Personality assessments – powerful or pointless?

What’s your type?

Personality assessments, tools like DISC and Myers Briggs, are being overused.  The number of companies using personality assessments to make decisions about who to hire, promote and develop continues to surprise me.  For years now, people have been debunking the validity of personality assessments, particularly for employment related decisions that have real implications for people.  And yet, personality assessments remain prevalent.  I get it!   They are fun to take and talk about.  I am an ENTJ and I have found great enjoyment in discussing Myers Briggs results with colleagues and friends.  Personality assessment results are entertaining in a social atmosphere or can be helpful to explore team dynamics.  But, using a personality assessment to determine who to hire or promote is dangerous.  And, it doesn’t provide a platform for deep leadership development.

As an executive coach, I routinely get asked about using personality assessments as part of the leadership development and coaching process.  Of course, I am willing to include a personality assessment if the client feels it is important.  However, knowing s/he wants to grow in a meaningful way, I always caution against it, and suggest using a different tool instead…a 360-degree assessment.  This kind of assessment can be powerful!  It can increase self-awareness as well as recognition of other’s viewpoints.

What is a 360?

A 360-degree feedback assessment includes a survey that is taken by the employee, the manager, a set of peers and direct reports.  The resulting report provides feedback on various competencies and includes open-ended responses from each of these groups.  The feedback from the peers and direct reports is anonymous to enable people to be totally honest.  Typically, normative data for other respondents in similar jobs is also included to provide a comparison to the average score on each competency

So, what’s wrong with a personality assessment being used for leadership development?  Here are two reasons why I caution against it:

  1. Not everyone is self-aware, so you start from the wrong “facts” – Personality assessments ask questions about the behavior of the person taking the assessment, like: “I am modest about what I have achieved” or “I consider other people’s feelings”.  The results are assumed to be a window into the person’s soul.  However, the accuracy of the results are 100% reliant on the person taking the assessment being self-aware and actually understanding their own behavior.  The problem is, 95% of people think they are self-aware while only 15% of people are actually self-aware.  So, the results you get are skewed by how the person thinks they are seen by others rather than how they are actually seen. 
  2. Humans are much too complex to fit into neat categories – Let’s take the best-case scenario and assume the assessment taker is self-aware and honest when answering the questions.   The results provide a label for his/her personality type.  That could be one of 4 categories (like DISC) or 16 categories (like Myers Briggs).  It doesn’t really matter how many categories there are – because boiling down people’s personalities into one category is an attempt to make something very complex into something too simple.  People are more complicated than that, and don’t fit cleanly into one box or category.  Using these labels can set any development off on the wrong foot and make the person feel boxed in without room to grow beyond their label.  

Kudos if you are using 360-degree feedback for leadership development! The next question is – what should you do with the results?  When 360-degree assessment results are delivered, there can be potent information included – information that the assessment taker can celebrate…and some that is hard to absorb and understand.  Competency strengths and blind spots are identified and called out.  That can feel so unsettling.  Exploring the results and understanding the implications is important to maximize the value of the process.  I encourage working with an executive coach for anyone who has completed a 360-degree assessment.  The coach can help explore the feedback more fully and determine what behaviors and competencies to focus on strengthening or changing.  This follow-up work is where the real growth and development occurs!

If you are looking to increase leadership skills for yourself or other leaders in your organization, you should try the powerful duo of a 360-degree assessment followed by working with an executive coach!

HR4D’s mission is to ensure our client organizations fulfill their visions, by adopting their goals as ours, creating solutions that are right for them, and making the people who hire us professionally successful.  Contact us to learn more!

Jennifer is a seasoned leader and executive coach with more than 20 years experience including as a Chief Human Resources Officer overseeing the HR and Communications functions. She is a Professional Certified Coach through the International Coaching Federation.