How and Why Organizations Can Responsibly Use Personality Assessments23 March 2021 / By Molly Owens Clinically Reviewed by Steven Melendy, PsyD. on March 23, 2021
Earlier this month, HBO released a documentary that promised to reveal the “dark side of personality tests.” Starring a mix of chattering Youtube personalities, corporate talking heads, and various activists with a bone to pick with the psychometrics industry, Persona devoted a mere hour and a half to covering essentially every circumstance in which a person might find themselves answering a question about their thoughts or behavior—and aimed to leave the viewer with a deep sense of foreboding about ever doing so again.
The film did little to educate the audience about the appropriate use of assessments, focusing instead on instilling fear—and thus, put many HR professionals, managers, and organizational psychologists in a difficult position. Most large organizations use personality assessment in some way—to create a common language to speak about work style, communication style, and teamwork preferences; to better identify and develop the talents of all employees; and to help leaders understand how to manage effectively. Those who plan to continue using assessments can expect to spend a significant amount of time assuaging fears, answering challenges, and clearing up misconceptions created by Persona.
Here, we’ll look at a few of the issues raised by the documentary and how you can best manage them as you move forward in your work.
Personality Assessments = Buzzfeed Quizzes, Right?
The first and most fundamental problem with the film is that it conflates many different types of personality assessments, creating the impression that a Buzzfeed quiz written by a media intern and a personality inventory developed by a psychologist are effectively the same thing. With its vague accusations and muddled narrative, the film falsely equates silly internet quizzes with the psychological assessments that have driven entire fields of academic study and allowed many of us in the organizational performance field to help people identify their talents, grow their careers, and recognize the value of individual differences.
Concepts of validity in the film are discussed only inasmuch as they can be used to denigrate various assessments; nobody ever bothers to explain how one might discern that an assessment is valid.
How to address it: Explain the difference. Validity and reliability are concrete concepts and straightforward measures of how useful an assessment can be in a particular application. Reliability tells us whether the assessment gives the same result over multiple testing sessions; validity tells us whether the assessment measures the phenomenon it’s supposed to. Both are measured, analyzed, and optimized for professional-quality assessments—not so much for Buzzfeed quizzes.
Personality Tests - Racist, Classist, Ableist?
Perhaps the most memorable quote in Persona is delivered by Lydia X.Z. Brown, a disability rights advocate, and charges that, “Personality tests are by and large constructed to be ableist, to be racist, to be sexist and to be classist.” These are deeply disturbing possibilities for anyone who uses assessments and is concerned about social justice.
Unfortunately, the film drops this bombshell but gives very little follow-up. We are given no clue as to the scope of the problem, the evidence supporting it, or the solutions that might be proposed. Most basically, the film doesn’t make it clear whether there are particular instruments that have actually been shown to have discriminatory biases. Most professionals who use assessments would probably appreciate knowing if there is evidence that the tools they choose promote bias, but unfortunately, Persona leaves this trail stone cold.
One concrete cause for concern regarding the MBTI® comes from the archival research of journalist Merve Emre , who discovered that prior to developing the assessment, Isabel Briggs Myers wrote a novel with disturbingly racist themes. This discovery has led to more scrutiny of the instrument itself, including the valid criticism that the theory was developed using a very culturally limited sample (the first sample groups were suburban high schoolers in Briggs Myers' hometown).
However, the link between Briggs Myers’ bias and the modern MBTI® instrument is shaky at best; in the many decades since the assessment's inception, the publisher has translated the assessment into multiple languages and done numerous cross-cultural studies. Although the MBTI® may have been developed in a bubble, it has since grown far beyond its cloistered beginnings.
In another critique, the documentary points out that Isabel Myers’ first go at the MBTI® offered different versions for men and women, on the assumption that the two genders were too disparate to be evaluated within the same scoring rubric. Of course, that was several decades ago, and there currently is only one—gender-neutral—version of the MBTI® instrument. It’s unclear whether the suspicions of bias in the MBTI® specifically are more about its history, or its present, and the filmmakers seem to have prioritized making murky accusations over presenting clear evidence.
Briggs Myers’ theory has grown far beyond its beginnings in suburban white America. As the documentary shows, YouTubers, bloggers, and other content creators around the world have made the theory their focus, reinterpreting it, translating it, and adapting it to a new millennium. On a more professional level, a diverse collection of researchers and publishers have created their own assessments, books, courses, and programs based on Myers’ work. My own company, Truity, has developed a personality test based on extensive research into Myers’ 16 types, and validated it across a diverse, global sample. Whatever the limitations of Isabel Briggs Myers’ viewpoint, it seems her theory has taken on a life of its own.
How to address it: Know your tools. Before bringing an assessment into the workplace, examine the data on how it was created, and in particular who was included in the samples during its development. An assessment that uses a demographically limited sample (i.e. primarily white college students) should be cause for concern; however, most reputable publishers will ensure that they validate their tools with a cross-cultural sample.
Letting Assessments Speak Louder Than People
The film’s most ominous claims surround the use of personality assessments in hiring. A central figure is Kyle Behm, a young man who was rejected from a job because of a “red” score on a required pre-screening test, and who becomes deeply affected by the idea that he is somehow flawed. As a counterpoint, we hear from corporate executives who appear blissfully unaware of the fact that some people need jobs to afford food and shelter, and perhaps do not have a full appreciation for a shadowy algorithm deciding if they’re worthy of the same.
We hear, also, of a court case brought by Behm’s father, alleging that personality assessments used in this way are discriminating against people with mental illness, and thus should be illegal. We’re not given much insight into the content of the case, but the story is deeply troubling, and it’s hard not to be concerned about a situation in which people’s lives are so fundamentally impacted by tools that are shrouded in mystery.
How to address it: Emphatically, do not use an assessment to screen candidates unless it was explicitly designed for that purpose. Persona features a representative of the Myers Briggs Company explaining that they’ve had to cut off customers who were using the MBTI® in hiring, in violation of the publisher’s explicit warnings. This is inexcusable, and undermines all the many valid applications of assessments in the workplace.
At Truity, our mission has always been to help people understand themselves better, not to help corporations psych us all out. Thus, we’ve never developed an assessment that was appropriate for use in the hiring process— but that hasn’t stopped companies from approaching us wanting to use our assessments for this very purpose. This goes against every applicable professional ethic; personality assessments used in hiring should firmly adhere to the guidelines developed by organizational psychologists and endorsed by the American Psychological Association .
More generally, remember that assessments based on Myers and Briggs’ theory—and most assessments that are popular for use in the workplace—were not designed to sum people up in the absence of the people themselves. They were designed as tools to help people understand who they are, fully tap their talents, see how others are different, and have a common language to discuss those differences.
Using the Right Tools, for the Right Reasons
It’s important to note that assessments can be valid for some applications, but not for others. A fantastic example is the MBTI®, which can be tremendously useful for career coaching, professional development, and personal growth—but as discussed above, is completely useless and potentially biased as a hiring screen. The documentary makes this point as if it’s a shocking revelation, but the Myers Briggs Company has stated this plainly since the tool’s inception.
Unfortunately, the documentary neglects an opportunity to educate the viewer about helpful and responsible uses of assessments. There are many assessments that can be useful to help team members understand and describe differences, articulate their preferred work style, and maximize their productivity—but to make the most of any tool, you have to choose the right one for the job.
How to address it: To use assessments responsibly, be sure you understand and can articulate what you want to achieve, and how the assessment can help you to meet that goal—and make sure you can verify the assessment’s validity for that purpose. For example,many beginning users of assessments assume that the goal is to duplicate the high-performing members of their team; if their top salesperson is an ESTJ, then surely they want lots more ESTJs—right? Unfortunately, it’s not so easy, and having such a limited understanding of personality dynamics can mean that any tool you use will use to amplify your biases—when ideally, you want your assessment process to help you overcome any preconceived notions you have about who your best employees could be.
When used correctly, personality assessments have helped us make great strides in how we understand human performance and development. Susan Cain, in Quiet, helped us understand the power of Introverts at work, and we’re now aware of issues like the leadership bias: research has shown that although 50 percent of the workforce self-identifies as introverts, 96 percent of leaders and managers self-identify as extroverts—despite the data showing that introverted CEOs actually perform better .
Similarly, our own company’s research has revealed that in addition to the well-established gender wage gap , there’s also a gap in income according to Myers and Briggs’ Thinking/Feeling preference—both women and men who are more Feeling tend to earn less, indicating that we may be undervaluing traditionally feminine virtues like cooperation and accommodation.
The only reason we’re able to study and recognize these sources of bias is because we have personality assessments to measure them. Ideally, we should be using those same assessments to uncover an individual’s hidden talents where we least expect them, and to learn how to value and reward a diverse range of employee contributions in the workplace.
When in doubt, remember this: Personality assessments should help individuals better express themselves—not do the talking for them.
Paul Sacco (not verified) says...
Very well written. Thanks, Molly.
Paul Sacco (INTJ)
Certified MBTI Practitioner
Jme (not verified) says...
Thanks for a very well written on personality assessments...Ironically most companies and many prestigious ones use various types of assessments albeit in the right way i.e.career guidance, team building, communication gaps, etc., which have proven to be so helpful for both individuals making the right career choices and organizations helping people find the right seat in the right bus.