Why you shouldn't get testy with personality tests

Friday, May 20, 2016 - 12:23

By AIM Senior Research Fellow Dr Samantha Johnson

Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves - Carl Jung

Ever heard someone say, ‘That’s just the way I am, like it or lump it!’?  Or, ‘I can’t help being angry, I don’t suffer fools easily!’  How do you respond to these statements?

I have to admit, they make me cringe. 

It’s ok to be yourself, in fact, it’s more than ok, it’s imperative.

It’s ok to be intellectual or clever and enjoy being with like-minded people.

But these statements suggest two things to me that are not ok.  While it’s ok to be yourself, it’s even better to be a well-managed version of you and that means taking some responsibility for helping others to accept you and interact comfortably with you.

While it’s ok to hang with clever people who are like you, it’s not ok to assume that those who differ, are foolish.

Assuming you see some sense in my perspective, what do you do about it?  How do you help others accept you more and how do you see the good in those who may otherwise appear foolish?

Self-acceptance and acceptance of others is paramount.

Many organisations use personality inventories to help us understand ourselves and understand others.  These inventories, such as the MBTI or the suite of DiSC profiles are as well regarded by some people as they are despised by others.  So who do you believe?  The promoters or the critiques?  If you undertake one of these tests, do you accept the results or do you reject them?

The answer is somewhere in between. 

These tools are designed to help us gain insight into some common personality or behavioural tendencies.  Without these, we’d have a hell of a time understanding ourselves or other people because we are simply too complex. 

People are far more complex than their MBTI suggests, that doesn’t mean that the MBTI is weak or flawed.  It’s because people are so complex that these tools can be helpful. They help us understand ourselves and other people.  They are not designed to identify the myriad of tendencies and complexities embedded in each of us.  They’re designed to give us insight into some general, everyday tendencies so that we can be a little better at managing ourselves and accepting others.

Problems arise when personality tests are used to identify capability or skills or predict a person’s success in a role.  Recruiters would be wise to forgo this type of testing in recruitment processes and managers would be wise not to use them in a skills audit. 

There are also problems when people exaggerate tendencies or make assumptions about people based on their MBTI result or another profile.  Like anything, understanding the purpose, value and use is important.

These tools are beneficial to help people gain self-awareness and self-understanding and some of the personality inventories out there are better than others.  It’s always a good idea to work with professionals and use the tests that are reliable and valid.

While there is danger in the over use or poor use of these tools, there is also danger in a world where self-awareness, self-understanding and self-management are low and acceptance of others is poor.  These tools help us manage these risks and improve everyday relationships.  They’re not designed to cause harm, to judge or to discriminate. 

The truth is, that we all go through life trying to understand ourselves and others.  We can all judge people and often we judge quite harshly.  Some people may even believe that the way they are is superior to others.  Some of us have psychological training and can draw from that in our professions and in life.  For others, understanding the complexity that is human behaviour, is a mind field, filled with unforeseen traps and dangers.

Failing to understand personality inventories and using them inappropriately is of great concern.  Eradicating them altogether is also a worrying proposition.  Ideally, they should be used to help people help to themselves. They are informative. That’s all.  And they can give us very helpful information.

Enjoy being you and accept yourself for who you are.  But manage yourself well so that you have a positive impact on others. 

Enjoy being with like-minded people, but avoid thinking that those who differ are foolish. 

Take advantage of the opportunities out there that enhance self-awareness and an understanding of self and others, there’s always benefit in that. But use this knowledge well.  Understanding other people should never be used to judge, discriminate or cause harm. Understanding yourself and others is the platform for building better relationships and successful lives. 

We put a great deal of energy into assessing other people’s behaviour and judging their tendencies.  It’s far better to turn that energy inward and learn about ourselves and our own behaviour.  Embrace those who differ from you, as Dr Jung very wisely said, you’ll learn something about yourself.