BY KRISTEN CARROLL AND STEPHANIE CARNESEditor’s note: This topic will also be explored in a session at this month’s CD Show in Orlando. There, you can learn more about how this type of testing can benefit your company and how it can be implemented.
In early 2016, we were planning for our first-ever LMC team retreat, and several of our staff members suggested that we participate in a Myers-Briggs test to learn more about each other and ourselves. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it is among the most popular tests designed to assess and type your personality in one of 16 categories after answering a series of questions. It exists online in many derivations, and shortened versions are commonly used. You may have heard someone say that they are an INTP or an ESFJ, just two of the types.
At first I ignored the request, but in the end I begrudgingly agreed. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to learn about our team members: My resistance was due to a lifetime of underwhelming experiences with personality testing.
I’ve worked in HR for many years and I saw personality testing of all kinds used for pre-employment in some troubling ways. My concerns began early. I remember applying for one of my first sales jobs where some form of Myers-Briggs evaluation was part of the selection process. Like any person with a modicum of critical thinking skills, I answered the questions in the way I thought a salesperson would. The selection committee agreed, and I was hired. Thus began my mistrust of standardized personality testing—if it can be manipulated this easily, then how honest of an assessment could it be?
Not long after, I was serving on the board of a nonprofit in Boston, and our team took the Myers-Briggs test to determine which skills we brought to the table. I knew what I wanted to be involved with, and I answered the questions in a way that set me up for my preferred work. Before you judge me for cheating on a charity test, I can only offer up the fact that I was a volunteer. That must buy me some sort of redemption, right?
Personality Testing Mistake #1:
If you attach a carrot to the answer, you aren’t likely to get an accurate response.
Working in HR, both internally and in a consulting role, I’ve witnessed employers who give tremendous weight to the results of pre-employment personality testing, often leading to bad hiring decisions. And it can cut in many ways: I have seen perfect candidates who didn’t test the way the employer wanted, so they were ruled out (and as a result, the company eliminated someone who may have been a great fit). In other cases, weak employees seemed to fill a certain category and were offered a job far beyond their capabilities because of the results of an almost-always unverified test. I have seen far more harm than benefit from pre-employment personality testing, and that helped to shift my general aversion to it. I later learned that Myers-Briggs considers the use of their assessment for hiring purposes to be unethical and misleading, for the same reasons I rejected it.
On a philosophical level, I am a free spirit, and it is hard for me to accept the notion that humans of all different backgrounds can be forced into 16 neat categories that were developed by a mother-daughter tag team who used the theories of Carl Jung, a psychologist who was working a century ago. I reject the notion that who we were in 1917 can be equivalent to who we are in 2017.
Amid my protests—some silent, more spoken—we launched the testing with our team in preparation for our retreat. We used a free version of the test from 16personalities.com, one of the many hundreds of bastardizations of the actual Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Stephanie Carnes, our on-staff English professor whose love of psychology and affinity for personality testing are more common in her personality type than any other, reviewed our tests and presented the results to the group. Some were spot-on, others were pretty close, and one or two didn’t seem to be right at all.
However, throughout the process and the greater discussion, we all truly did get to know ourselves and our team members better. I saw this as valuable, but I still wasn’t completely sold. Meanwhile, this initial project prompted a great passion and interest in Stephanie to learn more about MBTI testing, and upon her compelling request, we sent her to a five-day MBTI certification course in Atlanta this past year. She finished at the top of her class, and she returned with a tremendous amount of knowledge and insight that no online test could ever offer. We immediately began putting this new training into practice, and I was honestly blown away by the results.
I was the first to retake the test, and by retake, I mean take the true test as crafted by the originators and those who followed. The free online versions are not the result of scientific research, but the official version is the work product of years of research and studies by some of the most brilliant minds of the past century. After taking the authorized test online, the next step was an in-depth phone interview with Stephanie, who asked me clarifying questions on each point. It was an enlightening and lengthy discussion that ultimately led to a result that was different from the online test as well as the free counterfeit test I had taken the year before and many other times throughout my life. To achieve my correct classification, I had to be brutally honest with myself and Stephanie about my strengths and weaknesses. I heard some things I really liked and some things I didn’t, but I certainly didn’t dispute them either. I had finally landed on the four letters of my true self.
Personality Testing Mistake #2:
Putting undue stress or self-serving interpretations on the test.
There was a part of me that found this coding sterile and disenchanting. I have always been a person who forged my own path, didn’t fit a mold, and lived a unique existence. When all was said and done, however, I was simply an ENTP, and the parts of me that I thought were unique were simply components of my personality type. We buck the system. We are nonconformers. We find rules to be optional. It’s a lot less badass when it turns out it’s just the life of the ENTP.
However, after I reconciled my delusions of grandeur with my true self, I quickly found an unexpected freedom. As it turns out, my personality type can be impatient when it comes to practical matters. I’m able to quickly assess a business and have a good idea of where it will be in a few years, tied to different eventualities. However, once you talk about the actual steps that will get you to the path I so clearly see, I lose interest and sometimes dismiss your obsession with the details as being small-minded. In actuality, my personality type is fantastic at vision and big-picture planning, and our best complementary counterpart is someone unable to see any of those things, but who can take the baton and run with the details that are less important to me. Learning about my strengths has empowered me to lean into them, while learning about my weaknesses has allowed me to own them and compensate for them with talent of those who complement me.
I may not be as special as I once thought—though only 3 percent of women are ENTPs—but I’m better now for knowing my strengths to magnify and my weaknesses to own.
As we went through the updated process with each member of our team, we were astounded at how accurate the assessments truly were. We immediately realigned the work of three members to better match their skillsets, and they are thriving in their new roles! We now have a resource on staff in our own MBTI practitioner, and we turn to Stephanie on a daily basis to get her input on the best way to manage our internal workings at LMC. We make goal, compensation, and performance management decisions based on the needs and personality traits of our team members now, and we have never been more finely tuned.
Personality Testing Mistake #3:
Using bad tools.
As we have begun doing this work with our clients, it has not only helped them with the same, but also helped us be a better partner to them. We know where they need us most and how to best communicate with them.
Personality testing works if you use the genuine assessment, followed by a consultation with a certified practitioner. It benefits employees by providing them with self-knowledge and helping them understand and appreciate others’ differences. It benefits managers who can be sure they are capitalizing on the strengths of their employees and setting them up for success. After a lifetime of skepticism, fueled by cheap alternatives to what has turned out to be a really strong tool, I am now a convert and a believer. [CD1017]