What do you think about the use of personality tests, such as the Myers-Briggs, in business situations, including hiring and promotion decisions, career choices, and team building?
I've been waiting months for someone to lob me that question, and I expect I'll get a flood of angry challenges to my answer. I don't advocate the use of standardized testing in the workplace, despite its widespread popularity. Here's why: Although some tests are better than others at capturing various aspects of an individual, they're all poor substitutes for a sensitive, thorough conversation.
These tests try to objectify different personality traits, promising an expedient alternative to spending time with a colleague or job prospect. But they tend to be all words and no music: They miss crucial clues about how people relate to others, how they think, and how they listen — all factors that can make or break someone's career.
Another reason such tests appeal to many managers is that they provide a common language to talk about emotion and behavior, helping make personality factors an approachable and acceptable topic. To a degree, that's all for the good. But the forced jargon of the testing industry also gives us something to hide behind. I cringe when a senior executive explains away a battle with a colleague by saying, "I'm an ENTJ, and he's an ISFP." (That's Myers-Briggs code.) Speak English! How about, "I disagree with that idea — and here's why."
I'm not saying we can't learn from these tests or that they can't help stimulate further discussion. But we're not doing anyone any favors when we delude ourselves into believing that we can turn irreducibly subjective judgments into something hardly more than pseudoscience.
I'm about to enter business school from management consulting and know I'll have some career choices ahead. With so many possibilities, what's the best way to know which path to take?
Now that I've trashed personality testing, it's only fair that I supply something more constructive in its place. There are many reasons we choose our vocations, ranging from the practical (your dad worked for Ford and you want to stay in Detroit, so you get a job at the same place) to the opportunistic (you did really well in B-school and got an offer at a prestigious investment bank) to the unconscious (you were cast in the role of caring for a sick parent as a child, so you grow up to be a surgeon or an HR executive).
First of all, consider yourself lucky to have a choice. That's what education, prosperity, and a free society afford us. But if you want to go beyond the obvious strategies (reading, observing, soliciting lots of advice, and even — I'll grant this — testing), I'd suggest dreaming.
Don't laugh. I'm talking about the awake and asleep varieties of dreams, which Freud called the "royal road" to the unconscious. See where your fantasies take you: Are you part of a team, or are you working independently? Are you using your logical or argumentative side, or are you an artist at heart? What's emotionally satisfying and fun, and what keeps your eyes from glazing over? By paying attention to the thoughts that percolate to the surface, you just might learn what's really driving you and what you really want to do.
Finally, take chances, especially when the only thing at risk is a bit of wounded pride. Consider each choice an opportunity to learn something about yourself. Often you can't know which path is best until you've traveled down a few.
Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and founder of The Boswell Group LLC, advises executives on leadership, management, and governance. Send him your questions about the psychology of business.
Interested in further exploring some of the ideas and issues in this article? Consider starting a Fast Company reading group. Here are some possible conversation catalysts:
Dr. Sulkowicz addresses the validity of the Myers-Briggs test. What are your personal thoughts on it? Does your company use that test or a similar type of personality profiling? If so, evaluate how well you think you fit your profile. What strategies can one use to break out of the Myers-Briggs "mold"?
A version of this article appeared in the October 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.