If personality tests are ableist, racist, sexist and classist, why would you use them in the workplace?

Dr. Navio Kwok | 8 June 2021

What the documentary gets wrong is erroneously conflating the MBTI with rigorously and scientifically validated personality tests.

Originally featured in The Globe and Mail.

In the recent documentary Persona: The Dark Truth Behind Personality Tests from HBO Max and CNN, the narrators dubbed personality tests as “ableist, racist, sexist and classist.” As you might expect, the documentary vehemently advocates against the use of personality tests in organizations. In particular, the show zeroes in on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a personality test widely criticized for its inapplicability in the workplace, even as 89 of Fortune 100 companies continue to use it in some way.

The show raises some well-warranted questions. Should you assess for personality? How do you differentiate scientifically valid personality tests from snake oil tests? Print and digital mediums are replete with five-minute personality tests that claim to paint a picture of who you are. There are over 2,500 personality tests being offered in the market, all of which amount to a two-billion-dollar industry.

And yet, there is a robust body of scientific evidence that supports the value of personality testing in the workplace. Researchers of respected and extensively peer-reviewed papers have found that such tests, which form part of wider-ranging personality assessments, can meaningfully predict job performance, even when accounting for potential issues of faking on personality tests. In fact, what the documentary gets wrong is erroneously conflating the MBTI with rigorously and scientifically validated personality tests that are non-discriminatory, and that have been shown to accurately predict employee effectiveness and satisfaction.

Here are five best practices when assessing personality, a process that should be implemented in the workplace for selection and development.

1. Look for validation evidence

Choosing a bad personality test has legal, ethical, and reputational risks. Regardless of format, it is critical the test is valid and reliable. Validity refers to the accuracy of test results, including whether it measures what it claims to be measuring, captures all meaningful aspects of the construct (e.g., personality), and is related to other validated tests that measure the same thing. Reliability refers to the consistency of test results over time. Critically, well-validated tests are unbiased and non-discriminatory. Finally, tests are designed for specific contexts and would not be applicable to other contexts for which they have not been validated.

2. Personality means little without context

Individuals do best in roles that suit their personality, drive, and capabilities. To predict this fit, you must understand the nuances of the role, and the team and organizational context within which it is embedded. For example, selecting a chief executive officer to navigate regulatory change versus one needed to break ground in a new industry calls for different personality profiles. Much like seeking help from a psychologist or fitness coach, the first question to consider should always be, “What does success look like?” Having a clear picture of this North Star will increase your odds of predicting candidates’ job performance.

3. Get multiple perspectives

People are more than numbers on a test; as a result, it is critical to understand the whole person – the totality of their experiences and how their personality and experiences influence each other. While most people gravitate towards traits when talking about personality, psychologists view personality as multidimensional, consisting of constructs such as traits, needs, values, and narrative identity – that is, an evolving personal story of one’s experiences and meaning attributed to those events. Other non-personality-related variables are also important to consider, including individuals’ cognitive horsepower, critical-thinking abilities, and prior work experience. In situations where the assessment is highly contentious, having multiple assessors allows you to corroborate between assessors and across assessment periods.

4. Professional interpretation of assessments is necessary

To begin, it is important to note that tests are not the same as assessments. Formal tests are developed to measure specific traits, whereas assessments involve a robust process of collecting and compiling a wide range of information, including tests, surveys, and interviews, and using these multiple data sources to make inferences and predict behaviour.

Most personality tests available in the market today are automated to analyze and report results. However, such tests do not have the contextual background necessary to understand the implications of the findings. Therefore, it is crucial that test results are interpreted by a trained professional. For example, my firm, Kilberry, is accountable to the College of Psychologists of Ontario, whose Standards of Professional Conduct state information from computer-generated assessments must never be substituted for a professional opinion. This guideline also exists for other agencies, including the American Psychological Association.

5. Never use the MBTI for assessments. Ever.

Knowing your MBTI type is as useful as knowing your zodiac sign – it’s an interesting conversation filler but has no scientifically validated applications for the workplace.

Understanding human nature – who we are and how we navigate and find meaning in life – is at the heart of personality assessments. When implemented effectively, people and the organizations in which they work thrive.


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