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Personality Tests – Valuable Insights Or Hocus Pocus?

A while ago, a friend (let’s call her Anna) told me about a personality test she had done during her first job. It was the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator that was the standard of profiling when she and I started our working lives decades ago.

“Aaaah. You must be a ISTJ!” was the reaction from a colleague on Anna’s first day at the job. Anna was not pleased about being put in a box within minutes of an encounter.

I’ll be honest with you. Whenever I come across an online personality test, I’m likely to do it. I like that ego boost which most tests provide: they praise you to the sky. I get the same out of glancing at horoscopes (which I do twice a year, when browsing through magazines at the dentist’s): it’s wonderful to take in all the good things that are going to happen to my love life, my career, my health and my wealth (I just ignore it when it brings bad news).

Sadly, many profiling tests should be put in the same box as horoscopes: fun entertainment with little substance and on the level of ‘Keeping Up With The Kardashians’.

To me, what’s wrong with profiling is that people are put into boxes: regardless whether it’s two, four or 16 boxes.

However, personality tests or profiling can be useful if you have other objectives.

Appropriate objectives for testing include:

1. Improving your understanding that personalities simply differ. A lot. We have different world views, we like different things, and we respond differently. A higher awareness that we’re all unique is the first step toward a better understanding and a greater acceptance of each other’s different approaches and reactions. We learn to step into each other’s shoes. Avoid boxes, though. They put you right back into bias-mode.

2. Reaching higher self-awareness. Knowing what you are good at is a highly valuable insight. It makes you more successful when you know what to focus on, and what you should find alternative solutions for. Working on your weaknesses will cost a lot more energy than focusing on your strengths, so the more you are aware of your strengths and weaknesses, the better you can play them in your favour. Take a left-hander, for example: if you’re a left-hander, don’t try to become a right-hander. It will cost you too much energy and leave you frustrated. You’re not likely to match the skills of a natural right-hander. (Don’t let this be an excuse for not improving your skills! I’m a very strong believer in lifelong learning.)

For the first objective – truly understanding how we’re all different and increasing your awareness of different world views – almost any test will do. You will get insights from tests as long as you reflect on the fact that your view of the world is biased and based on your life experiences, knowledge and traits. Even if you have a skilled coach to explore the consequences of you, with your personal traits, interacting with others, you’ll profit tremendously: your people interactions will become much smoother and frustrations will be reduced.

In my previous company, applicants are required to do a psychometric test, based on the theory that the most productive employees had a certain pattern of results. It was also used to ensure that teams had the right personality mix. I personally felt judged, and I also saw that this test was denying opportunities for thousands of capable applicants. The test also failed to predict what teams worked constructively together, because this is not just based on personality, but also factors such as stress, past experience, mood swings and much more. These factors influence test results, and team collaboration.

– Former forced test subject

Regarding the second objective – gaining an awareness of your true strengths and weaknesses – do a test that provides a true picture of yourself. Many are just too simple to truly reflect who we are as complex human beings. If they put you in a box, perhaps they won’t give you the deep insight you’re looking for. And you’re looking for a deep insight – we all already have the shallower knowledge.

I have used the personality test as a way to understand myself better and to work on improving myself. We all already have a general idea of what our personality is like, but reading about it and having actual words to attach to our “vague notions” concretize and contextualizes things.”

– Myers-Briggs user

Same system – different results

As research for this article, I did three free Myers-Briggs tests online. Admittedly, free tests are perhaps not of the highest quality, but if reputable organisations make them available, I expect that the outcome is at least somewhat reliable. Unfortunately, that was not the case. I ended up with three different results, of which two were each other’s exact opposites: ENFP and ISTJ. So am I Extroverted or Introverted; Intuitive or Sensing; Thinking or Feeling; Judging or Perceiving?

Luckily, I do have a bit of a better insight. A paid-for test that took 30 minutes to complete opened my eyes to why I was more successful in certain positions compared to others. The results revealed to me that I have strengths that I can build on, and weaknesses where I’m much better off compensating for them, for instance by delegating to people who are better at them.

This all leads me to the point that I would like to make: do one of the good tests out there. If I had the strong insight into my strengths and weaknesses much earlier in my life, I could have saved myself from jobs that were frustrating and obviously no match to my skills.

If you have a deep insight into your strengths, you can be more successful at each step, more fulfilled, and you could potentially climb the career ladder faster.

The investment is small, and the returns in fulfilment very high.

This article was first published in Huffington Post.

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