Why You Can't Trust Personality Tests When Building a Team

Quick, imagine your typical software engineer. What traits do you expect them to have? Attention to detail, analytical ability, stamina for coding. Sounds like someone who’s a thinker, prefers data to people, is cool and objective; maybe even a little blunt or “on the spectrum.”

If you’re applying for an engineer position and you’re given personality test, you’d hope to come out something like an ISTP or J. And you’d probably be able to: the more accurately you can generate a map of the “ideal” candidate for any job, the more easily your candidate can suss out and fake exactly that personality. When a desirable outcome is at stake, the rational person enhances their answers.

In fact, it’s so easy to fake answers on personality tests that it’s surprising more people don’t do it. You might think that test scores can uncover liars statistically, but it’s not that simple. Researchers have isolated two individual differences that make people more prone to faking: general intelligence (basic smarts) and emotional intelligence (the ability to pick up on the emotional demands of a situation and act accordingly). The problem is, those two types of intelligence are also highly correlated with excellent job performance. So if you rule out the people who are more likely to be faking, you’ll rule out your best candidates!

But what if I told you the most desirable engineers weren’t much like that stereotype at all? What if the very best engineers have highly developed social skills, demonstrate warmth and empathy at the right times, and play really well with others? Now say there’s an engineer with those desirable traits who doesn’t look like the guy you just imagined (and it was a guy, right?) Perhaps this time they are wearing a dress, or an afro, or both. Due to our cognitive biases—our desire to see the complex world as a simple, cohesive story—the more "obvious" the traits that contradict the engineer stereotype, the harder time you will have trusting their engineering skills.

What rules can a smart manager adopt to address this?

  • “What you do” even over “who you are.” Instead of looking to tests to determine personality, when hiring, consider behavioral and situational interviewing questions instead. Behavioral questions sound like: “Please describe a time when you had to work with someone who was difficult to get along with.” Situational questions sound like: “Imagine you were working with a fellow worker whom you knew greatly disliked performing a particular job task—how would you motivate them to do it?”

  • “Culture add” even over “culture fit.” Most of the time, diversity in thinking is desirable on a team (as long as your team also has high trust and an ability to handle conflict). Despite this, we tend to favor people who think like us. Instead of trying to bring in new team members to fit the culture, consider opportunities to add new perspectives instead.

  • “Onboarding” even over “hiring.” Diversity isn’t enough—make sure you are being inclusive with smart and thorough onboarding. People self-organize into in-groups and out-groups over the smallest things. Don’t make personality characteristics one more reason to separate "us" from "them."

    This is the second post in a series on personality tests at work, written by Dr. Kim Perkins. Read Part I on how they affect leadership development.



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