Stop Using Personality Tests in Your Company Culture
I already know before starting this feature that this is a controversial topic because it seems to me that we all love a personality test.
In fact, personality profiling has grown in popularity over the past decade, becoming a key part of recruitment and onboarding processes in businesses, establishing whether a candidate is a ‘good culture fit’, and of course, becoming the ideal antidote to conflict resolution.
And our obsession with them doesn’t stop there. Many online dating profiles will now reveal alongside their hobbies and star sign – their personality profile.
It seems that the world has become obsessed with personality tests, and people desperate to know what personality type everyone is.
There are many variants of personality tests. DISC, Enneagram, Clarity4D, PATH, ColourCode, SAPA, CliftonStrengths. The list goes on and on. But none are as popular and well known as the Myers-Briggs personality test.
Developed in the 1960s by Katherine Briggs and Isabel Myers, the Myers-Briggs personality test has been used by more than 50 million people, and has built a personality testing industry worth $2bn, which is currently growing at around 15% per year.
At present, there are more than two thousand personality tests available. Many of these tests are clear copycats of the Myers-Briggs framework, as in the early days Myers-Briggs never patented their intellectual property. So you can imagine the absolute mess and chaos this has generated for the personality test industry.
Thanks to the meteoric rise of Myers-Briggs, personality tests are now used around the world by Fortune 500 companies, universities, hospitals, churches, and even the military to help summarise who you are and what you bring to the table.
But is a personality test really the answer to all our company culture problems?
As a company culture coach, I’ve seen a growing demand from businesses wanting to administer personality tests to their teams in the hope that this will cure their culture problems, transform fractured relationships, and enable them to source the best-performing talent.
Unfortunately, I’m here to say that it’s not quite that simple.
So before you begin your journey on dishing out personality tests left, right and centre, I felt it was important to share exactly what personality tests can help with, and can’t help with.
Personality tests are no culture quick fix
When a company’s culture is struggling it seems to me that the default is to get everyone to do a personality test. As though it’s a sudden clash of personalities that’s causing the problem.
There seems to be the idea that as soon as you know that it’s ‘just a personality’ problem you can fix it. As though people’s personalities are imperfections to be ironed out – or at worst – managed!
I get it, we get drawn to things that make the world seem more simple. But this approach is dangerous for a number of reasons.
When businesses use these tests to determine personalities, it’s easy to fall into the trap of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ types. Even though, as all personality tests claim, there are no passes and fails, only indicators.
Suddenly we’re labelling people, we’re putting them in a box, and believing that because of a ‘test’ their capabilities are now minimised or maximised for a particular role, career pathway, or even their very longevity within the business. And for the lucky few who have the ‘ideal personality type’, we’re biased – offering out more opportunities and even more social influence to the company culture.
The hard truth is, personality tests will not magically improve your company culture just because everyone is now aware of who got what profile, and what their tendencies are. Unfortunately, all too often, the opposite can happen. People label themselves and each other, and ultimately it can build a wall between people that can feel irreparable.
Personality tests won’t resolve conflict
From finding our ideal co-founder to a life partner, we are increasingly using personality tests to find people around us with who we are most compatible.
I’ve seen personality tests brought into a business when a conflict between directors has become toxic. Reaching the point where it’s impacting the business so severely, that team members are leaving, clients are leaving, and the operations are in disarray.
Do we really believe that a personality test will fix this?
Like putting a plaster over a gaping hole, there are much deeper issues going on here than a clash of personalities.
Yet, time and time again I see businesses buy into personality tests as a way of resolving people’s conflict.
Rather than getting to the core of the issue, having tough conversations, and learning how to truly listen and communicate with each other, it appears that we would rather not do the work and instead create an excuse around personalities.
In theory, the pitch you’re given by personality tests is that the result allows us to quickly and easily understand people and how to respond to them which creates smooth social interactions. But this is a complete oversimplification of who we are as humans. We are far more complex. And we have to be cautious that we’re not trying to remove good conflict from our cultures. Healthy conflict spurs innovation and creativity and actually allows us to foster stronger, more meaningful relationships in the workplace.
Unfortunately, when a personality test is used as a plaster to conflict most businesses are surprised to find that while the personality test may be a nice buffer, to begin with, eventually the plaster gives way because the core issue has still not been addressed.
Personality tests are dangerously biased
Despite the fact that most personality tests have no grounding in psychology, they continue to be favoured by businesses and organisations wishing to streamline their recruitment practices and build a culture of high performance.
The trouble is, numerous research and studies are now showing that personality tests are doing more harm than good when it comes to your company culture and your people.
It seems our obsession with ‘people sorting’ is finally coming to a crashing end.
In recent lawsuits, courts have ruled that the use of certain tests discriminates against protected workers, particularly those with disabilities, or struggling with mental ill-health.
A HBO documentary released in March 2021, also dived into the cases and examples happening in the USA, where workers are unfairly treated and discriminated against due to their personality profiling during recruitment.
Embedded within many of these personality tests are dangerous ideas about race, gender, and class that drive bias and discrimination.
Commenting in the HBO documentary, disability justice advocate Lydia XZ Brown comments that, “Personality tests are by and large constructed to be ableist, to be racist, to be sexist, and to be classist.”
“That’s what happens when you have a test … based on norms devised from college-educated straight white men with no known disabilities. Personality tests are useful for individual people sometimes on journeys of self-discovery. But when they’re used to make decisions by other people affecting someone’s life, they become dangerous tools.”
Before you commission a business-wide personality test, consider the underlying damage it could do to an already existing bias. Ask yourself, what’s the real reason you’re doing this?
Keep them out of culture, and leave them to self-development junkies
I hold my hands up, as a self-confessed personal development junkie I’ve taken a number of personality tests. I’ve done DISC, Clairty4D, Motivational Maps, and a test built by the University of Pennsylvania.
But these tests were for my own personal development. For me to gain a better understanding of who I am, what I’m passionate about, and where I could explore for my own self-improvement. I don’t take these tests as a given to who I am. Luckily, I’m self-aware enough to know that this is merely a glimpse into who I am, not the full picture.
And that works for me, and many others like me. My use of personality tests does not put me at risk because these are being done on my terms, in a low risk environment. Those who use them in the world of work often don’t tell people that they are being tested, let alone say why the didn’t get the job.
In a personal development context, the tests are only fun and interesting. And perhaps by using them personally we hope that they will reveal previously unknown information about ourselves, giving us more paths to take on the journey of self-discovery.
I do not, however, advocate, as you can guess, personality tests to enhance company culture in any way shape or form. And I’m not alone on this.
Many experts argue that personality test categories do not predict individual or team effectiveness. Plus many studies have found that more than half the people who retake the test get a different result the second time.
Aside from the obvious lack of science, I also believe that there is an ethical problem with the way personality tests are used in businesses and organisations.
The idea that businesses want to sort human beings into psychological types feels inhuman, and also feels like we’re going backwards rather than forwards.
Personality types are nothing new. In the days of Hippocrates people could be categorised as innately sanguine, choleric, melancholic, or phlegmatic. And even in the nineteenth century across Europe and America, phrenology was used to interpret people’s character.
It appears that as humans we’re always curious to want to know more about ourselves and each other, and that’s fine in the context of your own personal journey when there are no risks. But using personality tools as a certainty on a person’s character, and making judgements based on these is dangerous for our most vulnerable and perpetuates a toxic myth that there is an ‘ideal character’.
My honest advice about personality tests is to use them personally, but please do everyone the honour of removing them from your company culture.