate of Barnard College/Columbia University, she received both her master’s degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from New York University.

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