Personality assessments: A “self-study” asset that moves beyond a label

Attracting and retaining top talent means using personal insights as dynamic drivers of performance development

I once was hired by a small company in which the CEO, contract and pen on the table, impishly asked me one more time to convince him he should hire me. Having already completed a written test and two in-person interviews, I should’ve been smart and walked out the door.

This organization began every employee tenure with a personality assessment — a slow, easy-to-manipulate undertaking that produced a line graph image of results. The figure was then printed, complete with the individual’s name, and pinned to a cubicle wall in a high-traffic area. Our results therefore became like so much office decor, passively associated with each employee like a photograph or bio would be. A subsequent hire confided, chuckling, that she had thrown her results to look the way she thought management would prefer.

Although personality assessments in the workplace are not uncommon, they are like any other tool: there is a smart way and an effort-wasting way to use them. We’re often tempted to think of personality assessment results as a label — and indeed, from our elementary school days as Green Frogs or the teen years with the social strata of geeks, jocks, and the like, we’re used to associating ourselves with various labels. When an assessment is considered in isolation, as something that you either “are” or “are not,” its utility is limited and becomes little more than a novelty, a pop quiz of sorts.

Personality assessment results that are treated as latent pieces of information describing rigid categories are likely to be an investment with low returns. They can lead to a focus on “up or down” thinking, in which some personalities — and by quick extension, some people — are seen as desirable and others as problematic. Further, when displayed publicly without a whiff of privacy or education, assessments can introduce bias into company culture and undermine, rather than enhance, retention of employees. Oh look, Carlos is an egomaniac. Dominique is wishy-washy. In these all-or-nothing scenarios, they can lead to self-fulfilling behaviors. Gradually, Carlos feels less inclined to listen to junior colleagues. Dominique isn’t motivated to make that decision. Finally, when the assessments themselves are tedious, lengthy, and just plain boring, they’re viewed as low-priority tasks, something an existing employee has to do to “humor” HR, for example, and they can be approached therefore in a distracted, insincere frame of mind.

So do we toss out personality assessments in the workplace? Are they a relic of a bygone era, a silly analog tool in a digital world? Far from it. The key is to utilize sound, enjoyable, science-based assessments, and to be smart in how they are applied.

Playing the long game: from pre-hire through leadership development

First, in the tight competition for top personnel that characterizes today’s employment marketplace, attracting the best candidates requires providing added value throughout the hiring process, from recruitment to evaluation to negotiation. Throwing more dollars at each step is not a distinctive or sustainable solution. Companies thinking long-term will create that value before a candidate even walks in the door for an interview. Pre-hire assessments not only can act as an informative self-screen for job seekers, they also exist as a source of personal insight that builds goodwill and informs a talent pool of an organization’s well-reasoned emphasis on its personnel.

Among existing employees, personality assessments — and the performance development that ideally accompanies them — are among the benefits that compensate a workforce. Rather than providing just a brief “oh gee” moment, the best assessments are a starting point for a longer conversation, an opportunity for individuals to begin a process over time of professional development. They should be viewed as connection points for a worker to understand what they bring to their position, and how those points of reference are aligning — or not — with their daily tasks and goals. When this process has uptake across an organization’s levels, engaging both newer and longtime employees, this can contribute to the shared sense of “psychological safety” that is associated with team productivity. Advantages can be numerous and multi-tiered, improving workplace culture, cultivating individual development, and enhancing efforts to retain sought-after talent.

Connection points, not fixed identities

The assessment results pinned to the cubicle wall, beside provoking the unintended side effects mentioned above, also represent a fundamental misunderstanding. Well-designed, evidence-based assessment solutions are ones that promote a lasting recognition of a core psychological principle: competence and context are inextricably connected. What does this mean? Our behaviors, reactions, habits, tendencies, and impulses are all driven by the realities of the environments we’re in.

In a day-to-day sense, think about a business mixer in which professionals partake in food and drink while engaging others in conversation. Let’s say an employee attends with the hope of engaging a local leader in a productive conversation about her company’s new product initiatives. Consider how some of her most basic characteristics may influence how successful she is. If she’s a naturally soft-spoken person and this mixer is especially lively with loud background music, she may come off as less effective — simply because others can’t hear her well. She might be “worse” at face to face networking, when really a superficial feature of her environment dampened her effectiveness. Here, the context had a deleterious effect on competence.

Organizations that chronically place the soft-spoken employees into the loud, lively business mixers, so to speak, are failing to appreciate how situational factors may be undermining their workforce assets. Numerous factors can therefore affect how well one performs. There is an important dynamic between the traits an individual is centered around — their personality connection points — and the contexts in which those traits are displayed. Thinking of one’s personality as a blanket factor that manifests the same regardless of the situation — or that we measure once and then effectively forget about — is short-sighted. Our personality traits are composite indexes of who we are, but they bend and change depending upon the settings we’re in. If an organization focuses only on the competencies part of the equation, then it’s missing the vital matching piece that can drive outcomes: the contexts it’s creating. These will either represent artful, dynamic matches or underperforming, flat mismatches.

Personality insights are ongoing assets

A key advantage of personality data is heightened ability to match workers with tasks, settings, and teams that are well suited to their core traits and that can then be used to promote development over time. Relatedly, individuals can approach their job searches and professional lives with this same mindset. Use a science-based, engaging personality assessment to understand where your core traits are centered, and then consider how to take advantage of each by putting yourself in the right contexts. That’s advice I should’ve taken myself, when my moment of hiring at that small company was marked by a decidedly wrong tone. The evidence was clear: this wasn’t a context in which I could thrive.