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The Uses and Misuses of Personality Tests

Ben Dattler

In addition to the increasingly common use of cognitive and personality
tests for personnel selection, organizations now administer millions of
personality, learning style, conflict style, and emotional intelligence tests to
individuals and teams every year for assessment and development
purposes. Examples of popular tests include the Myers-Briggs Type
Indicator (MBTI), the Learning Styles Inventory (LSI), the Thomas-Kilmann
Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI), the Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument,
the DISC, the FIRO-B, the Emotional Competence Inventory, the Bar-On
EQ-i, and many others. By doing so, 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. Unfortunately, too much focus on people
and not enough focus on situations can minimize the benefits of
assessment and development initiatives.

I will not suggest that these tests have no utility or that they should never
be used for employee and team assessment and development. Instead, I
will argue that HR needs to 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.

What are these tests?
Some of these tests are “self-report” based on multiple choice tests.
Others are “360 degree” and are based on quantitative ratings by oneself
and others. “360 degree” tests are usually more expensive and difficult to
administer, though they yield a benefit in terms of providing multiple
ratings which are generally more “objective” than self-reports. Some are
paper and pencil, others are administered online, and some are offered in
either format. The most popular tests place people into categories. Here
are some examples of popular tests that categorize style and personality in
the workplace:

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI):

Sixteen distinct personality types based on combinations of four
Extraversion–Introversion: describes where people prefer to focus
their attention and get their energy—from the outer world of people and
activity or their inner world of ideas and experiences

Sensing–Intuition: describes how people prefer to take in
information—focused on what is real and actual or on patterns and
meanings in data

Thinking–Feeling: describes how people prefer to make
decisions—based on logical analysis or guided by concern for their impact
on others

Judging–Perceiving: describes how people prefer to deal with the outer
world—in a planned orderly way, or in a flexible spontaneous way


Kolb Learning Style Inventory (LSI):

Four learning styles:
Diverging: combines preferences for experiencing and reflecting
Assimilating: combines preferences for reflecting and thinking
Converging: combines preferences for thinking and doing
Accommodating: combines preferences for doing and experiencing


Thomas-Kilman Conflict Mode instrument (TKI):

Five conflict handling styles:
Competing: High assertiveness and low cooperativeness — the goal is to

Avoiding: Low assertiveness and low cooperativeness — the goal is to

Compromising: Moderate assertiveness and moderate cooperativeness
— the goal is to "find a middle ground"

Collaborating: High assertiveness and high cooperativeness — the goal
is to "find a win-win solution"

Accommodating: Low assertiveness and high cooperativeness — the
goal is to "yield"


What are these tests used for in the workplace?
Personality and style tests are currently being used for executive
coaching, career counseling, conflict resolution, team development,
organizational development, to predict fit in mergers and acquisitions,
negotiation training, sales training, etc.

How popular are they?
According to an article in the December 2003 issue of Workforce
Management, The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator alone is administered over
2.5 million times every year. There are thousands of other tests on the
market, and estimates of the number of employees who take them each
year for purposes of both selection and development range in the millions.

Why are these tests so popular?
While many of the most popular workplace assessment tests are short and
easy to administer, well-validated tests, like the 434-item California
Psychological Inventory, tend to be quite lengthy and time consuming. In
addition to being easier to administer, the results of the most popular tests
are often easier for people to accept than the results of the more validated
tests. For example, the results of NEO PI-R, which is based on the most
well-supported model of personality, the “Big Five” model
(Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, Openness to
Experience, and Extraversion) might tell you that you are lazy, unfriendly,
neurotic, closed minded, and withdrawn, and the 360 degree Emotional
Competence Inventory might tell you that your boss, peers, and
subordinates rated you as unempathic, lacking emotional self-awareness,
and demonstrating poor relationship and conflict management skills.
However, as reflected in the table above, the more popular tests place
people into non-evaluative categories. For example, people with the same
Myers-Briggs “type” can be either stellar performers or criminally insane. In
general, people have a predisposition to make personal, rather than
situational, attributions for 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
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.

What are some of the limitations of these tests?
Research evidence about these tests is mixed. In most cases, a barely
significant proportion of variance can be accounted for by these tests.
This is related to a broader debate in psychology about the relative
importance of “person” versus “situation.” Ample research has shown that
organizations are “strong” situations, and that situational variables (i.e.:
the demands of a person’s role, incentive structures, team norms,
organizational culture) are much better predictors of behavior than are
individual attributes. In order to add explanatory value, tests should explain
the impact of personality or style on behavior, and also the impact of
behavior on performance. Establishing the link between personality or
style and behavior is difficult enough- many studies were unable to
establish any link between personality or style and actual performance.
The flip side of the popularity and simplicity of these self-report tests is
that they are easy to fake. It is quite easy to answer the questions to
appear however you want to appear, and people in organizations have
been known to try to mimic certain “types” on the Myers-Briggs.
Additionally, by providing an “objective” and non-evaluative reference for
personality and style, some of these tests provide good rationalizations
and excuses for one’s shortcomings when circumstances cannot be
blamed. For example, one can blame a messy desk or missed deadlines
on the fact that one is “a P”—a perceiver in Myers-Briggs terminology.

Based on their limitations, when can these tests be harmful?
Tests can be harmful when they are used for purposes for which they are
not intended. For example, because it is an “ipsative” test, meaning that
there is forced choice between alternatives and no “right” answer to any
question, 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, these tests can be harmful insofar as they 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.

Based on their limitations, how should these 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 be useful to the extent that they 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, like any other kind of organizational intervention, expectations
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 add 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 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.


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