The first time I tried it, I was 16. I was a little curious, a little scared — but I couldn’t help myself and did it anyway. The most recent time was just about a week ago. Each time, I learned a little bit more about myself, some of it uncomfortably revealing. I’m not talking about drugs or backseat necking, but about personality tests.
But what if, instead of being my own odd little hobby, it was a corporate requirement? What if my boss asked me to take one of these tests and then proceeded to evaluate my performance, my career possibilities, my personality based on the results? Suddenly the fun becomes scary, and more than a little creepy. Yet it’s happening more and more frequently in companies across America, from DuPont to Best Buy to Toyota. They’re investing large sums of money to figure out what types of employees they’ve got — and who they want more of.
Truth is, these tests come in and out of fashion, and right now they’re back with a vengeance. They gained their greatest power in the 1950s as a means to create homogenized bureaucracies filled with carbon copies of the most industrious employees. (William H. Whyte famously skewered this approach in his 1956 management classic, The Organization Man, even including an appendix on how to cheat the tests. Rule No. 1: “When asked for word associations or comments about the world, give the most conventional, run-of-the-mill, pedestrian answer possible.”) By the 1990s, though, how could anyone make a case for describing the ideal “type” of employee, when everything in the business culture was about creativity, innovation, and individuality?
Today’s tests attempt to meld the 1950s’ desire for the perfect employee with the 1990s belief in the individual. They incorporate some advances in academic personality research and have been made gender and race neutral. So what do you do when faced with one? And just what is a company looking for? To find out, I indulged my addiction once again.
Sing Your Themes
Today’s personality tests are less about comparing your expected performance to others’ and more about discovering the things about work that motivate you.
Today’s personality tests are less about comparing your expected performance to others’ and more about discovering the things about work that motivate you. The idea is to help employees and managers alike understand and appreciate each other’s individual styles and greatest strengths, so working together becomes smoother and so employees can be matched with jobs where they’ll naturally shine. “We’re looking for what is hardwired into a person. What do people naturally gravitate to, where do they get lost in the moment, where do they get intense satisfaction?” says Vandana Allman, Gallup’s global practice leader for talent-based hiring.
Gallup’s StrengthsFinder, based on 25,000 interviews with high-performing international executives, purports to identify those core talents. After a computer test that takes about 15 minutes to complete, StrengthsFinder tells you which five “themes” (out of 34) dominate your personality. The themes are such things as “command” (tendency to take charge of a situation) and “restorative” (being energized by solving problems). The idea is that different roles will better suit you depending on which themes dominate. Companies laser-focused on efficiency as well as innovation seek to figure out which “types” make up their top performers in each job category so that they can replicate them.
Beyond the Interview
Employers also use personality tests as a way to deal with increasingly slick job-seeking candidates. When everyone knows the polished answers to the tricky interview question, it’s just too hard to figure out who’s the A-player and who’s the problem. “Some people are terrific at interviewing, but then they get on the job and it’s a different story,” says Kathleen P. Frank, president of Augur Inc., a New Jersey-based company that administers the Predictive Index (PI) tool and consults for 52 companies. The PI measures extroversion, dominance, patience, formality, judgmental thinking, energy, and morale by asking individuals to describe themselves and the way others see them by checking off a series of adjectives. For example, I tried the PI and learned that I’m two standard deviations above average in terms of energy levels and that I hate formality at work.
There’s No One Type
Personality tests are not used solely as a hiring or promotion screen but also have value as a learning and team-building tool inside companies. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), for example, is exclusively intended for that purpose. “There are 16 personality types and none are ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than any other,” says Linda V. Berens, founder of TRI, a California-based company that trains workshop leaders. But does your HR department think there’s an ideal type? “I’ve seen some situations where people have to wear their type on a name tag, and they’ll say things like, ‘I’m an ISTJ so I can’t be creative,’ or ‘I’m an INTJ so I have no people skills,’ and that’s just not true,” says Berens. “Everyone can learn and all of these traits have different levels of intensity in each person. It’s unfortunate that often, in an effort to make this test simple to understand, people make it overly simplistic in its application.”
No matter which test you may face, you can’t really study for a personality test. The whole point of one is to figure out what your first and most natural reaction is in a given situation. But you can prepare. Don’t let yourself be surprised at your next interview with a request to take the test. Search the company’s Web site and recent articles about the company as part of your standard interview preparation and find out whether an assessment is frequently used. If so, read the book about the theory. In the case of StrengthsFinder, it’s called Now, Discover Your Strengths. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator has whole shelves of books devoted to it at any bookstore.
Taking the time to understand the intent and the logic of personality tests will not only settle your nerves before you tackle them but will also make for a more dynamic conversation with your prospective employer. Even if the test you’re asked to take is different from the one you read up on, many of the principles are consistent, as are the aims of the companies that use them as an evaluation tool.
Ask All the Right Questions
Here at Fast Company, our top managers and editors were all recently asked to take the MBTI evaluation and submit their results to HR, resulting in more than a little anxiety. What would the results be used for? Who would get to see them? What if my type didn’t match what the boss thought he wanted in a management-level person? Turns out that these are all questions every applicant should feel confident asking their managers or prospective managers administering a personality test. Try to understand why your manager is interested in personality theory. Remember that this process gives you as much insight into the corporate management philosophy as the test will give the company into your personal philosophy. “They can be useful learning tools,” says Lara Kammrath, who teaches management at Columbia’s Graduate School of Business, “but are worrying in other uses because of their very low ability to predict actual workplace behaviors.”
Don’t Bother ‘Cheating’
And that’s why it’s silly to think of personality tests as “tests” at all. “Do not try to game the test,” says Steffanie L. Wilk, a management professor at Wharton. “If they’re well-designed they’ll have lie scales built in that will show if you’re answering in ways that aren’t consistent.” As you might imagine, showing up on the radar as trying to cheat won’t endear you to your interviewer. And in a team-building scenario, it won’t demonstrate much trust in your colleagues.
Instead, use the test as a learning opportunity. It may start a conversation with your boss about what really motivates you and why you’re not feeling 100% engaged by your job right now. Or it may reveal that you’d be a complete black sheep in the division where you thought you really wanted a position. And just think: If you cheat “successfully” and land a job by presenting yourself as someone other than who you are, you’ll probably be miserable the instant you set foot in the job. “You just don’t want an environment that won’t be amenable to your style,” says Wilk. “You’re choosing them as much as they’re choosing you.”