By Mark Richards.

Personality tests are being used more and more frequently in business. The traditional approach was to dread them and deride them as a waste of time. But as companies and organisations increasingly look for different talents in a rapidly-changing world, it might be time to look forward to them…

Some time around the turn of the century – the last century – a lady called Katherine Cook Briggs went to a dinner party. It seems safe to say that the dinner party was not a success as Katharine immediately went back home and started researching different personality types – and why they do not get on with each other.

This interest grew as Katharine’s daughter, Isabel, met Clarence Myers, the man she would marry. Katharine wanted to understand Clarence’s personality type – and clearly, that is where I am going wrong. The first question I ask when my daughter brings a new boyfriend home is ‘which football team does he support?’

Working with her daughter, Katherine gradually developed the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, a self-report questionnaire that indicated how people perceive the world, and how they make decisions.

This is not the place for a detailed analysis of the Jungian theories they based the work on, but Katharine and Isabel came up with 16 different personality types covering four basic questions:

  • Are you outwardly or inwardly focused?
  • How do you like to take in information?
  • How do you prefer to make decisions?
  • How do you prefer to live your outer life?

Decisions, decisions…

So how do you prefer to make decisions? In any impersonal way using logic and reasoning? Do you like to please other people? Or do you value justice and fairness above everything else?

As I say in the introduction, millions of people have at some point sat in a job interview puzzling over questions like that and thinking, ‘I’m an engineer. I can fix machines. What does it matter how I make decisions?’

Except that personality tests have become big business, and more and more companies are now relying on them in the recruitment process. One of my clients is an employment agency – and they are increasingly using personality tests. Their rationale is simple: you need to not only be able to do the job, but you also need to fit into the culture of the company as well. As the MD said to me, “A 7 who fits is far better than a 9 who doesn’t fit.” Or as Richard Branson put it, “Most skills can be learned, but it is far more difficult to train a personality.”

It’s not just Myers Briggs…

Virtually every company of any size now uses personality tests. Myers Briggs continues to be one of the most widely used, but there are four others in common use that you may have come across:

The Big Five looks at the five broad dimensions most people recognise in personality testing: extraversion, openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness and neuroticism (often shortened to the acronym OCEAN or CANOE). These will, apparently, provide a great insight into how someone new will fit into the existing team.

Occupational interest inventories measure how interested someone is in a particular role, so they are primarily a tool for increasing retention and making sure that people work in the role they are best suited to.

Situational Judgement Tests (SJTs) are generally used to see how someone will interact with customers, or how they will handle challenging situations. They put employees in situations that occur frequently in the business and help to decide whether you should be – to use that dreadful term – ‘customer-facing.’

Finally, many people will have come across DISC behaviour inventories, which help organisations find out more about someone’s tendencies towards dominance, influence, support and control (although some substitute ‘steadiness’ and ‘conscientiousness’ for the S and the C). More of DISC later…

If you always do…

Testing the Right Personality

There is a very common – and very accurate – saying in business: ‘if you always do what you have always done then you will always get what you have always got.’ There is a parallel to this in recruitment and personality testing. ‘If you always hire who you have always hired…’ Then, ultimately, you are going to end up with a very boring company, with all your employees thinking the same way.

That might make the monthly meetings easy to manage, but with the business world changing ever more quickly, it might also be a short cut to calling in the administrators. Some organisations are starting to recognise this, and realising that they need to hire people who think and act differently.

A very good example is GCHQ which makes much of its commitment to a neurodiverse workforce, actively looking to recruit people who suffer from conditions such as Asperger’s and Autism. As the GCHQ website puts it, “daring to think differently and be different.”

Why do they want people like that? Because in the world of GCHQ an obsessive attention to detail, a talent for spotting anomalies in trends and patterns and an ability to make rigidly logical, science-based decisions is exactly what they are looking for.

Sadly, there are still middle-aged men…

So if the thought of a personality test makes you ill with worry that you might not fit in, then take heart. The world of work is moving in your favour.

But sadly, there are still middle-aged men (they are always men) who have taken a personality test and strut around the office saying, “I’ve taken a personality test and I’m a high D. Dominant, you know…”

These are the people who have read that a good manager is like a psychopath, and who have only ever read one book on management, The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun.

According to the book, Attila did say, ‘Never arbitrate. Arbitration allows a third party to determine your destiny. It is the resort of the weak.’

I have to say that I doubt that a 5th Century Hun used the word ‘arbitration.’ Then again, it is a maxim that Theresa May might have usefully taken to Brussels with her…

For myself, I realised that the time had come to leave the corporate world when a forty-something manager, overweight, receding hair and the type of man who bullied his subordinates and crawled to his superiors said, with all seriousness, “There is no ‘I’ in team.”

Some of you may know the standard rejoinder to that. Around 20 people in his audience said it, some of us quite loudly…