Personality Tests and Workplace Conflict

“This will never work!” wailed Kiersten. The office had just gone through personality testing and Kiersten was a “blue,” but her heretofore excellent assistant, Leela, was a “red.” In Kiersten’s mind, that spelled doom for their relationship. How could she trust her when they were so different? That was the beginning of the end for Leela, who, after getting shut out of project after project, reluctantly decided to leave the company.

In theory, personality testing should help us understand each other, and therefore interact, better. If I know that you’re an extrovert and I’m an introvert, and we’re both aware of our biases, then surely we can avoid escalating matters. 

If only! Since I began writing this series, I’ve heard more than a few stories of personality test results being used to justify informal political choices. (“We are all P’s and George is a J– he’ll just push for results too fast and kill our larger process, so let’s not tell him about this.”

When we receive training that focuses on personality, the point is often to get us to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. But how well does that really work? 

Recently researchers undertook a series of 25 experiments where they gave participants a profile of another participant in the study, asked them to imagine what it was like to be that other person, and then predict that person’s thoughts, feelings, attitudes and moods. This exercise made people feel much more confident that they understood the other person better, but it made them much worse at predicting how the other person was actually thinking and feeling.

Why? Our innate egocentrism. People were able to imagine being in the other person’s situation, but responded the way they themselves would, not the way the other person would. But there was one weird trick that did significantly boost people’s accuracy in predicting others’ behavior: talking with them. Asking the other person questions and listening to the answers helped people predict the other person’s thoughts and feelings, in a way that merely imagining themselves in the other person’s position did not.

There is often a temptation to use personality differences to explain away conflicts. And so when two executives disagree on a complex issue, defining the conflict in terms of personality differences only magnifies the problem.

When we see our personalities as dictating our positions on issues, our positions become entrenched and highly personal. Conflicts start to look like competitions. We focus on the discomfort of the present moment, and we don’t notice that the other person is bringing in new information that might lead to an even stronger solution.

So what can you do to avoid the personality trap at work?

  • Get curious. Instead of thinking of a person’s positions as who they inherently are, think of it as somewhere they’ve been. What are they seeing that is different than what you’re seeing? Question their position with a tone of curiosity rather than doubt.

  • Build psychological safety. Have everyone go see a movie and talk about what they saw. This will serve some of the ends of personality testing: giving people practice at discussing a phenomenon from different points of view, without the labels and baggage attached. 

  • Allow room to grow. The people around you are not sitcom characters, falling into the same patterns week after week. If you want to get to know them better, try Peter Drucker’s trick: write down your predictions about how the people around you will ultimately behave in a given situation, then follow up to see what they actually did. There will be plenty of surprises.

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



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