For at least the last 30 years, many of Corporate America's biggest names have required that potential hires and, in some cases, established employees submit to cognitive and personality tests. Now, the trend is filtering down to smaller outfits. Administered either in-house or by specialty outsource firms tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), Learning Styles Inventory (LSI), Emotional Competence Inventory, and many others are becoming increasingly familiar to job-seekers.
While tests that purport to measure a subject's innate approach to learning, conflict style, and emotional intelligence can be helpful, management psychologist Ben Dattner, of Dattner Consulting in New York City, warns that it is a mistake to regard their findings as oracular insights. As he explained recently to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein, putting the focus on individual dispositions while ignoring situational factors is likely to perpetuate fundamental management errors and worsen workplace problems. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow:
Q: What kinds of tests are being used in the workplace these days and how popular are they?
A: According to an article in the December, 2003, issue of Workforce Management, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator alone is administered over 2.5 million times every year. There are thousands of other tests on the market, and estimates of the number of employees who take them each year for purposes of both selection and development range in the millions.
Some of these tests are "self-report" formats, based on multiple-choice tests. Others are "360 degree" and are based on quantitative ratings by oneself and others. Some are paper and pencil, others are administered online, and some are offered in either format. The most popular tests place people into categories, including Myers-Briggs, the Kolb Learning Style Inventory, and the Thomas-Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument.
Q: Why are small-business owners going to the time and expense of administering these tests?
A: Personality and style tests are currently being used for executive coaching, career counseling, conflict resolution, team development, organizational development, to predict "fit" in mergers and acquisitions, negotiation training, and sales training. I believe employers are using them because most of them are short and easy to administer and the results are often easier for people to accept than are the results of more-validated tests, like the 434-item California Psychological Inventory, which tends to be quite lengthy and time consuming.
For example, the results of a test called NEO PI-R, which is based on the most well-supported model of personality, the "big five" model (conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness to experience and extraversion), might tell you that you are lazy, unfriendly, neurotic, closed-minded and withdrawn. And the 360-degree Emotional Competence Inventory might tell you that your boss, peers, and subordinates rated you as unempathic, lacking emotional self-awareness, and demonstrating poor relationship- and conflict-management skills. However, the more popular tests place people into nonevaluative categories. For example, people with the same Myers-Briggs "type" can be either stellar performers or criminally insane.
Q: How truly useful are the most popular tests?
A: Research evidence about these tests is mixed. In most cases, a barely significant proportion of variance can be accounted for by these tests. This is related to a broader debate in psychology about the relative importance of "person" versus "situation."
Ample research has shown that organizations are "strong" situations, and that situational variables -- like, for instance, the demands of a person's role, incentive structures, team norms, and organizational culture -- are much better predictors of behavior than are individual attributes. In order to add explanatory value, tests should explain the impact of personality or style on behavior, and also the impact of behavior on performance. Establishing the link between personality or style and behavior is difficult enough -- many studies are unable to establish any link between personality or style and actual performance.
And, of course, the flip side of the popularity and simplicity of these self-report tests is that they are easy to fake. It is quite easy to tailor your answers so that you can appear however you want to appear. In fact, some people are even savvy enough to try to mimic certain "types" on the Myers-Briggs. Additionally, by providing an "objective" and nonevaluative reference for personality and style, some of these tests provide good rationalizations and excuses for one's shortcomings when circumstances cannot be blamed. For example, one can blame a messy desk or missed deadlines on the fact that one is a "P" -- or a "perceiver" in Myers-Briggs terminology.
Q: You have some other concerns about business owners relying too heavily on personality tests in general. What are they?
A: I think, in general, people have a predisposition to make personal, rather than situational, attributions for behavior. We are all susceptible to "the fundamental attribution error," meaning that we discount situational factors when trying to explain why other people behave as they do. Personality tests therefore confirm what we have a natural tendency to believe -- that individuals create and influence situations, not the other way around.
These tests are also memorable, simple, intuitive, and often confirm what we already know about ourselves and others, even if that knowledge is, to some extent, built on simplified, stereotype-like categories of personalities and styles. This type of classification of people is an integral part of American popular culture, marketing, and politics. Just as many of us use movie and television stars as points of reference when describing others, marketers have well-developed "psychographic" categories that they use to target advertising, and pollsters segment the electorate and tailor candidates' messages accordingly.
Q: Are there situations where the propensity to test employees for personality types can actually be harmful?
A: I think tests can be harmful when they are used for purposes for which they are not intended. For example, because it is an "ipsative" test, meaning that there is forced choice between alternatives and no "right" answer to any question, the Myers-Briggs test is not meant to be an employee-screening tool, and its publisher cautions against using it to select employees. Managers should consult with their HR team before deciding which tests are appropriate to use for selection purposes.
In terms of employee and team development, these tests can be harmful insofar as they put a focus on the wrong variables, in isolation. In many cases when organizations use personality and style tests, it might have been worthwhile to first consider whether roles and responsibilities need to be clarified, the quantity and quality of performance feedback needs to increase and/or whether new strategies and systems for the recruitment, retention and development of employees need to be created and implemented.
Q: What's the proper way for business owners to use these tests and weight the results?
A: The tests can help provide a framework for assessing the ways that different individual personalities and styles contribute to the behaviors that impact performance in the workplace. Tests can also be useful to the extent that they serve as starting points for candid and constructive discussions of individual behavior and performance in the workplace and create an environment where candid and constructive feedback can become the rule and not the exception.
However, like any other kind of organizational intervention, expectations should be realistic. It is not realistic to assume that getting back the results of a personality- or managerial-style test will lead to sustained personal insight and growth. And personality tests should be only one tool among many that can be used to assess and improve the performance of an individual, team or entire organization.
If personality and style tests are used in the workplace, they should be used as part of a larger, integrated human-capital assessment-and-development system, and should be a point of departure rather than a point of arrival.