Three Ways Personality Tests Can Do More Harm Than Good

Photo:  fizkes (Shutterstock)
Photo: fizkes (Shutterstock)

When employee morale is low and teamwork is lacking, well-intending bosses and HR folks often think the solution is to have a “team-building” session. They think the root of the issue must be that staff don’t know each other well, don’t understand each other’s “styles,” and if they did, they would work better together. Work is stopped, money is spent, and everyone is scheduled to attend a team-building session—or what I sometimes call, forced fun.

This is when personality tests, or “style” assessments, like the DISC Profile, Myers Briggs Type Indicator and others of the like are often used to help people understand each other better with a goal of improving teamwork. Many of these assessments are grounded in good behavioral science. They require completion of an assessment and then, a report is generated that describes a person’s preferences and tendencies for communication, thinking, and use of energy. Some also identify strengths, weaknesses, motivators, and stressors.

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The information presented in the report, for a lot of people, is interesting and insightful. Many (but not all) develop a validating sense of self as well as an understanding of others. These “style” assessments can help us understand why people do what they do.

Yet, there are a lot of limitations too. Often, these assessments are inappropriately used and, sometimes, do more harm than good. Here are three ways in which that happens.

The results turn into gossip

A friend recently shared that her small company bought style assessments for everyone because “they thought it would be fun.” The staff was instructed to post their results on the company intranet site. Then, “everyone would know how to communicate with each other.”

There was no other context, instruction, or information provided. My friend reviewed her report and quickly felt it was inaccurate. Upon sharing it with a few coworkers, they said, “Oh! That’s what you are?” which felt intrusive to her. Then, she overheard others say things like “Look up Jim’s style. I bet his style is…” - The assessment results became gossip laced with labels.

My friend confirmed that no one communicated better after the results were shared, which was the goal of the exercise. Rather, everyone talked about each other making many feel vulnerable and judged. She said the exercise distracted the organization from their work for a couple weeks.

The real misstep here was the organization conducted the exercise without a trained facilitator, who can explain what it means if the report doesn’t match a person’s self-view and how to appropriately interact using the results.

False expectations are set

Even with a trained facilitator, using style assessments to improve teamwork will likely fail. Many trained facilitators don’t know this because the companies that sell these assessments pitch them as solutions to teamwork problems. Here’s the thing, though: Knowing each other’s style has no bearing on how the team performs.

Rather, the most important factor in team performance is psychological safety. This is the sense of confidence that a team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. This means you can admit mistakes, share concerns, or disagree with each other without retribution, and you are open to disputes and challenges to your ideas without avoiding or rejecting those who speak up. Amy Edmondson pioneered the research and has written about it extensively. Google, too, has found it in their studies. Knowing each other’s styles will not solve for a work environment where people fear punishment or embarrassment if they disagree with the boss or others.

Moreover, teams need clear roles and responsibilities. In my work, I have found the root cause of many teamwork problems is a lack of clarity and fairness around who does what, when, and how. Conducting a team-building activity to uncover style does not make up for a lack of deadlines, expectations, or accountability for the work.

When style assessments are used to improve teamwork, they set false expectations that the work environment will get better. It’s no wonder the team is let down when everything stays the same after the activity is over.

Results are inaccurately applied

Have you ever been asked your DISC style or Myers Briggs type in an interview? I have, and at the time I didn’t know I should not have shared it. When I did, the hiring manager said in a flat tone, “Really. That’s so interesting.” I didn’t get the job. I have no idea if that was a factor but what I know now is that it was an inappropriate question for an interview.

Style assessments are not designed for selection or hiring. They don’t predict performance on the job and should not be used as such. It’s common for a hiring manager to believe that a certain type will lend itself to more success in a job versus another, but this is incorrect. There are reliable and valid tests available to predict performance and any company can seek those out. (Also of note, there is no magical mix of styles that creates the perfect team. Style doesn’t predict team performance either.)

If someone asks you in an interview what your type or style is, just say “I know those assessments are not designed for hiring, so I decline to share that now. But I look forward to letting you know, as well as learning yours and the team’s, when I’m hired.”

As an HR professional, I have been a trained facilitator of these assessments for two decades. I’m a proponent of them and know they can be an excellent tool to build self-awareness. When coupled with skilled training, they can help individuals and teams build competence and improve relationships. Yet, they can also do some harm. Understanding these limitations is another way for us all to keep working toward making our workplaces as satisfying and productive as possible.

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