Who are you at work? The US$2 billion world of personality testing
The appeal of personality tests is both magnetic and obvious: Ego. But the tests have also come to be applied in practical ways in the office, helping to shape professional relationships.
“Hello there, Protagonist!” read the email that landed in my inbox on a recent night. “Have you ever had the sense that you were different from others? That your drive to right unjust wrongs and seek improvement runs just a little bit deeper than most?”
I was intrigued. These questions were deeper than the improvement I happened to be seeking at that moment, related to the consistency of a chickpea stew I was cooking with my roommate, so I gladly opened the email, which contained the results of my assessment from 16personalities.com.
I had spent that day taking every personality test I could find on the Internet — an alternately therapeutic and mind-numbing journey of the self. This was prompted, in fact, not by personal crisis, but rather by professional curiosity about the role of personality testing in today’s tangled-up world of work. Could describing people on paper, in the form of colors and animals and good old Myers-Briggs, be relevant to discussions about returning to the office?
Personality testing is roughly a US$2 billion industry, according to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a psychology professor and author of I, Human, who estimated the value of the largest personality testing companies. Their appeal is both magnetic and obvious: Ego. But the tests have also come to be applied in practical ways in the office, helping to shape professional relationships. Some managers find them particularly useful for remote teams, because personality tests can prompt much-needed conversations about who workers are as humans, and how they like to interact.
“COVID has opened our eyes to the fact that there are different ways in which we can work,” said David Noel, senior vice president of global human resources at Scotiabank, a Toronto-based bank that uses a personality test called Plum. “Personality testing can be a part of that.”
After taking my own personality tests, I discovered that I was an ENFJ (extroverted and emotional); a Blue (motivated by intimacy, a “sainted pit bull” who doesn’t easily let go of people or projects); dominated, among the four temperaments, by sanguine (creative, sociable); and, according to my 24-page CliftonStrengths report, keen on collecting information and input from people (conveniently known as reporting). Digging through these results felt like the type of fun that’s both earnest and indulgent. Like an iPhone burst of selfies fused with the self-help section of an airport bookstore.
For employers, the stakes of personality testing are higher. Managers often use them to make decisions about career development and sometimes even about hiring. Each year, some 100 million workers worldwide take psychometric tests, meaning tests designed to study personality and aptitude. The industry exploded in the late 1990s and early 2000s as the tests were computerized, Chamorro-Premuzic said.
Now, psychologists are exploring what changes need to be made to workplace personality tests — both to grapple with long-standing questions about their validity and to address the changing norms of hybrid work. It’s a moment when, managers say, the tests are more useful than ever but not always up-to-date.
At Scotiabank, which has 90,000 workers, executives decided in late 2020 to stop looking at resumes for applicants coming out of school. The campus hiring program is now focused partly on Plum results, and the new approach is bringing in more diverse candidates, the bank said, because hiring managers are looking beyond familiar credentials. The share of Scotiabank’s new employees who are Black rose to 6 per cent from 1 per cent, and over half its hires are women.
Acolytes of personality testing are cautious, though, about how results should be used for workplace decision-making. They should be one factor among many, advocates say, with the understanding that there’s a gap between the way people present themselves on a test and how they’ll act on any given Tuesday, or in a fight on Slack.
Critics are quick to point out that some of the tests, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which churns out four-letter distillations of personality, are about as reliable at predicting success in a professional endeavor as sorting candidates by astrological signs or Magic 8 Balls. Investigations by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have uncovered bias at play in some hiring processes that overly relied on personality tests without scholarly psychological backing.
But personality testing has also gotten more rigorous in recent years. Organisational psychologists have developed assessments that are more fair and grounded in research. Some of these tests use the “Big Five” personality traits, which psychologists have found to be consistent across populations: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.
“Human behavior is complex, people are complex, situations are complex,” said Ben Dattner, an organisational psychologist and executive coach, noting that studying personalities in all their complexity is still helpful for career development. “Psychometrics can help identify what are some potential areas where a person might need coaching or feedback, or where a person might have blind spots.”
And plenty of companies hail their benefits. Nearly one-third of the respondents to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2017 survey of its members said they used personality tests to fill executive roles. At McKinsey & Co, some consultants do “due diligence” when staffing projects, which often means looking at the balance of introverts and extroverts on a team. There’s a running joke that the company is full of people who got ENTJ on Myers-Briggs (the extroverted and organised type of person most likely to run for student council president). College fundraising offices love the Color Code, which among other things tells you who can best work the phones (yellows).
Often, the tests aren’t a diagnosis but are more of an opening for people to talk about the softer parts of office life: their relationships. Identifying as a Blue, through the Color Code, might not feel all that relevant to quarterly sales quotas — but at least, among teammates, it can be a conversation starter.
“The biggest thing that hit me over the head was that I really care about people’s perceptions,” said Robyn Ross, the head of people and talent at Burgundy Asset Management, describing her experience taking the PrinciplesYou assessment, which revealed that she is an “inspirer". “My natural inclination is to take care of people.”
To Ross, that result explained why it had been so hard for her to call Burgundy’s 150 employees back to the office. “Asking people to do things they don’t naturally want to do was quite tough for me,” she said. “It has been such a godsend to see it through this test.”
Caitlin MacGregor, who co-founded Plum, a research-backed testing company, attributes her initial zest for personality testing to an experiment she conducted for a previous employer. She winnowed a pool of 80 job applicants down to two: one who stood out on a resume and one who stood out in a psychometric assessment. She hired both; her boss had said the cost of picking the wrong person was US$300,000. The applicant who outperformed on the psychometric test rose to the company’s top ranks within a year and a half.
MacGregor argues that an element of equity can be built into testing, when it’s done right, because it can identify “diamonds in the rough” who have natural abilities instead of fancy degrees. This can be even more essential when interviewers aren’t meeting candidates in person.
“For a long time, people were comfortable making decisions around talent based on face-to-face interactions,” she said. “More and more companies have a distributed workforce. It’s harder than ever to get to know your people.”
In a territory as fraught as personality — how people are and could be — it’s no surprise that disagreements have sprung up as the tests have spread. Psychologists argue over the validity and fairness of different assessments and, recently, whether the tests have kept pace with the changing workplace and workforce. After all, a test developed a century ago might be tough to use for gauging whether an employee will feel fulfilled if she never meets her boss except on Zoom.
In remote workplaces, “it’s a different style of working, which means different characteristics will matter", said Matt Spencer, who in 2019 started a personality testing company called Suited. “Initiative, self-direction, ability to manage one’s time, the way somebody collaborates.”
Personality testing was largely an outgrowth of World War I. The US military wanted to screen for soldiers who had “weak constitutions” and might be more susceptible to what was then called shell shock, so it created a test, the Woodworth Personal Data Sheet, with questions like: “Did you ever think you had lost your manhood?” Not long after, a Carl Jung-obsessed homemaker, Katharine Cook Briggs, and her daughter, Isabel Myers, developed their own personality inventory, despite having no psychological training, which they started distributing in 1943. Each year, more than 2 million people now determine their Myers-Briggs type.
Those early assessments were trying to pin down answers to an existential question: Who are you? Wallflower or life of the party? Flighty or reliable? Alternative tests have since emerged, especially ones aiming to assess what sorts of personal projects people like to do instead of the traits they possess (or think they possess). Today there are more than 2,000 kinds of personality assessments — though very few have a research base behind them, according to Brian Little, a personality testing expert and author of Me, Myself, and Us.
New research-backed assessments continue to flood the market. PrinciplesYou, which Little helped create, maps people according to personality dimensions (givers, fighters, enthusiasts), which its website illustrates as archipelagos separated by waters labeled with traits like “tough” and “humble". The test is free, and the workshops offered in workplaces cost slightly more than US$1,000, according to Principles, which makes PrinciplesYou.
There’s also Suited, which is designed for law firms and banks to base hiring decisions on character and not just education. It can cost from high five figures to low six figures, depending on the client’s size and needs, according to the company, adding that this cost covers recruiting services beyond just testing.
“Resumes are a better predictor of past privilege than future potential,” said Spencer, CEO of Suited.
Recently, Spencer watched a law firm use a Suited assessment to upend the results of a hiring process. Two of the four employees who interviewed a job candidate didn’t want to hire her for a summer programme, but she sparkled on Suited, so the firm took a chance on her. That personality test offered an unorthodox perspective on the applicant — something besides GPA, or whether she cracked a joke to her interviewers.
Today, there’s mounting pressure on companies to gather those perspectives on their workers, as executives wrestle with costly decisions about whether to require in-person office work or even keep office space. At the very least, personality testing can give companies the vocabulary to talk about how their workers like to socialise: Whether they crave water cooler banter, or dread the holiday party.
That’s what Zack Wieder, CEO of Principles, has witnessed as he leads personality workshops for remote companies. Many of the people he is coaching have never met their teammates in person. They’re looking to a PrinciplesYou assessment as a catalyst for intimate conversations like: Does this manager who comes across as extremely buttoned-up consider himself a sociable guy? Or why does this one employee loathe the idea of going back to the office?
The product development team at Canadian Tire used PrinciplesYou testing last year to have deeper conversations about people’s career paths.
“I shared my profile with the whole team very openly,” said Anthony Wolf, a Canadian Tire vice president. “One of the first things we had to make sure people understood is that there’s no perfect profile.”
By Emma Goldberg © 2023 The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.