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  • Writer's pictureDan Squires

Is Personality Testing a Waste of Time?

Updated: Jul 11, 2023

Dr. Dan
Dr. Dan's Weekly Wag

Brace yourselves; I’m coming at this with some baggage and a little hot sauce.

If you’re an executive, you’ve no doubt been subjected to at least a round or two (or 10) of personality testing for one reason or another over the years. As a consequence, you likely have a few random letters, colors, and scars to show for it. So, it may not be surprising to hear that there’s a dirty little secret about personality testing—in many cases it’s largely a waste of time.

There are three reasons why. 

First, and principal among my soapbox peeves, is the widespread use of instruments that are based on outdated theory and, therefore, lack current scientific validity. Sadly, some of the most popular instruments on the market fall into this category—many of which, nonetheless, tout claims of scientific evidence to support their awesomeness. Welcome to the science version of bait and switch. What’s not clear to the average non-geek is that a test can be reliable (i.e., producing consistent results) without being valid (measuring what it claims to measure). I refer to such measures as a reliable waste of time.

Second, even when using valid instruments, assessing personality in isolation (i.e., without linking it to something specific like a 360 or professional competencies, for example) is little more than an exercise in mental masturbation. In their popular book, Who, Geoff Smart and Randy Street include personality testing in the category of “Voodoo Hiring” practices when referring to predicting successful job performance, suggesting that, “Managers cling to their favorite methods even when evidence suggests they don’t work”. With respect to assessing personality in isolation, they’re right. Without job specific competencies, even the best personality in the world won’t save your ass from the chopping block. 

Finally, even when using valid personality assessments linked to a specific purpose, two-dimensional profiles (i.e., computer-generated reports) are still subject to a moderate level of error. Wait, what?! Yep, even the best instruments available, when used for a specific purpose (e.g., secondary to competencies in search), do not always yield entirely face valid results. There are a couple of reasons for this:

  1. Self-report assessments are subject to the whims of self-reporting, and self-reporting is not always accurate—just ask yourself.

  2. Even with reasonably accurate self-reporting there is always some degree of implicit error in estimating personality characteristics. As a result, output from even the best instruments should not be regarded as definitive.

This gets me to soapbox peeve number 2—

It is not possible to know what a personality profile actually means in real-world terms without an adequately trained person directly interacting with the person being assessed as part of the process.

That’s right, you’ve read all this way just to arrive at shameless self-promotion. 

Nonetheless, it also happens to be true. High level, high stakes personality assessment like the kind used to support a well-rounded executive assessment process must include interactive expert assessment if the ultimate goal is accuracy. Why is it so important? Here are a few of the key things I look for when interacting with executives respective to their personality profiles:

  1. Does my interaction with the person jive with the profile? When it comes to good personality science, there are several, sometimes nuanced “tells” that provide a quick estimate of all major personality dimensions. However, you have to interact with someone face to face to pick up on many of them. Unless they’re extremely well informed and talented actors, even the best assessment gamers will typically stumble here.

  2. What is the person’s level of self-awareness? Based on interactive feedback, it’s easy to get a quick and accurate read on self-awareness. Without self-awareness, one is hunting blindfolded.

  3. How emotionally intelligent is the person? Lots of variability on this one. The general rule of thumb is that you can’t be more emotionally intelligent than you are self-aware. However, you can certainly be less so (see former post titled, “The Attitude-Aptitude Curve” for more on that). Emotional intelligence is important—especially for those with higher risk profiles.

  4. How much “grit” does the person have? Grit is the only variable that consistently predicts success (broadly defined) by itself. It takes a little effort to get an accurate read on it, and you often have to go beyond the traditional script to find it. That said, it’s unmistakable once confirmed, and a thing of beauty to behold. True to form, higher levels of grit regularly predict both hiring and post placement success when competencies and other supporting characteristics (e.g., personality) are in order.  

Only after these dimensions have been assessed is it possible to fully interpret a personality profile. These are so important, in fact, that I will not offer a definitive summary otherwise. There’s simply too much at risk, and it’s my opinion that we owe it to both our clients and candidates to use assessments and associated processes that are both reliable and valid.

So, assuming the use of valid instruments and associated process, why is personality testing worth doing in executive search? There are two BIG, high value reasons:

  1. To rule out false positives (When A Seemingly Perfect Candidate May Be Fools Gold)

  2. To retain false negatives (David & Goliath: The Art and Science of The Underdog Search)

Of course, there are additional circumstances outside of executive search when personality testing can also be quite valuable. The two most common are executive leadership (i.e., coaching) and team development.

Happy hunting (blindfolds off, please!).

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