Personality tests: hocus pocus or useful business tool?

In my work coaching business owners and managers, I am regularly asked for my opinion on personality testing. Are they accurate/useful/worth the investment? Should all staff (existing and potential) take one? Can they help business owners lead their team more effectively?

As a business coach, I can see the value of taking someone’s personality into account when putting together a team. These types of tests certainly offer a framework for assessing whether an individual is a good cultural fit, how they could potentially approach and respond to certain situations or tasks and even their preferred management style.

Basically, personality testing profiles a person’s strengths, as well as areas where they may need adjustment, support or development. That’s definitely useful information to have.

But what are personality tests? Are they accurate? What are some of the pros and cons for a business owner trying to decide whether to use them in their business?

Let’s take a look.


What are personality tests?

The personality tests used for business purposes are usually self-report questionnaires. Subjects are asked to respond to a series of questions and are categorised based on their personality traits and behaviours.


Are personality tests accurate?

These tests have been developed by psychologists and behavioural scientists who claim that the questions have been carefully designed to overcome biases; they are worded in such a way that participants aren’t able to work out what the question is trying to measure.

That said it is definitely possible to ‘beat’ a personality test. You also can’t control for how seriously a subject takes the process, how honest they are with their answers or the level of self-insight they possess. Indeed, it’s been said that the only true measure of a person’s character is how they behave when no one is looking (but this would be almost impossible to measure ethically!).

My business advice? The vast majority of people take a personality test fairly seriously and try to be as honest as they can. Don’t worry about what you can’t control. I would mentor business owners to be more concerned with what to do with the results.


How to use personality tests in your business

As an experienced business coach, I would never advise that a business owner use a personality test as the only measure to make hiring decisions, to assign tasks or to inform their leadership style. It would be akin to making decisions based solely on someone’s horoscope.

Personality tests are, however, a useful tool to have in your leadership toolbox.

In a hiring context, it’s an opportunity to find out more about a candidate than you might from interviews alone. (For more tips and advice on recruiting, see our article: Face to face interview )

In a team-building context, it’s a structured exercise that could help you all understand how each other works most effectively. As a business advisor, I can think of many examples where valuable team discussions were sparked by personality testing.


Deciding whether (or not) to use personality tests in your business: the pros and cons

Pros of personality testing

  • They provide a relatively unbiased framework for assessing a candidate in a hiring situation
  • They provide a broad idea of a candidate’s personality, allowing you to see how they gel with your existing team
  • They could help business owners better understand how to deliver feedback or criticism to an individual in a way that they will be most receptive to
  • They may give some insight into how a potential or existing employee might react in a certain situation
  • They can be a fun exercise for team-building purposes

Cons of personality testing

  • There’s a risk of relying too heavily on the data collected – even where it goes against a business owner’s own face-to-face observations and gut feel
  • It’s easy to get hung up on what you now believe about an employee based on their test results. For example, if the ideal conditions prescribed by the test for giving them feedback aren’t possible just now, you may avoid having an important discussion, which could then delay a project’s progress or completion.
  • There are elements you can’t control: you can’t be sure how seriously a candidate or employee has taken the test
  • Not all participants have the self-insight to accurately rate their responses
  • The tests can be expensive and time consuming


What personality tests are available for business owners to choose from?

Be careful just searching for a free online personality test – they’re likely to be about the same quality as a BuzzFeed quiz on which pizza topping you are.

You are best off going straight to the source and purchasing access to one of these widely known and respected tools:

  • DiSC profiling – this assesses people for Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Conscientiousness. Get an overview of DISC testing.
  • Myers-Briggs Type Indicator – this is one of the original tools developed and aims to measure personality across a range of categories: introvert/extrovert, how one processes information, decision making style and how one deals with structure. You end up with 4 letters that tell you which category you fall into; you may have heard people describe themselves as “INFJ” or “ENTP” etc. Get more information about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.
  • Hermann Brain – this test aims to examine the brain according to four quadrants: Analytical, Experimental, Practical and Relational. The theory is that we use different parts of the brain in different situations and that a better understanding of the way we think can help improve communication, decision-making, problem solving and performance. Find out more about the Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument.


The results are in…

Bottom line: if you are thinking of trying out personality testing in your business, on balance it looks like something that’s worth trying. As a business coach, I would advise business owners to maintain perspective about the results – you can’t truly reduce people to a colour or a bunch of letters and make key decisions on that basis. However, there’s potentially a lot of great insight to be gained from these tools that could help you build, develop and lead a team with a positive and productive culture. It could also help employees, on an individual level, identify their own strengths and areas for improvement – often a very welcome (and sometimes even life-changing) experience.