A century ago, the military asked the American Psychological Association to develop a test capable of identifying soldiers susceptible to shell shock. Rorschach inkblots then came on the scene, followed by dozens of personality assessments.
The best known of these tests was the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which classifies personalities as Extrovert-Introvert, Intuitive-Sensing, Thinking-Feeling, and Judging-Perceiving. A couple of years later, William Marston developed the DISC system, classifying one's dominance, influencing, steadiness, and compliance. By the 1960s profiling established the Big Five model of assessing openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
The proliferation of so many systems, as you may have guessed, indicates that none were sufficiently reliable. To the dismay of the military and employers, personality profiles yield a very low correlation between predictive and actual success on the job.
Critics cite the tests' lack of reliability. Take the test again in a few weeks and your profile is often very different. Another complaint is that forcing test-takers into binary choices ignores that many people embody both characteristics. Moreover, the intent of test questions is highly predictable: job candidates can deduce the desired characteristics of a job, and then simply answer the questions to yield the appropriate profile.
Despite these faults, the use of personality profiling skyrocketed in the early 1970s, when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the use of lie detectors in the workplace. Today, more than 4 million people a year take the MBTI. Psychologist David Pittenger claims that this is the result of "the beguiling nature of the horoscope-like summaries of personality and steady marketing."
The word "personality" comes from the Greek persona, or mask. Dr Alex Lickerman points out that "personality is easy to read, and we're all experts at it. We judge people funny, extroverted, energetic, optimistic, confident – as well as overly serious, lazy, negative, and shy – if not upon first meeting them, then shortly thereafter," unless, of course, the personality we're shown is a mask. The simple fact is that we all employ masks to be as effective as possible in any given situation or social setting.
An executive once told me, "People can hide their true self for about six weeks but, eventually, it emerges." I have found this timeline to be accurate, but six weeks of hiding is enough for a skilled Masked Man to pass through pre-hire screening.
Let's go back and ask: Why was the lie detector so popular before it was made illegal? I contend that it was so successful because it measures character. Unlike personality, character traits, such as honesty and virtue, are not immediately felt. Character reveals itself only in specific, and often uncommon, circumstances. And a job interview is the least likely time that a person will allow undesirable character traits to emerge.
Dr Lickerman adds this caution: "If someone is outgoing, confident, and fun, we're more likely to think they're honest, moral, and kind. But it's far from clear that the one kind tracks with the other." This is reflected in author W. Somerset Maugham's advice, "When you choose your friends, don't be short-changed by choosing personality over character."
Am I dismissing the entirety of personality testing? Oh no! I emphatically endorse them for self-study. It helps us identify which of our traits are mainstream and which are more "outlier." This helps us understand our strengths and weaknesses, and allows us to improve relations with others.
Profiling claims success in constructing effective teams, but I am troubled when I hear practitioners express diametrically-opposed goals. Many say they seek diversity in teams, but there is scant data in support of diverse personalities improving team effectiveness. Others seek diversity's opposite – uniformity – in alignment with their organization's values and culture. But aren't values and culture reflections of character rather than personality?
What tools are effective for employment screening? Behavioral testing puts task-takers into hypothetical situations that can reveal character. When these tests are interactive, the tester can learn about personality as well as character. Lie detectors may be illegal, but two other tools are now accepted and widely used – internships and temporary employment through a contract-labor company. Each allow an organization, without the liabilities incurred with full-time employment, to observe people beyond the six-week mark to see their true-self emerge.