Credit and Blame at Work

Exploring the psychological forces at play while you work.

The use and misuse of personality tests for coaching and development

Why many companies use some personality assessments and not others

Around 80 percent of the Fortune 500 companies use personality tests such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to assess their employees for the purpose of coaching, development, and team building. However, some critics claim that many of these assessments have no more reliability or validity than horoscopes.

In her brilliant book, The Cult of Personality, Annie Murphy Paul provides a history of personality tests and presents compelling evidence that should make anyone question the tests and consider how they are used and misused in the workplace. Most industrial and organizational psychologists have serious reservations about many popular personality tests, as our training teaches us to be skeptical and to put the burden of proof on the publishers of the tests.

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So why do so many corporations use tests that have questionable reliability and validity? In my experience, it is the very limitations of the assessments that make them so popular. First of all, they present a simplified view of human nature, and it can be reassuring to some people to be able to fit themselves and their colleagues into neat, predictable, pre-determined boxes. We are all susceptible to using oversimplified stereotypes to categorize and evaluate other people, and these personality assessments create politically correct, non demographically-correlated stereotypes.  

Secondly, many of the most popular tests are non-evaluative, and convey an "I'm OK, you're OK, we're just different" philosophy. The test publishers claim "There's no good or bad 'type' of person", although they acknowledge that different 'types' of person may be more or less suited to different kinds of role or organizational context. Some of the more valid tests, such as the Hogan Personality Inventory, are less popular than the Myers-Briggs because they may deliver unpleasant messages to test takers about their personalities.

Finally, these assessments help people avoid unpleasant realities about real, underlying workplace conflict. For example, instead of needing to confront the real causes of conflict between two members of a team, such as real or perceived betrayals or destructive competition for limited resources, taking personality tests creates a reassuring, albeit false and oversimplified explanation for the conflict- one person is introverted and the other person is extroverted!

For more thoughts about the use and misuse of personality assessments in the workplace, see this article

For a listing and description of some tests that organizations use for employee development, see this handbook.

Ben Dattner, Ph.D., is a workplace consultant, an industrial and organizational psychologist, and an adjunct professor at New York University.

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