The Value of Personality Inventories in the Workplace

Find that happy place!Have you ever taken a personality test for work?

I’ve had to do this a number of times. At one job, it was the DiSC profile. To get my current position, I had to take another personality profile during the interview process (I don’t remember which one it was, since I never saw my own results. I can only assume I passed since I was hired). While in this position, our team once went through Enneagram training, and most recently, we did the DiSC again. As a grad student in Organizational Psychology, I also taught the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI, and have had the occasion to take it probably six times.

My opinion on the personality test for workplace purposes?

Overrated. Here’s why.

People’s behavior is shaped in large part by their environment. We all behave differently at home from work. Even within a given setting, our behaviors are driven in part by the situation and people around us. You probably react differently to a long-time colleague you know well than your new boss who seems critical of your work. Coupled with research that shows the dramatic effects subtle environmental manipulations can have on behavior, and I am fully skeptical that any personality test can predict how people act at work. Even though many personality inventories try to break down how your type reacts in different scenarios, I think it just oversimplifies human behavior.

People can change. At least to a point! As one example, I mentioned I took the DiSC profile twice, about eight years apart. Well, I did not get the same results each time. In both instances, I scored high on the D (dominance) and C (conscientiousness) traits, but the first time I took it, I was also a high I (interpersonal, or social). This most recent time, I was about as low on I as you could be. Why the change?

Well, I am in a different job now than I was the first time, for one thing. Even though relationships are important in both jobs, they were way more critical in the culture of the first job. Things simply needed the support of influential leaders to get done. In my current job, that’s not necessarily the case; it’s a bigger company and we have more pockets of autonomy where we can each decide and execute on priorities.

I’ve also changed. I’m further into my career, have more experience, and feel more competent. Even though I still consider my colleagues one of the greatest sources of learning and support at work, I am no longer quite so reliant on their reactions to figure out if I’m doing a good job.

Of course, another reason scores might change is if the test has poor test-retest reliability (there is evidence that the MBTI falls into this category).

Not everyone is an extreme. Of the common personality tests used in workplaces, my least favorite is the MBTI. It has simply never worked well for me. Every time I take it, I am split on at least two and sometimes three of the dimensions.  For whatever reason, that particular test measures qualities where I am not strongly like one or the other anchors. I think for me it falls back on my first point: I am not the same in every situation. When I take a test like the MBTI, even with the instruction to answer each question for my workplace self, it’s hard to choose an extreme knowing that I might behave differently depending on the circumstances.

What are workplace personality tests good for then?

So I do think there are a couple of benefits to using workplace personality tests, even if they don’t do a great job predicting people’s real behavior. The benefits include:

Help teams understand their members’ comfort zones. In my current job, we did both the Enneagram and DiSC testing as team activities, including sharing our results with one another and discussing how the results might tie into our preferences. These conversations are very beneficial in that they help us make sense of how our colleagues might react or respond to various strategies. They have also helped me at times to curb my frustration with someone who is behaving differently than I think they should; I’m able to step back and realize that this is not about me, but an expression of their comfort zone.

As I said before, I don’t think the personality test necessarily predicts results. But it helps people understand process. Knowing one person is more data-driven while another is compelled by the bottom line helps others provide the appropriate input to lead to the desired outcome.

Help individuals understand their own instincts. I have been impressed with how both the Enneagram and the DiSC got a few basic things right about the way I tend to react when I’m not controlling my responses at all. One insight I got from the Enneagram was that I’m very rules-focused. I tend to try to learn all the rules for doing something and then follow them religiously in order to be successful, and I get very upset when others don’t learn or follow the rules. Knowing this about myself helps me deliberately break character when that’s adaptive. It also, as I mentioned above, helps me curb my frustration when I see other people doing things “wrong,” because I now know why I feel that way.

Help managers determine the best types of feedback to support direct reports. This goes a bit with understanding team members’ comfort zones, but is more specific. When I was a manager, one of the (fun) challenges was that there is no one-size-fits-all for supporting employees. I believe a good manager should want any direct reports to be successful, which means a key responsibility is providing helpful and personalized feedback. Some of the workplace personality inventories can provide insights into what type of feedback works best for each individual. Some people like a lot of data and direction. Others thrive on bottom-line evaluations and finding their own path. And yes, you could just ask people, but related to my second point, sometimes these tests help surface qualities people are not consciously aware of. They did for me.

So have you ever used a personality inventory for work? What did you think? How did it help you, and how did it not?