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How useful is personality testing in the workplace?

Are you an extrovert or an introvert? A thinker or a feeler? Are you neurotic or emotionally stable? And most importantly, what can these innate personality traits predict about your future work performance?

Personality tests, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), and its more modern compatriots, have long been sold by consulting companies as the a-game in recruitment, team-building and professional development. But they are not without detractors: many within the scientific community consider this style of personality testing to be problematic.

Dr Jeromy Anglim, a Lecturer in the School of Psychology at Deakin University, has a background of extensive research into personality. He says that while these tests diverge from how the scientific mainstream typically conceptualise personality, they shouldn’t be dismissed entirely. ‘They seem to be giving people a language for talking about individual differences and personal styles which many people find useful.’

A simplified view of personality

The MBTI, developed in the 1940s, is based on Carl Jung’s theory that there are eight main personality types. According to this school of thought, there are categories of people and we sit in either one camp or another. ‘It seems like people like to think of themselves as extroverts or introverts,’ Dr Anglim says. ‘They like to see themselves as belonging to a particular category.’

Despite our desire to be put into boxes, the idea of humans falling into neat categories is a simplification. ‘The consensus in psychology is that people sit on a distribution – a bell curve, so to speak – and most people are somewhere in the middle. That’s one way that science differs from these tests; we conceptualise personality traits on a continuum.’

If you are sitting a personality test for the first time – whether for a prospective role or within your current job – you might have some anxiety about what secrets it could reveal. According to Dr Anglim, you don’t need to worry.

‘I think Myers-Briggs makes quite a bit of effort to frame personality in mostly positive ways. Nothing is too offensive; everything has a positive spin.’ This resistance to hone in on negative traits makes these tests less offensive in professional development contexts, but may also reduce the predictive validity.

But wait a minute, is it possible to have a ‘bad’ personality? Aren’t we all just beautiful, unique snowflakes? Well, sort of.

Dr Anglim gives an example: ‘In general, people who are conscientious are more socially desirable than people who are not conscientious. Conscientious people apply themselves to their jobs and their education. They’re diligent in relation to their health and lifestyle behaviours, they’re diligent in how they relate to their families, they’re task oriented – this is generally considered to be good stuff.’

Similarly, agreeableness can be seen as a positive trait rather than being angry or rude or hostile.

'It seems like people like to think of themselves as extroverts or introverts, they like to see themselves as belonging to a particular category.'

Dr Jeromy Anglim,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

Personality as a predictor

Dr Anglim believes the general idea of personality testing in the workplace is sound: personality does make a difference when it comes to performance.

‘There is enough research now; thousands of studies that show that personality tests can predict task performance, counterproductive work behaviour and citizenship behaviour. It can also predict job satisfaction. And it makes sense that employers are keen to know whether someone is likely to apply themselves conscientiously to a job, perform ethical behaviours and be less likely to engage in bullying, harassment and theft.’

Dr Anglim says when it comes to science, the dominant model of personality is the Big Five. ‘It’s come about through thousands of studies, often using what they call the lexical approach where they basically got the whole dictionary of adjectives that describe humans and got people to rate people on these adjectives and then looked at which of these attributes co-occur. They found that there were five main groupings of adjectives that humans use to describe people: conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness and extroversion.’

Tests grounded in theory of the Big Five may be useful for things like recruitment, particularly when conducted by those with psychological qualifications. Dr Anglim says that some employers treat personality tests as a kind of an insurance policy. ‘It’s not so much about predicting job performance but trying to avoid hiring someone that might damage the reputation of the company.’

Despite this, there are more reliable ways to predict who is the best match for which roles. ‘A rule of thumb is that cognitive ability testing is generally better at predicting job performance than personality testing,’ Dr Anglim says. ‘Cognitive ability testing is an excellent predictor of actual job performance especially in cognitively demanding jobs.’

Is honesty the best policy?

Dr Anglim is often asked how he would advise a close friend if they had to sit a personality test for a new job or promotion. ‘At the end of the day, if someone really is not a good fit for a job and then they get the job it’s not good for them. It can be a waste of their time and a bunch of stress.’

He says that while most people can look at a test and have some idea of what a good answer might be, people generally don’t answer that way. ‘You never know exactly what an employer is looking for. There are lots of different tests out there and they are all structured in different ways. Different employers are looking for different things. I wouldn’t overanalyse the situation – just put your best foot forward.’

Are you more introverted or extroverted? Read more about these personality traits and take our test here.

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Dr Jeromy Anglim
Dr Jeromy Anglim

Lecturer, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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