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Why your personality test results are probably wrong

On the latest episode of The New Way We Work, psychologist Art Markman explains what’s wrong with using personality tests to hire and manage—and what to do instead.

Why your personality test results are probably wrong
[Source photo: Rawpixel]

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Personality tests can be fun to take, but they can also be frustrating. They’re black and white. Most popular personality tests assume that people can be classified into distinct personality types. But, people don’t fit into neat boxes. Most people aren’t entirely introverted or entirely extroverted, for example.

But despite the fact that many of these tests rely on a flawed framework, they’re still widely used by employers of all sizes. It’s easy to see why: We want to be able to understand how people can work better together.

In fact, Fast Company has published several articles over the years about personality tests at work, including one about the most popular test, Myers-Briggs. That article, and especially that test, drew the ire of long-time Fast Company contributor, Art Markman. Markman is a cognitive scientist and professor at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. His article–”Why Everyone’s Favorite Personality Test is BS“—was one of the most widely read Work Life stories last year.

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Markman joined me on the latest episode of The New Way We Work to discuss what’s wrong with many personality assessments at work, and how employees and managers can think about personality differently.

He pointed out that Myers-Briggs was developed in the 1940s, and there have been lots of advancements in the field of personality research since then. But the assessment, and ones like it, have staying power—especially in workplaces—because it feels like an easy way to match “types.” As Markman explains, there are several problems with that.

First, the test has has a low test/retest reliability, meaning if you take it again, you’re not necessarily going to get the same results as you did the first time. Markman says that other kinds of measures, like the Big 5 personality characteristics, are more stable across one’s lifespan and so are more reliable.

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Second, many personality assessments end with your being labeled as a certain “type.” For these tests, “you are put on one pole or the other of one of these dimensions,” says Markman. “But in fact, chances are, you’re probably in the middle of most of those core personality characteristics. And so it gives you a false sense of how extreme you are.”

In other words, there is no room for nuance. You might get told that you are an extrovert because you’ve had to become comfortable leading meetings, but in reality, you don’t like to talk to strangers at parties and actually prefer to work alone.

There are a lot of risks to taking these kinds generalizations to heart at work. Markman points out that if personality assessments are used in deciding teams, for example, you may end up with a group of people who are all so agreeable that no one is willing to voice dissent when necessary.

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Listen to the episode for more advice on how to accurately use personality assessments at work, including best practices for selecting teams with complementary skillsets, as well as how to avoid the “culture fit” trap in hiring.

You can listen and subscribe to The New Way We Work on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsStitcherSpotifyRadioPublic, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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About the author

Kathleen Davis is Deputy Editor at FastCompany.com. Previously, she has worked as an editor at Entrepreneur.com, WomansDay.com and Popular Photography magazine.

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