Can Personality Assessments Pigeonhole Employees?

The key is using these tools to make the most of each employee’s strengths while not presuming what they can and cannot do or what roles they might be able to grow into.

I was recently at a conference when the topic of personality assessments came up. The person I was speaking with said his wife is a certified executive and career coach, who also is certified in Myers-Briggs. I proudly proclaimed to him, and to my boss, who was also present, that I was an INFJ. I was proud because I understood my personality type to be among the rarest (i.e., most special?).

My boss had never heard of Myers-Briggs before. I love personality assessments so much that I sent him a link to the Myers-Briggs homepage, and copied and pasted into the e-mail a synopsis of the Myers-Briggs personality types featured in this article by Heather Hartnett, the CEO and general partner at Human Ventures, in Fast Company.

Then a troubling thought came to me: What if I’m limiting my growth opportunities by sharing my personality type with my boss? Will he assume now that I am not capable or willing to participate in more industry conferences and social events because I’m an introvert? Will my “F” designation as a “feeling” rather than a “sensing” person lead him to believe I won’t be able to make hard decisions in leadership roles? He may assume I would be unable to go against my feelings to make a necessary decision. I know I am able to adapt and stretch myself to do what I need to do to excel in a job, but he may not know that.

In other words, I wonder whether personality assessments run the risk of pigeonholing people. How do you use these tools to make the most of each employee’s strengths while not presuming what they can and cannot do? For example, a sales rep recently told me I was “wonderful” with the clients she sold advertising to for our publication, and one of my strengths is off-the-cuff public speaking. Those who may misinterpret and misuse the results of Myers-Briggs likely will be surprised at my ability to do well with from-the-heart public speaking and interacting with advertising clients. I’m afraid there are many who would see my results and decide to put me in a back office doing tedious work by myself for hours on end.

A more savvy interpreter of the results would realize that while I’m a reflective, introspective person, I also enjoy time with other people, and can excel in situations requiring strong interpersonal skills. It’s just that I may need time to regroup sometimes, which an extravert would not require, or would not require as frequently.

Hartnett’s article in Fast Company also offers synopses of two other personality assessments: The Enneagramand The Big 5. “Personality tests can also give leaders an idea of how well a candidate may fit into a particular position or job setting. This is especially important for us at Human Ventures, as we look closely at personality traits to identify founders with strong Emotional Intelligence (EQ) who will be able to inspire growth in their teams and themselves. We even built a proprietary founder assessment tool that we use in our venture studio,” Hartnett writes.

I question whether you can accurately assess a person’s emotional intelligence from any kind of assessment. Isn’t the best personality assessment how the individual performed in a given role at a company? Is it possible that a person with a strong EQ on paper might make a lousy boss? In theory, they know the right thing to say and do, but in practice, they don’t do it. Or maybe their EQ gets scrambled in stressful situations. I have worked with people who probably had a strong grasp of their emotions, and that of others, and knew in their heads the best things to say and do, but in difficult situations, that EQ flew out the door. They would become a low EQ person when challenges arose. The Big 5 assessment measures “neuroticism.” I would be curious to learn if any of the assessments are able to forecast how a person would be likely to act in stressful situations.

As much as I am fascinated by personality assessments, and would take every one available to me if they were all free of charge, I don’t necessarily think they are productive tools in companies. I would hate to miss out on an opportunity, or the job itself, based on the results of a personality assessment.

The best way to look at employees is without prejudging the type of work they will enjoy and excel at. Yearly career development conversations with employees and assessments of their job performance at your company, and in earlier roles at other companies, will give you the best indicator of where they should go (or grow) next in your organization.

Do you use personality assessments in company? How do you interpret the results to maximize employee growth opportunities?