A growing number of organizations are using personality assessments for the many benefits they offer teams — including improving communication, reducing conflict and increasing productivity. The New York Times recently examined this trend and how assessments are being used by organizations navigating rapidly changing work norms — including the shift to hybrid and remote workplaces. The article also details some criticism about personality testing, including how often the tools have been validated based on modern research.
As personality assessments in the workplace become increasingly popular, it’s only natural that people will have more questions and misconceptions about these tools and how to apply them. I sat down with Molly Owens, CEO and Founder of Truity, to discuss the growth in personality testing in the workplace, what to know about test validation and accuracy, common misconceptions about these tools, the latest personality research and more.
Why do you think more and more companies are using these tools – now?
Fifty years ago, the workplace was all about conformity. Now advancement is much more complex, and employee expectations are higher. People want to bring their authentic selves to work and find more meaning there. Employers are picking up on this and seeing how useful these tools can be for improving team satisfaction, productivity, communication, emotional intelligence and more. The corporate side of our business has grown by 79% in the past year alone!
Why do you think it's important for individuals and organizations to use scientifically validated personality assessments?
Organizations may not have employees who are trained in how to use personality assessments and who may not realize that some assessments are not validated across a large, representative sample. It’s important to look not only at assessment questions and what an assessment promises to help unlock for your team—productivity, improved collaboration, and better communication, for example—but also to be aware of the assessment’s underlying design and methodology.
Validity and reliability are straightforward measures of how useful an assessment is in a particular application. Reliability tells us whether the assessment gives the same result over multiple testing sessions; validity tells us whether the assessment measures the phenomenon it’s supposed to. Both are measured, analyzed, and optimized for professional-quality assessments. If the assessments have not been validated across current, diverse datasets, they may give results that feel off or irrelevant.
How do you ensure the validity and reliability of personality assessments like the TypeFinder?
We were well aware of the modern criticisms of the 16 types theory when we set out to create an assessment based on this system. It was developed in the 1960s by people who did not have a traditional scientific background, based on Carl Jung’s theory of psychological types. It was also tested on a small, homogeneous group of people. The origins of the theory were not the most rigorous but, despite that, it has gone on to inspire a vast body of research and thinking about human development, teamwork and leadership.
When developing the TypeFinder® we looked at the underlying theory, overlaid it with the latest personality research, and then validated it over large, global and diverse datasets. Within the scientific community, there is a lot of criticism of Myers-Briggs theory-based assessments, and psychologists favor the Big Five test. However, Myers Briggs theory-based tests and the Big Five are actually closely correlated. We looked at the areas of overlap in the development of our test, to see which aspects were sound and which were best left behind.
We also test question sets against a diverse, global sample and refine the concepts and the language based on multiple streams of feedback, both quantitative and qualitative. We analyze our results to ensure our assessments are universal and not overly skewed by gender, culture or other demographic factors. For example, large gender differences in the answers to a particular question might indicate that we need to throw out that question or review the wording for bias.
What do people get wrong about personality tests and personality science?
One major thing is that people can have an almost-violent dislike of personality tests because they don’t want to be put in a box. But putting people in a box is really a misuse of these tools. Personality tests are not intended to produce labels, such as to say, “you’re an INTJ, and I now know everything that could possibly be known about you.” These tests are a starting point or framework to understand how you may think differently than others, meant to increase self-awareness and understanding. They are not an oracle or a blueprint for everything you will ever do, think or say.
Another major misconception is that people dismiss personality assessment as “pop psychology.” It’s understandable, with the popularity of Buzzfeed-style quizzes, that we might start to think of personality tests as silly entertainment, but there’s a big difference between fun quizzes and validated assessments. To say that all personality tests are junk shows a lack of understanding of the field. There are people with PhDs studying personality psychology at every major university; the field is a legitimate academic discipline, dedicated to the study of why and how people think and act differently. There have been hundreds of peer-reviewed research studies on how personality traits influence our decisions, careers, relationships and more! There are certainly a lot of “pop psychology” quizzes everywhere you look, but that doesn’t invalidate the entire academic field of personality psychology.
What does the latest research tell us about personality?
There are a lot of interesting new avenues of research being opened up. We know that the Big Five traits are well-validated and predictive across a number of studies, but there is more and more research into the plasticity of personality over time. Earlier, the understanding was that personality traits were pretty stable or fixed over a lifetime, but research now shows that age, experience, life events and even intentional practices like meditation can have an impact on personality traits.
Truity conducted research late last year across one of the largest datasets of Big Five personality data ever collected (a sample of 2.8 million adults) and found that people’s personality traits changed in response to the pandemic. Similar findings were also validated in a smaller-scale academic research study.
Another interesting line of research is around how much personality traits are informed by nature vs. nurture. More research is pointing to the fact that much of our personality makeup is inborn, and has less to do with our parents or other factors in our environments.