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What Leaders Get Wrong About Personality Tests and How to Appropriately Utilize Them


Personality tests have become increasingly popular in organizations as tools to assist with hiring, team building, leadership development, and conflict resolution. However, there is often misunderstanding and misuse of these assessments that can undermine their effectiveness or even cause harm.


Today we will explore common misconceptions leaders hold regarding personality tests, the appropriate and ethical uses of such tools grounded in research, and provide practical strategies and examples for organizations to maximize the benefits while avoiding potential pitfalls.


Misconception #1: Personality is fixed


One of the most prevalent myths is that a person's personality does not change over time. While certain traits may be more inherent, research has consistently shown personalities are not static (Roberts et al., 2017). Experiences, relationships, life events, and environmental factors all shape how personalities evolve throughout one's lifetime. Viewing personality assessments as definitive portraits that remain unchanged can pigeonhole employees and limit growth opportunities.


Misconception #2: Tests capture a complete person


No single test can fully or accurately capture the complexity of a human being (Morgeson et al., 2007). Personality is multidimensional, and assessments only measure a few traits or preferences at any given time. Over-relying on test results risks neglecting other talents, skills, experiences, and human qualities not easily quantifiable. Leaders should use assessments to supplement, not replace, interviews, references, and ongoing performance evaluations.


Misconception #3: Tests determine job fit and roles


While certain traits may relate to success in specific positions, research cautions against using personality tests as sole determinants for hiring, promotion, or career mapping (Schmitt et al., 2014). Individuals can overcome inherent tendencies through motivation, training, adaptability, and developing new strengths to take on different responsibilities over time. Tests provide a starting point for discussions about strengths and areas for growth, not definitive career placements.


Appropriate Uses of Personality Tests


When properly administered and understood, personality assessments can serve valuable leadership purposes grounded in valid research if certain best practices are followed:


  • Use for Self-Awareness, not Judgement: Tests promote self-reflection on preferences, typical behaviors, stressors, and communication styles. Leaders should frame results privately as self-insights for development, not public evaluations of character or worth.

  • Supplement Multiple Data Points: Assessments add context when paired with in-depth interviews, work samples, references discussing behaviors over time, and observation of interactions. A full picture considers both quantitative and qualitative data.

  • Factor in Situational Influences: Traits manifest differently depending on environment, team dynamics, immediate priorities, and organizational culture. Test-takers and their managers discuss how preferences show up uniquely in current circumstances versus stable tendencies.

  • Focus on Strengths and Growth Areas: Ratings indicate where an individual naturally excels and aspects requiring further learning. Development plans highlight talents while cultivating new skills through coaching and customized experiences.

  • Reassess over Time: Periodic retesting, especially after major life changes, shows evolution that single snapshots miss. Development is a continuous process reflected in adapting profiles, not fixed outcomes.


Practical Industry Examples


The following case studies illustrate how various organizations have successfully incorporated personality assessments by following research-based best practices:


  • Healthcare Staffing and Development: A large hospital uses the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) for nurses and medical technicians to understand preferences for gathering information, making decisions, and interacting with patients and colleagues. Teams discuss traits in a strengths-based manner to optimize utilizing various perspectives. Individual results inform targeted training, such as an introvert being paired with an extroverted preceptor. Retesting every two years tracks growth and adapted skills for new roles.

  • Technology Startup Hiring Process: A software company applies the Big Five personality taxonomy during interviews to evaluate candidates holistically versus technical skills alone. Applicants complete the test beforehand and discuss results and behavioral examples openly. Hiring managers note which traits match needed company culture but remain open that some applicants may compensate for lesser traits through motivation and initiative. Assessments merely provide one data point in overall fit considerations.

  • Leadership Coaching Program: An automotive manufacturer uses the Hogan Development Survey with high potential managers to uncover blind spots, derailers, and tendencies under stress that previously impeded promotions. Trained coaches partner with participants to establish 360-degree feedback, observe interactions, and devise customized development roadmaps addressing weaker areas through simulations, stretch assignments, and mentoring relationships over six months to a year. Progress is reassessed periodically.


Conclusion


When understood and applied properly with other relevant information, personality assessments provide value to organizations seeking to maximize talents, foster continual learning and growth, enhance team dynamics, and cultivate leadership potential. However, certain myths and misuses can undermine this potential or do harm if tests are treated as fixed labels or sole determinants of roles, careers or worth. By grounding assessments in valid research, focusing on strengths and cultivation over limitations, and using a holistic, multi-source approach, leaders gain meaningful insights while respecting the complexity and evolution of each individual involved. Personality is just one dimension in developing an organization's most critical resource - its people.


References


  • Morgeson, F. P., Campion, M. A., Dipboye, R. L., Hollenbeck, J. R., Murphy, K., & Schmitt, N. (2007). Reconsidering the use of personality tests in personnel selection contexts. Personnel Psychology, 60(3), 683–729. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-6570.2007.00089.x

  • Roberts, B. W., Lejuez, C., Krueger, R. F., Richards, J. M., & Hill, P. L. (2014). What is conscientiousness and how can it be assessed? Developmental Psychology, 50(5), 1315–1330. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0031109

  • Schmitt, N., Oswald, F. L., Friede, A., Imus, A., & Merritt, S. (2008). Perceptions of ability as a mediator of age and sex differences in military hiring contexts. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(2), 296–308. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.93.2.296

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.


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