Managers Are Missing Out On The Most Important Part Of Personality Tests

What's most valuable isn't the test itself.

At Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, every new employee takes the Myers-Briggs personality test, among others. The results are shared with everyone else at the firm, on a “baseball card” documenting each person’s strengths, weaknesses, and dispositions.

When I was getting to know my colleagues during the year I worked there, we would exchange Myers-Briggs acronyms before almost anything else—a replacement for typical office small-talk. It was strange, and thrilling.

I was proud to be an “ENTJ” (the Myers-Briggs acronym for Extraversion, Intuition, Thinking, and Judgment). At their best, ENTJs are bold, unemotional, and outspoken—traits that helped me navigate Bridgewater’s culture of radical transparency and critical feedback. ENTJs also can be arrogant, but they do get stuff done.

But telling people I was an ENTJ, or learning that my desk mate was my foil (an “ISFP”: Introvert, Sensing, Feeling, Perception), meant little. What mattered was the conversation that followed.

Just after stating our acronym, we’d usually begin qualifying it. “I’m an extrovert, but I actually prefer to spend a lot of time alone.” “I’m ‘Thinking’ over ‘Feeling,’ but I actually get pretty offended by critiques.” “I like seeing the forest, not the trees, as a ‘P,’ but I’m worried my boss thinks I’m spacey.” “My results show I can be aggressive, but I’m actually really frightened of conflict.”

If you listen, you’ll hear people sharing the same kinds of knee-jerk self-reflections when asked about their zodiac sign, their Harry Potter House, or any other inventory sorting us into fixed “types.” There’s a good reason people do this. None of us fits neatly into boxes, and no personality test can fully capture the complexities of our character. That doesn’t mean the assessments, even the silly ones, aren’t valuable.

What the skeptics miss is that the test itself isn’t what’s valuable.

Inventories like Myers-Briggs, zodiac signs, and the Enneagramp ersonality assessment act like Rorschach tests, forcing us to reconcile the gaps between what the test results tell us, and what we know to be true about ourselves. This process is an invaluable resource for managers, as it illuminates nuances about an employee’s personality and dispositions that otherwise can take months (or years) to learn.

A guide, not an endgame

Self-reflections prompted by personality tests form a guide to each employee’s approach to the world. This knowledge is key for optimizing employee satisfaction and productivity—which really should be happening at the individual level. As Jason Fried, CEO of the software engineering firm Basecamp, articulated in a recent New York Times interview, “There’s really no such thing as a group of people. There’s a physical group of people, but everyone’s an individual, and you’ve got to pay attention to what drives each person.”

When people read their assessment results, they’re typically getting a paragraph describing one, or a few, elements of their personality. “So introverts are reading an amalgam of what the population of introverts tend to say,” explains Jean Greaves, CEO of the coaching firm TalentSmart, “and when it generally rings true, they accept the result, and say something like ‘Wow that really nailed me! How did it do that?'” This is amusing for people in the business of developing assessments, she says, because if you answer questions about yourself, of course the results will ring true.

“What people don’t realize is that the assessment itself isn’t the endgame—it’s really the launching point of the more important aspect of why you assess people, which is the conversations you have afterwards,” Greaves says. “My work as an executive coach is to read through the personality results of a client and determine which nailed them right on, which didn’t, and discard the results that were off. Then I’m looking for an end product—an action plan or development plan.”

Managers at all levels should do the same with their direct reports. Here’s how to get started.

1. Pick a reputable personality test and clarify its purpose

Every test reveals different elements of our personality. If your company doesn’t already use a test, start with one of the most reputable, like Myers-Briggs or Workplace Personality Inventory. First and foremost, clarify that personality test results will not be used for selection purposes, and that no one is defined by their “type.” “No one personality is best fit for one profession or job,” says Greaves, “and assuming an employee’s behavior can be explained or predicted based on their type hinders their ability to grow and evolve.”

2. Prompt the right questions for reflection

Once results are in, for the highest return on the investment, each employee should take a half hour or so to write a reflection on their results, asking themselves questions like: Which results jive best and worst with your self image, and why? What are some previous professional experiences in which you’ve demonstrated these personality traits, or their opposites? Which results are you most proud of, and which, if any, are you embarrassed by? If you could edit any of these descriptions to better match your personality, what would you change, and why?

Managers should then review these reflections, and schedule a time to chat about them with their report one-on-one. Understanding that no personality test result is good or bad, right or wrong, this conversation should be driven by one question only, says Greaves: How can we put these new insights into practice so as to achieve your goals?

3. Use the results to get to know the people—not just the personality types—in your workplace

At Bridgewater, my colleagues and I knew we weren’t defined by our Myers-Briggs test results—nor did we want to be. There were people within our “type” that we admired, and those we disliked; stereotypes we aligned with, and those we resented.

Reflecting together on the accuracies and inconsistencies we perceived between our test results and our own self-image revealed our insecurities about our jobs, insights about which communication tactics we liked and disliked, and our professional strengths—all of this before we knew one another’s neighborhoods, alma maters, or relationship statuses. It’s good to know those things, too, of course. But the information gleaned in these discussions offered a different kind of intelligence on the people in our work environment, intelligence that’s typically tough to gain otherwise.

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