I recently took a workplace personality test for the Saltire Fellowship. The test itself, the catchily named OPQ32, took 40 minutes or so and was straightforward enough. I had my feedback session several weeks later, and was surprised by the results – but not because it provided any new insight. In the absence of real life examples and in the interest of ‘objectivity’, the assessor was forced to give rather bland feedback, which sounded suspiciously obtuse – and that it could be applied to anyone. For example, I “care about what other people think – but won’t let it get in the way of my decisions” or that I ‘enjoy other people’s company but am also fiercely independent”. Much of it was indeed true, but naggingly I felt these summations could loosely be applied to almost anyone which makes me question the ultimate utility of such tests.
According to Annie Murphy Paul’s book “The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Lead us to Miseducate our Children, our Companies and Misunderstand Ourselves” - personality tests like Myers Briggs possess not a shred of scientific validity. Though widely used for assessment and to help place or reject candidates, the MBTI has no predictive value of its own. In one study, undertaken by proponents of the tests, less than half (47%) of people fell into the same category upon a second administration of the test. Some even found that their ‘types’ changed depending on what time of day they took the test. Paul concludes that “there is no evidence that Briggs sixteen distinct types have any more validity than the twelve signs of the zodiac”.
Still, the tests remain popular in corporate settings and among many of my coaching colleagues because they lend a superficial rationality to the matching and exclusion of people to jobs. Paul explains: “The administration of personality tests is frequently presented as a gesture of corporate goodwill, a generous acknowledgement of an employees uniqueness. Under this banner of respect for individuality, organisations are able to shift responsibility for the employee satisfaction onto that obligatory culprit ‘fit’. There is no bad workplace or worker, only a bad fit between the two.” It allows employers to rationalise rejection or dismissal in terms of inadequate ‘fit’.
Indeed, while personality assessments are very popular among many coaches, I have never put a huge amount of store in them myself when coaching. I worry they give us a far too easy way of pigeon-holing people. Most people are far more successful when they are able to adapt to the communication and work styles of colleagues rather than expect people to adapt to them because they are a ‘ESFJ’ or or a ‘INFP’.