The perils of personality assessments

Woodcut blocks with the words "who are you?"Personality style assessments are everywhere. Myers-Briggs, DiSC (or DISC, depending on which version you take), Keirsey, the Enneagram, the Five Languages of Appreciation – the list goes on and on.

Organizations love these assessments, and with good reason. Using a reputable, validated assessment can help people understand in a felt way, rather than just intellectually, that people really are different from each other (or, more to the point, different from you). Different people respond differently to different communication approaches, different modes of recognition, different types of management, and so on. Understanding this is a great advantage for leaders and individual contributors alike.

The danger lies in taking any assessment too literally. Here are a couple of the most challenging potential problems.

The accuracy of the result

No matter how thoroughly any assessment has been validated and verified, the results can and will vary because the person taking the assessment operates from different perspectives at different times in their life – or even at different times during the day!

I know this from personal experience. When I took the Myers-Briggs at the company I worked for at the time, my results indicated that I was an ENTP. That never felt right to me, no matter how much the consultant administering the test assured me of the assessment’s accuracy.

Years later I re-took the test and came out as a much-better-fitting INFJ.

Big difference.

The danger of “that’s just how I am”

Every assessment does its best to accentuate the positive aspects of each type. And every assessment also describes less-admirable traits of each type.

The problem arises when someone accepts the less-admirable traits as “just how I am.” Then the limitations of the type become an excuse to relinquish responsibility for improvement. I’ve encountered more than a few people who, upon being confronted with their poor performance, shrugged and said, “Well, I’m a {type} – that’s just how I am!”

What to do, what to do …

I’m certainly not advocating against assessments. I use them in my work, and I appreciate the insights they provide.

What I am suggesting is that any assessment result should be viewed with appropriate discernment and even skepticism.

If someone says their result doesn’t feel accurate, they could be right. If someone appears to be using their type as an excuse for performing below the potential you believe they have, they need to be pushed. If someone’s results come out weirdly contradictory, then something’s gone wrong. (That was another of my personal experiences. When I pointed out that the report directly contradicted itself in several areas, the consultant I was working with blinked at me, re-read the report, and said, “Oh. You broke it!” (Assessment name withheld, but it’s a well-known and well-respected instrument.))

Obviously there’s a cost involved in hiring a qualified, certified consultant to administer the assessment. Therefore, my primary recommendation is difficult to implement. Nonetheless, the best option to avoid problems is to use several different assessments. In this way, each person gets multiple perspectives on themselves and their teammates.

How the organization approaches the process also matters. I’ve seen situations where everyone takes the assessment, the results are reviewed and publicized, and then business continues as usual, with no effective change.

The process can’t end with the delivery and review of the results. If you’re not going to support employees in using their new understanding in the day-to-day-workplace, nothing will change, and you’ve wasted your time and money.

Personality style assessments are like any other training effort: without ongoing support, you aren’t going to see the results you want.

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