What they are and when do they work?
Personality tests have become ubiquitous in organizations. You’ve likely taken at least one as part of applying for a job, organizational training, or a leadership development program and have a collection of letters, numbers, or colors that claim to describe who you are. Some may have resonated with you, others may have seemed more like horoscopes, and those are just the ones you remember. Have you ever wondered what these “tests” actually tell you, what their best use is, or the “right” way to take them? This post will explain what personality assessments measure, how they’re useful, and when they can be valuable tools for individual and team development.
What is Personality?
First, what exactly do these assessments claim to measure? Personality is defined in many ways. One of the more comprehensive definitions is provided by Randy Larsen and David M. Buss: “the set of psychological traits and mechanisms within the individual that are organized and relatively enduring, and that influence his or her interactions with, and adaptations to, the intrapsychic, physical, and social environments.” (p. 4). This seemingly complex definition illustrates how personality is more complicated than the typical list of traits or types that we usually associate with the term. For example, personality is more than just whether you are an extravert or introvert. In fact, most people are not only one or the other, but some of both in varying degrees. The overarching concept of personality reflects relatively stable individual differences in how people think and behave in similar situations.
The often overlooked part of the definition is that personality isn’t just about observable behaviors; it also includes patterns of thinking that influence how people understand the world around them. For example, two people could walk away from the same interaction with a completely different understanding of what happened. Objectively, they had a conversation about potential ways to approach a new project they are working on together. However, the more result-oriented person leaves the interaction energized by a lively debate and satisfied that they decided on a better idea than they could have come up with individually. The other is more people-oriented and is worried about how that “fight” could impact the working relationship.
For people who have taken many popular personality assessments, that example might have made them think these examples represent different “types” of people. The person who cares more about the product is the type [insert letter/number/color/animal]. The person who cares more about human interaction is the type [insert letter/number/color/animal]. However, most research does not support the existence of distinct “types” of people. A continuum better represents personality traits. People are not “an extravert” or “an introvert,” for example. They fall somewhere between those two extremes. So why do so many people talk about personality types? Understanding that others have consistently different preferences than our own, referred to as a theory of mind, is crucial for everyday social interactions. Personality types are useful for developing a theory of mind and more respectful exchanges, but they can be detrimental if you use them to define people.
How is Personality Measured?
Typically personality assessments ask how well a list of adjectives (e.g., adventurous, anxious, outgoing) or statements (e.g., “I like to be the life of the party”) describe you. Although you are probably most familiar with these types of self-report questionnaires, there are several ways to assess personality.
Unlike self-reported questionnaires, 360-type questionnaires ask the same questions to observers who know the individual they are assessing. Why ask others instead of the individual? Personality data provided by observers has a stronger relationship with job performance than similar self-reported data. However, collecting responses from several other individuals isn’t always feasible.
Many approaches to personality measurement don’t rely on questionnaires. One is collecting test data or placing individuals in a standardized situation and evaluating their response. For example, you could assess someone’s patience by placing them in a position where they have to interact with someone who might not seem to understand the task at hand (someone you have instructed to act oblivious). Another type of personality assessment is to use physiological indicators such as fMRI results or eye movement. Finally, some researchers have begun to use the analysis of language on social media to predict personality traits.
There are even different types of self-reported measures. There are the typical adjective checklists (check which is like you) and Likert ratings (e.g., select strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, or strongly disagree), but there are also methods designed to decrease bias in self-report. For example, forced-choice assessments require respondents to choose which of a set of words/statements is most like them instead of letting them rate each statement separately. For example, are you more realistic or inventive? The forced-choice method keeps respondents from indicating high levels across all socially desirable traits. Another self-report format is the conditional reasoning test. This method presents “logical reasoning problems” (meaning respondents are not told it measures personality) and asks respondents to choose one of four responses. Two responses are intentionally nonsensical, one reflects the measured personality trait (e.g., aggression), and the other is for people who are low on that trait. Yet another type of self-report method is rapid response measurement. This method incorporates how quickly people associate adjectives as accurate descriptors of themselves to determine the attribute’s importance and reduce conscious faking.
Finally, there are unstructured and projective measures that rely on an expert to score vague responses. The most well-known example of a projective measurement is the Rorschach test. A trained evaluator shows the respondent several images and asks them to describe what they see. The evaluator uses these descriptors to determine personality traits.
Each method of measurement has pros and cons. If possible, utilizing multiple measurement methods can provide a more accurate assessment by finding traits that are supported by more than one measure. Ultimately the type of measurement used depends on the purpose of the assessment and time and resources available.
How to take a Personality Test?
You might have ended up on this page because your employer or potential employer requires you to take a personality test, and you are looking for the “right” answer. If you are wondering “how to take a personality test,” you are asking the wrong question. None of the methods to measure personality described in the previous section are tests, despite some that are labeled “tests.” They are actually “assessments,” and the difference is more than just semantic. Tests have right or wrong answers, while assessments are ways to quantify characteristics that can’t be directly measured (e.g., personality, loyalty, freedom). There should be no right or wrong answers when it comes to measuring your personality because it is merely a reflection of your tendencies for understanding and behaving across situations. There can be potentially detrimental behaviors influenced by personality traits, but that doesn’t make a response to any single assessment item correct or incorrect.
The short answer to the question “how to take a personality assessment” is: follow the instructions and respond to the assessment as honestly as possible. A best practice is to choose traits that have been relatively stable for you over time, across most contexts.
What if the personality assessment informs hiring or promotion decisions? Are there answers that will make you more likely to be hired or promoted? Possibly, but you should still respond honestly. Many commercial assessments intended for decision-making are either designed to prevent faking or have “lie scales” that indicate how much people inflate their scores. If you get caught faking, you probably won’t be hired. Even if you can successfully fake your response to look good without getting caught, there are downsides. In an ethical and valid selection system, a thorough work analysis determines which personality traits to measure. Those traits are essential to complete that job successfully, so even if you lie effectively enough to get hired, you will likely perform poorly in that job or dislike the work. You may know you can complete the job tasks, but ultimately the context is not a great fit, or the work becomes tedious, leading to the desire to leave as quickly as possible.
Why Measure Personality at Work?
Personality assessments can be useful tools for organizations if appropriately used. One can utilize them in many parts of an integrated human resource system: selection or promotions, and individual, leadership, or team development. They can also be useful for individuals who are motivated to increase their self-awareness to make more informed decisions or interact more effectively.
Although the implementation of personality assessments in personnel selection is debated, personality assessments can be a useful tool as part of a comprehensive selection process that includes other assessments such as work samples and structured interviews. Personality assessments are not the strongest predictors of performance (e.g., cognitive ability and work samples are stronger predictors), but several traits have consistent significant positive relationships with job performance. Most personality assessments tend to have small subgroup differences (e.g., race, sex) and less adverse impact than cognitive assessments. Adding a personality assessment to a cognitively loaded selection system can help reduce the system’s adverse impact and increase diversity.
Personality assessments can also help grow self-awareness and be an impactful part of employee training or development. Feedback from personality assessments can help people understand their patterns of behavior and inner motivations. Understanding why you do the things you do is an essential first step in breaking negative habits and establishing good ones. Knowing and using your strengths can also be beneficial. It can help you choose tasks where you excel, which provides a positive experience and could motivate you to address behaviors that may challenge you more.
As mentioned in the “What is Personality” section above, employee development programs are an excellent place to use results from type-based personality assessments to help individuals, leaders, and teams understand others better. One benefit of simple personality assessments is that people can quickly understand the results and apply them to everyday interactions. People can avoid unnecessary conflicts when they understand what their coworkers want or prefer. One teammate may expect perfection at all costs, whereas another teammate values speed over perfection, and another cares more about the social nature of the interaction. The knowledge that other people have different and equally valid perspectives is key to effective and respectful exchanges.
Should I use a Personality Assessment?
If you are considering using a personality assessment in your organization, it is best practice to ensure the assessment you select is appropriate for your use-case purpose and aligns with your organization’s goals. Only specific assessments are designed for selection and hiring. For this purpose, it is best to have a legally defensible and reliable assessment with appropriate validity evidence.
Reliability is often synonymous with the consistency of a measure, but the technical definition of reliability is freedom from error. It is usually measured with test-retest reliability (the correlation between two separate test administrations) and internal consistency (relationship of items within the same scale). The rule of thumb for both of these types of reliability (and you should look for both) is that the value reported (correlation for test-retest and typically Cronbach’s alpha for internal consistency) should be greater than or equal to .70.
Validity describes an assessment’s appropriateness for drawing certain inferences. Validity is not an inherent property of an assessment, which means an assessment can be valid for one purpose and not for another. Validity is also a continuum rather than a dichotomy of “valid” or “not valid.” There are many validity evidence types, but the most relevant for selection is evidence that shows it is appropriate for predicting behaviors in a specific job. This evidence is most directly assessed by correlating scores on the assessment with actual job performance.
To be legally defensible, the use of an assessment should be in line with a thorough work analysis. If an assessment is not proven job-related, then it should never be used for selection. It is also essential for hiring to consider the potential for adverse impact and follow the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures.
Assessments used for development should also have acceptable reliability and validity evidence (different types of validity evidence may be more relevant in this use-case). Still, usefulness in your development program is more salient than considering legal defensibility. Developmental assessments should be easy to understand and apply and offer straightforward directions for growth. When choosing a personality assessment for development, consider how long it will take, how easy it is to understand, and how easy it is to implement. You should also be cautious that your training program emphasizes that there is no “right” personality. Understanding yourself and others should be seen as a step toward respectful interpersonal interactions with people similar to and different from you.
Personality assessments can be valuable tools when appropriately used in the workplace. They measure persistent differences in how people perceive and interact across situations. Personality is related to job performance and can be one of several assessments used in an effective and legally defensible selection process. Personality assessments can also be useful tools in leadership and team development. The feedback can help individuals understand themselves and others and offer strategies to engage in productive and respectful interactions. Ultimately, the utility of personality assessments depend on matching the organization’s goals with an assessment to help meet those goals.
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