How to separate the method from the madness

by Ana Lopez

Professor of IDE Psychology. CEO of to fita multi-method digital talent platform.

In my work as a leader of talent assessments, one of the most common questions I get asked by organizations is “What role does personality play in success at work?” Whether conducting talent assessments for succession planning in a corporate environment, advising a company on a hiring decision, or providing feedback on leadership development coaching, there is always a keen interest in understanding a candidate’s personality composition and whether or not it will have a impact on performance in a role. At the risk of the standard psychologist’s rendition of “there’s no right or wrong answer,” the honest response is: it depends.

Personality assessment in work environments is nothing new. Used first by the military to measure soldiers’ combat readiness, tools have evolved over time, becoming more sophisticated and branching into different applications, such as team roles and derailment behavior. As technology progressed, adaptive testing became possible and today candidates can get instant feedback through artificial intelligence. Times have changed, but personality as a predictor of success at work is still questioned. Rightly so, it remains a controversial and scrutinized area of ​​organizational science. However, if used properly, personality assessment can play an important role in building a thriving and high-performing workforce. A few guidelines can help business leaders distinguish method from madness.

1. Personality is a measure of preference.

A range of personality theories exist, with the Big Five personality model perhaps the best known. The only similarity between the established theories is that they refer to personality as a set of traits. In practice, this means that personality is a combination of our natural preferred approaches when dealing with people, working with new ideas or organizing information. Our tendency to approach different situations in our unique way is determined by our personality. But personality and competence are not the same thing. Being open to working on new ideas is no guarantee that person can execute concepts or think critically to assess a gap in the market. Similarly, being more introverted does not automatically mean that he or she is unable to build networks, deliver engaging presentations, and form quality relationships with people.

2. Personality is contextual.

Simply put, work environments require a situational approach. A sales role can require a lot of interaction and relationship building. An analyst role could be more focused on research and methodical application. In our thinking, and especially in work situations, we tend to think in binary terms – a person is not extraverted or introverted or unstructured or structured in planning. The truth is that it is much more complex than that. Work environments require a versatile and varied set of behaviors, based on the situation (this is where the term situational leadership comes from). And in a highly dynamic, modern work environment, the ability to quickly adapt to the context has become an important part of being a successful professional. Flexibility – a certain fluidity of skills – is needed. Let’s say on Monday you have to strategize, think big and conceptualize the future, but on Tuesday you have to implement, operationalize and execute. Both are important. It’s about understanding the requirements of the job – the key capabilities that will serve as a foundation in defining success for the role.

3. Personality is only part of the mix.

Using personality assessments as the sole determinant of job success is irresponsible at best. I’ve seen how the (mis)use of personality measures as the sole predictor of job success can wreak havoc on careers. It is the biggest source of controversy in the field of vocational assessment. If there’s one thing I particularly advocate for in assessment, be it recruitment, promotion or succession planning, it’s the use of a multi-method approach. This means personality one part of the equation, but certainly not the only part. Aptitude (cognitive reasoning), work sample testing (simulations and case studies), situational judgment, and competency-based interviews are all part of the mix to bring out a robust assessment and form a comprehensive picture of one’s potential to perform in a work role . It provides the hiring manager with the data needed to make a more informed decision, and it gives the candidate a fair chance to showcase his or her talent to the fullest. When done right, everyone wins.

4. Personality is a science.

We’ve all indulged in the guilty pleasure of taking the odd personality survey on the Internet or in magazines. While these quizzes are fun to complete, they are far from scientific. Personality assessments deployed in a work environment must be proven psychometric tools, meaning that the tool must be error-free, valid, reliable, and must be empirically proven to have been administered in large sample groups with sufficient scientific attributes. They must report based on theoretically sound dimensions and must be confirmed as free of bias towards a group of persons based on ethnicity, culture or language. Here’s a simple litmus test: ask if the measure has published psychometric properties, i.e., used large samples, has been peer-reviewed, and has been made available to everyone in the public.

Personality tests are neither good nor bad as a proposition. And realistically, they will remain an essential part of vocational assessments well into the future. The question is not in using these tools, but rather in avoiding bad practices that adversely affect the candidate and do more harm than good. Personality is diverse and we need different perspectives, ideas and styles to win business. Personality measurements therefore play an enduring role. As long as assessments are applied with the required contextual understanding of the test’s strengths and weaknesses, used in a wider range of tools, and proven to be scientifically reliable and valid, personality assessments can have real and tangible value in the workplace.


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