Why Personality Tests Limit Leadership

This is the first post in a series on personality tests at work, written by Dr. Kim Perkins.

I’m a research psychologist, and I’ve been studying the types of people who read our newsletter. Here’s what I found out about you:

You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. You have a great need for other people to like and admire you, while also tending to be very critical of yourself. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety, and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not yet turned to your advantage.

Did this ring true for you? I hope so. Because I just described pretty much every human alive.

These statements come from a famous experiment about personality, demonstrating that people will believe anything about themselves as long as it is generally descriptive of humans, slightly flattering, and presented as the result of personalized, scientific inquiry.

What psychologists mean by “personality” is a set of personal characteristics that do not change over time. With a few exceptions, that is not something the most popular personality tests can deliver: your MBTI profile, for example, is about as scientific as your Hogwarts house or zodiac sign. Nonetheless, tests purporting to describe personality are a very common part of leader development programs, meant to help people understand themselves and each other better, with the reasonable expectation that if we develop more self-awareness, we will be better able to understand and influence the effect we have on others.

Despite their popularity, there is surprisingly little hard evidence to demonstrate that personality tests help us become more significantly self-aware. We expect tests to predict our behavior IRL, and by and large, they do not. What they are great at, though, is reinforcing stories about ourselves—ones that often get in the way of our growth.

Our experience of people having consistent, rigid personalities is somewhat of an illusion. We go to lunch with Shirley and she makes a predictably cynical joke—that’s Shirley, so cynical! But is it really Shirley, or is it our own cognitive biases? Our cognitive biases lead us to 1) give more weight to unusual traits, like cynicism, and 2) prefer consistency in our stories and explanations of behaviors. We fail to notice all the instances where Shirley could have responded in a cynical manner, and did not. (Unless, of course, someone’s behavior strongly violates our expectations: “Can you believe Cynical Shirley just told us to have a nice day?”) That’s why we say that personality tests do not truly predict our behavior in any given situation.

We experience our own behavior very differently than we experience others’ behavior. We notice those opportunities for cynicism that we don’t take, and we think of ourselves as choosing our actions. The “description” of you I shared—the one describing you as sometimes liking change and variety, but not all the time? That’s related to the reason we like personality tests: they nail down a consistent image of ourselves, which brings some certainty, and humans crave certainty above all else. Wouldn’t it be so great to know our strengths and limitations, once and for all, so that we can know what we should and shouldn’t take on?

And this is where using personality as a test of who we really are can get us in trouble. Confirming a consistent identity may feel great in the moment, but makes it harder to embrace change. The more committed I am to my identity as an INTP, the more I will believe it is normal and right for me to take forever to get around to tasks, and I will have an excuse not to change – even if it is clear that learning not to procrastinate would be a big win for my team and me.

And yet change we must. If there is one truism in leadership, it is that what got us here, won’t get us there. As a coach, I work with a lot of executives right when they land that sought-after promotion, and the bigger the new job, the more likely that some of their old leadership habits will be an active hindrance in their new role. So thinking of your personality as fixed and static? Not helpful. At all.

If personality tests don’t lead to optimal growth, what does?

  • Habit checks. Much of what we consider our personality is just a collection of habits, which can easily become outmoded as our lives and circumstances change. Instead of looking for a core personality, ask yourself: What’s important to me now, and who do I want to be in the service of those things? What habits are serving that end, and which are not? You can learn more about habits here.

  • Questioning your motivation. What if your personality isn’t driving your choices, but rather, your estimation of risk vs. reward? If you believe you haven’t lived up to your capacities, for instance, instead of looking for a “fatal flaw,” ask yourself what’s demotivating you from doing the things you should. Often this can yield valuable insight.

  • High expectations. When you are in a position of authority, people grow (and shrink) according to your expectations. When your coworkers express ambitions that make you skeptical, instead of laying odds on their chances or making sure they have thought through the unfavorable conditions, just suspend disbelief and act as if success is a foregone conclusion. Then ask how you can help.

Read Part II of the series to learn about how personality tests can affect how you build your team.


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