News & Insight
April 2006

The Uses and Misuses of Personality Tests

Ben Dattner, Ph.D.

Personality and management style tests have become an increasingly common tool in employee selection and development. Indeed, according to Workforce Management, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator alone is administered over 2.5 million times every year.

Organizations use personality and style tests for executive coaching, career counseling, conflict resolution, team development, organizational development, mergers and acquisitions, negotiation training, sales training, and many other situations. While there are many benefits to using such assessment tools, organizations may inadvertently perpetuate what is known as "the fundamental attribution error" - the tendency to focus on individual dispositions, and to ignore situational factors, in explaining behavior.

HR can help managers carefully consider the potential benefits, risks and limitations of these instruments before deciding if, how and when to use them. Additionally, if organizations do decide to use these tests, they need to balance a consideration of individual dispositions with a consideration of situational variables.

Explaining Behavior

We are all susceptible to "the fundamental attribution error," meaning that we discount situational factors when trying to explain why other people behave as they do. Personality and style tests, therefore, confirm what we have a natural tendency to believe: that individuals create and influence situations — and not the other way around.

These tests are also memorable, simple, intuitive, and often confirm what we already know about ourselves and others, even if that knowledge is to some extent built on simplified, stereotype-like categories of personalities and styles. This type of classification of people is an integral part of American popular culture, marketing and politics. We all use movie and television stars as points of reference when describing others; marketers have well-developed "psychographic" categories that they use to target advertising; and pollsters segment the electorate and tailor candidates' messages accordingly.

No 'Right' Answers

Personality and style tests can be harmful when they are used for purposes for which they are not intended. For example, the Myers-Briggs test is not meant to be an employee screening tool, and its publisher cautions against using it to select employees. Managers should consult with their HR team before deciding which tests are appropriate to use for selection purposes.

In terms of employee and team development, personality and style tests may put a focus on the wrong variables, in isolation. In many cases when organizations use personality and style tests, it might have been worthwhile to first consider whether roles and responsibilities need to be clarified, the quantity and quality of performance feedback needs to increase, and/or whether new strategies and systems for the recruitment, retention and development of employees need to be created and implemented. In other words, successful managers and their teams are able to balance a focus on assessing and developing people with a focus on assessing and improving the context within which they individually and collectively work.

How Should Tests Be Used?

Since behavior is a function of an interaction between individuals and situations, personality and style tests can help provide a useful framework for assessing the ways that different individual personalities and styles contribute to the behaviors that impact performance in the workplace.

Tests can also serve as a starting point for candid and constructive discussions of individual behavior and performance in the workplace and create an environment where candid and constructive feedback can become the rule and not the exception.

However, expectations for tests, like any other kind of organizational intervention, should be realistic. It is not realistic to assume that getting back the results of a personality or managerial style test will lead to sustained personal insight and growth. HR can bring substantial value to managers by helping them to identify the talent and behavioral implications of organizational strategies, and by helping them define and achieve their human capital goals in general, with personality and style tests being only one tool among many that can be used to assess and improve individual, team and organizational performance.

Organizational behavior is very complex and is influenced by many variables at the individual, relational, group, organizational, and environmental levels of analysis. Neither descriptions of organizational phenomena nor prescriptions for change should be based on simple models or categories of individual personality.

If personality and style tests are used in the workplace, they should be used as part of a larger, integrated human capital assessment and development system, and should be a point of departure, rather than a point of arrival. HR professionals can ensure that these tests are put to best use by encouraging managers to take both people factors and situational factors into account when assessing and developing themselves and their teams.

Ben Dattner, Ph.D., is a member of WJM Associates' executive coaching and assessment faculty and is an adjunct professor at New York University.

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