The Pitfalls of Personality Tests

Online personality tests are used extensively for employee selection and development at all levels. To gain maximum value from such an investment, it helps to be aware of some of the potential pitfalls of these tools.

When they work as intended, these instruments are quick and relatively inexpensive and can generate useful insights into how people are likely to behave, including task related work style, emotional resilience and approach to dealing with people.

However, there are two problems associated with using such instruments.  First, there is the old garbage-in-garbage-out issue.  Some people have poor self-insight while others are motivated to put forward a positive impression of themselves.  Second, even when people have good self-insight and are honestly trying to describe their true preferences, you are only getting a picture of how they see themselves, not how others see them.

How to limit the risks of using personality tests

The risks associated with personality testing are highest in a selection context where candidates are motivated to get hired. The risk is lower in an employee development setting, but this just mitigates the attempt to give a favorable impression.

However, even the favorable impression bias is not totally eliminated in a development context. A study several years ago conducted by Harvard Professor, Chris Argyris looked at learning biases in a large consulting firm.  Argyris found that the tendency to blame circumstances or other people for their mistakes got in the way of the consultants’ ability to learn. Because we are all defensive to some extent, employees in a development program could prefer to put forward a favorable impression of themselves rather than have their weaknesses exposed.

The best way to minimize the risks associated with using personality tests is to supplement them with other tools or approaches. Minimally, a follow up interview can explore the main themes emerging in the personality profiles, confirming and elaborating on them.  For pre-employment assessment, a personality tool can be used as a starting point, to help identify potential red flags or gaps vis-à-vis the hiring company’s targeted competencies or culture, areas that need to be more thoroughly vetted during the interview.  Some tools, such as the Hogan Assessment, even offer indications of “impression management” by the candidate, again pointing to areas to be more fully examined by a skilled interviewer.

Using more than one personality questionnaire can also help. This allows you to look for consistency across instruments. This approach is better than using only one test but still not without risk.

Another approach is to supplement the tests with behavioral exercises such as case studies, In Box exercises, presentations and role-plays. These instruments are more time consuming and expensive but they allow you to observe directly how people handle various work-related situations. With these exercises, you are not limited to how participants see themselves.

Behavioral exercises can be used strategically. Wherever the position to be filled is extremely critical, where the cost of failure is very high then it pays to invest the extra cost and time to get it right. The idea is to strike the right balance between cost and the potential for accurate assessment.

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