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Should personality tests have a place in the workplace?

personality test Confident young Asian businesswoman working on laptop with business clients in outdoors co-working space, surrounded by green plants. Remote working. Working outdoors with technology. Staying connected to her business. Lifestyle. Business or leisure theme
Employers are increasingly turning to personality tests for leadership development, promotion decisions and hiring. (d3sign via Getty Images)

A few years ago, I had to take a personality test at an all-day ‘team-building’ meeting. “Now we’re going to have a bit of fun,” announced one of the managers to a grey, corporate boardroom.

This fun activity was taking the Enneagram, a personality test that has soared in popularity in recent years. It is based on the teachings of the 1950s spiritual mentor Oscar Ichazo, but was adapted and introduced to the United States in the early 1970s by psychiatrists who wanted to use it for psychoanalytic training.

In the test, the nine personality types are linked to different strengths, core beliefs and flaws and you are assigned a ‘core’ type and a ‘wing’ type. My test told me I was mostly a Type One – a 'reformer' – and somewhat a Type Five, an 'investigator'.

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The problem is, I made my answers up. By chance, the ‘reformer’ category involves being a perfectionist – something I can certainly relate to – but that’s about as accurate as it got. We had to sit in groups with other people of our ‘type’ and complete problem-solving tasks, until we were released for lunch.

Read more: Why presenteeism is worse for businesses than calling in sick

The Enneagram test is largely considered by psychologists to be pseudoscientific, and should be taken with a pinch of salt when used for fun or for lighthearted self-reflection. But increasingly, employers are turning to personality tests – an industry worth around $2bn (£1.6bn) – for leadership development, promotion decisions and hiring.

“Personality tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator [MBTI] and the Enneagram are popular among employers because they offer a simple to implement and seemingly face-valid way of assessing employees,” explains Dr Rebekah Wanica, a mindset psychologist, university lecturer and career coach at Vent To Reinvent.

Some employers use them to try and understand their employees better, or predict how they may interact with each other. “They may be used to see if a candidate’s personality traits are consistent with a specific role's requirements,” Wanica explains. “Also, to identify strengths and possible areas for growth, for example, to help understand someone’s career aspirations and target training.”

However, many of the most popular tests lack scientific validity and reliability. And when used in high-stakes workplace decisions, they can be deeply problematic.

Personality tests often rely on self-reporting, a notoriously unreliable way to gather information because of distorted self-perception or bias. We may pick the answers that assign us the personality type we want – for example, an overachiever – rather than answer the questions accurately.

And crucially, it’s impossible to fit neatly into one or two categories. Personality is deeply complex and research suggests that for any given trait, like extroversion, we fall at various points along a continuum.

Desiree Silverstone, a psychologist, executive coach and founder of Head Honchos, points out that personality tests are fun, but not scientific. “In the 1940s, Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers developed a way of understanding human personality via their creation – the widely known Myers-Briggs Type Indicator,” she says.

A black and a caucasian young woman are sitting in a business meeting in a modern office.They discuss something over papers and a laptop while one of them is pointing at the computer screen. Both are wearing glasses and pie charts are visible in the background.
Personality assessments don't consider how a person will fit in and work with others. (Hinterhaus Productions via Getty Images)

“Unfortunately, it fails to capture important nuances such as emotional stability versus reactivity or ambition traits like industriousness and achievement drive. Its accuracy has been disputed over time with many individuals being classified differently upon re-evaluation – making MBTI far from reliable.”

Crucially, personality assessments like the MBTI don't consider how a person will fit in and work with others, nor do they directly correlate with work capabilities. “They also don’t consider important factors like emotional intelligence which is vital in order to be successful in the workplace,” says Silverstone.

“Basing these on arbitrary personality types paints an inaccurate picture of everyone's individual strengths and weaknesses. It's easy to forget that our mental and emotional states can have a huge impact on how we respond to questions and how we perceive ourselves.”

It’s also important to note that human behaviour is largely context-dependent, so personality traits can’t predict individual behaviour - like whether someone will excel in a job, or get along with their team.

One key problem with personality tests is they can lead to stereotyping. “There is also the risk of pigeonholing people into specific personality types,” says Wanica. “This can also lead people to avoid challenging themselves to grow or change if they use the personality label as a crutch or a definitive identity.”

Read more: How to navigate a long hiring process with multiple interviews

Additionally, many tests – some of which were created decades ago – haven’t been evaluated for cultural sensitivity. “Personality tests may not be evaluated in terms of their validity and reliability in the work settings in which they are used,” says Wanica. “If the traits that are preferred are more commonly associated with a particular gender or ethnic groups, such individuals could be at a disadvantage.”

Neurodiverse individuals and people with mental health conditions may also find themselves judged unfairly based on their answers, especially if the information is used for deciding who gets hired or promoted.

Not all of these assessments are bad, however. Some, like the Five Factor Model or the ‘Big Five’, are used frequently in psychological research and are fairly well validated. “Rather than forcing individuals into an artificial ‘type’, the Big Five provides results that reflect where people fall on a spectrum, providing meaningful feedback all without any surprises or shocks,” says Silverstone.

Our interest in personality tests reflects our inherent curiosity about human nature and our desire to understand ourselves. If taken lightly – with a healthy dose of scepticism – they can help us understand our preferences and give us insights into others.

But often, they fail to capture the nuances and complexities of personality and workplace behaviour – so it may be better if employers leave these tests out of their decision-making processes.

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