Quick! What “Personality Style” Is the Person Sitting Next to You?

As surely as the tides flow in and out, so do personality inventories and communication style assessments flow through organizations. From hiring to teambuilding to coaching and career development, advocates of personality assessments in general promise these tests can be used for a wealth of workplace applications, from hiring the right person for the right job in the first place to helping all those hires work together (because allegedly, at least, such assessments offer useful information for collaboration and communication).

It all sounds intriguing…until you start digging deeper. For starters, practitioners of the art of personality assessment can’t really agree on how many personality “styles” or “types” are. Four? Six? Seven? Twelve? Sixteen?

And they certainly can’t agree on how to measure “personality,” or what it is. Is it Freudian? Jungian? Is it based on abnormal psychology? Validated by what statistics and science? Which group of people were used to“norm” the instrument–college students, soldiers, psychiatric patients, 1940s housewives? Everyone who’s ever taken the instrument in the history of the world?

Depending on the assessment you take, the answers vary.

In an irreverent 2015 explainer, Vox went under the hood and explained the history and development of one of the most popular personality instruments (the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) and concluded “no organization in the 21st century should rely on the test for anything.”

The Washington Post also tackled the subject of personality tests recently and debunked common myths about personality tests, including the notion that “personality” itself is an innate, fixed phenomenon, concluding these instruments are far less “scientific” than many believe.

Then there’s the academic evidence behind personality testing—which is thin to the point that Cornell University advises caution in using such instruments in hiring and specifically: “A 2010 review of the academic literature found correlations between personality and job success to fall in the .03 to .15 range, which the authors note is “close to zero.”

Theory versus Application: Entering the Valley of Disappointment

Even under the most generous possible assumption—that every available personality assessment on the market today is 100 percent valid, reliable, consistent, and cannot be faked—administering the test is only the first step. What comes next is typically a cascade complexity that leads to long-term disappointment. And that’s because the moment application begins, complexity steps in.

Step 1: Administer personality assessments to employees; ground their understanding in their own “style” or “type.” (Excitement ensues!)

Difficulty: Minimal.

Step 2: Teach employees to understand all other (four to sixteen) personality types and how to optimize their “style” or “type” for interpersonal communication and conflict with one person of a another style. (Confusion sets in.)

Difficulty: Significant. Task requires understanding and memorizing complex, abstract concepts including other people’s personality, preferences, and communication style—and knowing up to sixteen different style or type configurations, depending on the personality instrument.

Step 3:  Escalate learning by teaching employees to navigate group dynamics among more than two personality styles.

Difficulty: Next-to-impossible. This task requires memorizing or retaining awareness of all colleagues’ personality styles as well as how multiple styles interact together on a long-term basis.

On the day of the initial workshop, with workbooks and graphs and learning materials in front of them, most people are wildly enthusiastic about the insights and possibilities that personality and communication preference instruments can bring to the table. But the moment those visual reminders and reference materials are out-of-sight, it isn’t surprising that the concepts and practices also tend to fall by the wayside.

Old habits—especially nonconstructive ones—are hard to change. Self-awareness is perhaps the biggest benefit of these instruments, because they offer insight into how we can motivate ourselves to do our best work.

And Assessments Can Actually GLOP Up the Gears

But perhaps the greatest irony of personality instruments used in the workplace setting is that they can inadvertently throw monkey-wrenches into the works rather than removing them. And they do that by handing quick-and-dirty labels to be used to categorize people in moments of high stress—in other words, GLOP.

  • “Oh, you’re a high-D, so of course you want to skip right to implementation.”
  • “You want to ignore the human costs? That’s so INTJ of you.”
  • “Never mind Stan’s babbling about the back end. That’s his Neuroticism talking.”

Without preparation and genuine, solid, beneficial listening and communication skills, the information harvested from and shared during personality assessment sessions can become inadvertently weaponized, even if it’s done through “good-humored” “ribbing.”

All of this is easily avoidable: Are you ready for the solution?

Stop treating humans like mystery puzzle boxes who need to be solved. Talk to them. Ask them what they think. Ask them what they need. Then listen. Actively. If they get stuck, worried, frustrated, or emotional, help them switch gears. Listen again.

Chances are, if you trust them and they trust you, they’ll figure out a way to solve problems on their own. And neither one of you will have to haul out a manual to figure out which “type,” “style,” or four-letter acronym or the other person “is” beforehand.

Moods, Conditions, and Situations Change: Skills Don’t

The final (most obvious, and perhaps most important) point about personality assessment-based workforce development, teamwork, and communication exercises is this: We cannot be certain they are measuring “personality” at all.

Because each of these assessments relies on self-reports to produce a result, it is not a complete picture of personality: Rather, it is a snapshot in time capturing how a person felt, believed, and thought in the moment the assessment was taken. And that distinction is critical.  Recalling the concept of the behavior window — our behavioral tolerances and preferences may wax and wane over the course of a day, a week, a month, depending on what’s happening within and around us. The thing we call “personality” isn’t static.

Skills, on the other hand, are solid and reliable. Skills are eternal. Once acquired, skills are always there, always at hand, always ready to be called upon. Skills don’t change with new information or budget constraints. Skills don’t require a questionnaire.

A timeless set of skills can navigate complex communication challenges in the workplace.

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