How Personality Tests Damage Your Employees and Limit Potential

Since I stepped into the world of organization development there seems to be no more pervasive a practice than personality test or typologies. Some major ones you may have heard of include The Meyer’s-Briggs (types are identified by 4 letter acronyms — INFP, INTJ, etc) or Enneagram typologies (types are identified by a numbers 1–9). They are a cornerstone of most ongoing employee or team improvement plans. But where did they come from? Why do we use them? How effective are they? This blog and the following series will take up these questions and explore them, hopefully, to dispel the myth of their usefulness.

A close friend’s brother works at Google. When he began they asked him to take a 4 hour test, that produced a 30 page report. Detailed therein was an exhaustive list of his personality aspects including how he thinks, communicates, should be managed, engaged by team members, how to regulate his energy, and edges he needs to work on if he wants to be successful in a team. “Wow,” you might be thinking, “here’s the blueprint! This is all one would need to figure out how to succeed!”

Human beings are complex and unique. Like natural systems we are a confluence of many forces at once — both internal and external. Reducing that complexity leads not only to a perceived degradation of quality but also encourages those perceiving it to actively degrade it as well. So let’s explore how personality tests fall short in execution and effect.

Confirmation Bias

Once people have their results they often seem relieved. “Yes!” they exclaimed, “I’m an INFP! I knew it!” or “I’m a 9 with a wing! That’s totally me!” We are easily seduced by this, especially if it resonates strongly for us. We feel as though something finally understood us in our little peccadillos and proclivities. This leads to a cognitive phenomenon called Confirmation Bias. Confirmation Bias is the brain’s tendency to interpret new ideas using pre-existing beliefs. Without activating a discernment process, we often adopt these assessments without considering their accuracy. Are they actually accurate about our personality or are we integrating the data without a filter? We tend instead to distort the information we are given, wrapping it around what we already believe about ourselves and throwing out what doesn’t reconcile.

Ergodic Switch

Personality tests are built on averaging of behavioral patterns. That is to say they are designed by testing a large group of people and then finding behavioral patterns based on observable and often subjective responses. All this seems well and good (because data) until we understand that all typologies are built on one, flawed assumption — measuring many people one time is interchangeable with measuring one person many times. This thinking goes back the origins of test taking theory.

Todd Rose, in his book The End of Average, calls this flaw the Ergodic Switch. Ergodic Theory, coming from a branch of mathematics, posits that averages can only be used on large groups of data if 1) every member of the group is identical and 2) every member of the group will remain the same in the future. Essentially: “Using a group average to evaluate individuals would on be valid if human beings were frozen clones, identical and unchanging.” (Rose, pg. 63) As a result, research shows us that personality traits predict behavior “rarely stronger than 0.30…mean[ing that they] explain 9 percent of your behavior.” (Rose, pg. 102) So what you are telling me is 89 of the Fortune 100 (Grant, HuffPo, 2013) use a process to evaluate their people that has a 9% accuracy rate? If I designed an internal process for a company, like a manufacturing apparatus, that worked as intended 9% of the time, how long do you think it would last? This leads us to our next flaw…

Fixed/Growth Mindset

Stanford researcher Carol Dweck created a theory of childhood development that explains why some children plateau and some continue to thrive in their development. Children who believe that their intelligence is a fixed trait typically expend less effort and are more subject to quitting sooner after hitting a challenge or failure. In a growth mindset, children who hold the belief that they are growing, learning beings that change over time have a higher propensity to persevere through challenges. So if we say “I’m a 9 on the Enneagram” or “an INFP on the Meyers Briggs” which is a phrase we often hear people using after a personality test, we subject ourselves to a phenomenon called Outcome Bias where we are easily seduced by success and limited by it. This conclusion limits our thinking to the paradigm of that typology, rather than exploring the possibility that the horizon of our selfhood might be much broader. This in turn limits our growth and potential beyond our current limitations. This is particularly distressing given research that suggests that “retak[ing the personality test] after only a five week gap, there’s around a 50 percent chance you will fall into a different personality category. Are we our personalities then, or something much deeper?” (Grant, HuffPo, 2013)

Essence/Personality or Uniqueness/Average

I’m reminded of my Dad and his obsession with his 14 month old grandson (my nephew). I asked him not long ago what 14 month olds are like. He gave me a list of what I was like, and my sister — and some other kids he knew. Then I asked him what it was like to hold his grandson — to be with him. My Dad animated into a totally different state of being. He erupted into a bunch of stories about the times he had held him, the way he held my Dad’s finger, how my nephew looked at him, the noises he would make as he was cradled — my Dad was even moved to recite some of the poetry he had written about their relationship.

What’s the difference between the two questions? The first question is about type, leading to a recitation of averageness. The second is about the essence of this child. One is flat, one is rich. One leads to a list, one to poetry. Which do you think leads to a deeper understanding of this human’s potential?

In the next post I will explore possible ways I would design an reflective process focused on essence over personality.