Why workplaces must resist the cult of personality testing
Robert Spillane, Macquarie Graduate School of Management
Personality testing is big business. In 2009, personality testing was a $500-million industry. In the UK, the Association of Graduate Recruiters reported that 92% of employers surveyed considered psychometric testing an important tool for recruitment. In Human Resource Management in Australia, Helen De Cieri and Robin Kramar wrote: “It appears that the use of personality tests for recruitment purposes in Australian organisations is increasing despite criticism of them as unreliable and unethical.” They quoted a survey of 8000 people, in which 44% regarded personality tests as personally invasive - which they are. Yet a survey of Australian human resource managers showed that 69% believed that personality tests are valuable tools that can be used to improve performance.
The ultimate test of management is performance at work – the achievement of actual results. The popularity of personality tests suggests that many Australian managers do not regard performance as the ultimate test of management. Psychomanagers, as I call them, manage by performance and personality. The doyen of management writers, Peter Drucker, was fond of saying: if people perform, they earn the right to be disagreeable. Nowadays, individuals who argue with their colleagues are likely to be accused of lacking appropriate “soft-skills”. In some cases, they are considered to be suffering from a personality disorder.
For more than 80 years, the problematic nature of “personality” has been revealed in two ways: by critical analysis of its theoretical status, and by empirical studies of the tests which purport to measure it.
The theoretical status of personality is problematic because psychologists cannot agree among themselves on fundamental issues. At least 200 competing definitions are available, and the only theme which can be extracted is that personality is known through the observation of relatively consistent tendencies in people’s behaviour. These are referred to internal powers, or traits, which are conceived of as exerting control over their conduct and thereby constituting an explanation of it.
Unlike role-playing or habits, where individuals can adapt behaviour to their surroundings, a personality trait implies a lack of adaptability. This is consistent with the stability of personality traits, a characteristic required and readily acknowledged by testers. As adaptability and the capacity to acquire skills are closely related to intelligence, personality is, by definition, negatively related to intelligence. In other words, personality traits reduce the flexibility of individuals’ behaviour and makes them unable to act intelligently.
Personality traits are measured by adding individuals’ answers to questions that purport to assess behavioural themes and by which individuals are compared to others in a group. Particular traits are then reduced to personality factors that are classification systems, even though they are treated as inner causes of behaviour. A manager works hard because of “ambition”, or enters into illegal relationships because of “greed”. There is no reason, however, to believe that managers have ambition in the way they have flatulence. Traits are merely inferences from observed or reported behaviour.
Personality traits can be used by managers to identify people whose personalities don’t “fit” the organisational culture, or who lack a “well-rounded personality”. In extreme cases, it enables them to conclude that their colleagues are suffering from a “personality disorder”. And there is a psychiatric bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, to support those who label non-conformists as personality disordered. DSM defines personality disorders as an enduring pattern of inner experience and behaviour that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture.
The authors admit that assessment can be complicated by the fact that the characteristics that define a personality disorder may not be considered problematic by the individual under scrutiny. Indeed! This definition means that individuals can be discriminated against on the spurious grounds that their “inner experience” (as allegedly revealed through personality tests) or behaviour (as judged by sometimes hostile others) deviates markedly from the expectations of their society. But who judges “deviation”, “markedly” and “expectations”?
Psychologists cannot know another person’s inner experiences: all they can work with are communications about them. Personality tests cannot measure inner experiences; they measure honest and dishonest communications. Since many people are required to undergo personality tests against their will, some communicate dishonestly. Faking personality tests is so widespread and so easy to accomplish that it is surprising that results are taken seriously.
In The Organization Man, William Whyte provided useful instructions for faking personality tests. The important thing to realise is that one doesn’t win a good score - one avoids a bad one. What a bad score is depends on the impressions of the tester. Generally speaking, one should give the most conventional answers possible, admit to liking things the way they are, not worrying much about anything, loving one’s parents, partner and children, but not letting them interfere with work.
The study of personality traits in management has produced no enlightening results though innumerable examples of logical incoherence, notably circularity. Testers offer no explanation for behaviour beyond the circular proposition that behaviour is caused by traits that are inferred from behaviour. The empirical results are also bleak. After decades of personality testing, it can confidently be asserted that the search for consistent personality traits has been strikingly unsuccessful. This was psychologist Walter Mischel’s conclusion in 1968.
The situation changed in the 1990s. Research appeared to provide evidence that personality can predict job performance. These findings were widely publicised and led to a resurgence of interest in personality testing at the workplace. A close inspection of the results showed that it makes an important difference when personality scores are correlated with “hard” or “soft” performance criteria. Soft criteria include subjective ratings, whereas hard criteria include productivity data, salary, turnover/tenure, and change of status.
Since personality scores are better predictors of subjective performance ratings than objective performance measures, it is reasonable to conclude that raters rely on personality when evaluating job performance, thereby raising the question whether the relationship between personality and performance is the result of the bias of the rater rather than actual performance.
In an article in Personnel Psychology in 2007, six respected university professors reconsidered the research on the use of personality testing in work environments. They concluded that faking on self-report personality tests cannot be avoided, although the important issue is the low validities of personality tests for predicting job performance. Professor Neal Schmitt said: ‘Why are we looking at personality as a valid predictor of job performance when the validities haven’t changed in the past twenty years and are still close to zero?“
If personality tests could reliably predict work performance, one might have no objection to them, although one might object to their use with unwilling subjects on ethical grounds. My own research reveals that 72% of MBA students who have undergone personality testing as part of their management training and development did so against their will. Most of them were subjected to the world’s most popular personality test, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which is taken by 2.5 million people each year.
The limitations of the MBTI are well known. Professor Adrian Furnham has said: "The original Jungian concepts are distorted, even contradicted … and studies using the MBTI have not always confirmed either the theory or the measure.”
In 1991, the National Academy of Sciences analysed more than 20 studies of the MBTI and concluded that the scale had not demonstrated adequate validity and that “there is not sufficient, well-designed research to justify the use of the MBTI in career counselling programs”.
In the Cult of Personality Testing, Annie Murphy Paul observed that the MBTI has been embraced by numerous lost souls who experience an “a-ha!” reaction upon learning about their personality type. Their enthusiasm persists, despite research that shows that as many as three-quarters of people achieve a different personality type when tested again, and the sixteen types described by the MBTI have no scientific basis whatsoever. She argues that “the MBTI’s unfailingly positive tone blends seamlessly with the language of corporate political correctness and with our society’s emphasis on promoting self-esteem. The euphemistic blandness of the Myers-Briggs, its mild vocabulary of "fit” and “gift”, is the key to its success".
I agree with Paul that the idea that an individual’s personality should “fit” a particular job is an attempt to shift responsibility from performance to a lack of harmony between employee and organisation. Since workers can’t grow into new responsibilities and managers can’t be expected to enrich their jobs, personality functions as an escape valve and distracts managers from issues such as performance and remuneration. Blaming a “lack of fit” for poor performance is ultimately a convenient - but fatalistic - management philosophy.Comment on this article
Robert Spillane does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.