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How personality tests are whatever you want them to be

October 23, 2020

About once each year in tech, most of us receive a vague link from someone in HR, Training, or our boss, asking us to "take a short survey."

Which is code for "another @#$%ing personality test."

And it has nothing to do with making us more psychologically sound people. More likely, it's being forced down our collective throats because some team in Tuscaloosa is having attrition problems.

You tick the boxes - all the while second guessing whether your aversion to being friends with colleagues will deem you a problem child - and then dread the inevitable two days offsite at the Holiday Inn. The training itself is a special kind of purgatory, in which a painfully energetic dude (picture: guitar-playing youth pastor) takes you and your team through your test results, like a doctor, but without any actual qualifications.

Yes, I'm being cynical. I typically feel like I'm too old to change, too arrogant for coaching, and too grizzled to care about any of it.

But the embarrassing truth is, I freaking LOVE personality tests.

I don't care whether the test is the Predictive Index, the Profile XT, Miller-Heiman, or the newest version launched at a recent virtual TedTalk conference.

They're all horseshit, and they're all beautiful.

Here's why:

Fly Your Freak-Flag With Directs

I share the results of my own personality profile with anyone that I hire who is going to be a direct report. Why? So they can see exactly what they're in for. No surprises.

I've been partial to the ProfileXT lately. In the spirit of transparency, here are a few tidbits from my XT profile:

Personal Survey

Note that these scores are based on a curve, and a score at either extreme - a 1 or a 10 - puts you in ~2% of the population. So my profile shows a lot to deal with.

First example: I'm a 10 in both Energy Level and Decisiveness, which is basically an opinionated, runaway freight train. If my new hire is, say, a 4 in these categories, I might get antsy in our conversations. I might need a faster pace of conversation, expect higher throughput, or otherwise get frustrated during interactions that aren't crisp and to the point.

I'm a 3 in Attitude - which means I'm a skeptic. I provision for every obstacle, assuming that there will be bumps in the road. A leader that's a 9 here might be overly optimistic and not plan for contingencies in a way that I would. On the other hand, they may see a great opportunity that my pragmatism might otherwise immediately dismiss.

Both examples are fodder for a good, candid conversation.

Beyond removing surprises, sharing my profile results with a candidate, a peer, or a direct report builds my own credibility. There is a level of honesty and vulnerability, an inherent REALNESS, in sharing results like this with someone that has yet to work with you or reports to you. Folks simply don't expect senior leaders to be this open, and this candid, about who they are. Walls that might otherwise take months and months to come down tend to fall as the applicant or team member becomes comfortable with the notion of sharing a bit about themselves as well.

It Helps Team Members Really See Each Other...for Better or Worse

Homogenous teams - teams comprised of folks with similar backgrounds, ethnicities, beliefs, skills, and personalities - have ceilings. They run out of ideas, out of energy, and stagnate. Teams with wildly different personas and profiles; however, often don't understand how to connect and work together - the personality differences create obstacles to solving problems and collectively running through walls. Personality tests have helped me build teams with creative approaches to challenges, as well as helping the members of these teams better understand what both they and their colleagues bring to the table.

Example: graphic designers or front-end devs that focus on user experience, aesthetics, and design, often have personalities that emphasize gut feel and subjective decision making. They are more likely to focus on beauty than analytics. A growth marketer tasked with increasing website conversion, however, is obsessed with objective data: average visitor time on a website, average clicks per visitor, and the conversion of site traffic to leads. One profile is driven by numbers and analytics; the other focuses more on the subjective and big picture. The rub? You'll find them both working on a large website redesign with dependencies on one another.

Designer: "Placing the 'Contact Us' button in the middle of the page completely ruins the flow of the page; it hurts the horizontal balance and makes the other graphics look off the plane."

Marketer: "We need to grow leads by 12% with this redesign; that won't happen if visitors can't easily see the 'Contact Us' button."

The frenetic pace and intensity in high growth companies can create tension, drama, and turnover. The collective transparency and vulnerability associated with sharing personal information with a group of colleagues breaks down walls, builds understanding and empathy, and tends to create' a-ha' moments that can take the heat out of previously contentious issues or relationships.

Take Some of the Roulette Wheels Out of Hiring

Though we know that different skill sets are required for different roles, we don't always consider that certain personality characteristics can impact fit for a given job.


  • A Customer Success Manager that is a 10 in 'Sociability' may be miserable and flounder working alone from a home office.
  • A Brand Marketer with an 8 in 'Manageability' may flop in a role where their boss can only meet with them for 30 mins per week and needs them to work independently without much supervision.
  • A Sales Executive candidate with a rating of 1 in 'Assertiveness' is likely to struggle in a sales hunting role.

Having candidates take a survey of some kind does a few things for me. First, it's a forcing function to ensure I take the time to think prior to interviewing about the kinds of experiences and personality characteristics that might impact job performance - beyond anecdotal work history. Once a candidate takes a survey, I can identify areas that I may want to dig into during a second interview - either as a leverage opportunity or an area of risk. Finally, the results can be used to spark conversations with candidates that are more interesting and more enlightening than most typical interview questions.

To be clear, I would never use a profile tool as the sole criteria in a hiring decision. Much has been (persuasively) written about cultural, racial, and other biases inherent in these surveys. However, injecting some kind of surveying input into the hiring process can provide a hiring manager with insight into how candidates might fit with their own leadership styles and provide greater confidence before pulling the trigger on a new team member.

Grab Some Kindling and s' Mores

They're cheesy, inconvenient, and often predictable, but personality tests can prove useful tools for building and managing teams if you're comfortable sharing your own personal information and encouraging others to be similarly vulnerable. Light the campfire, pull out your acoustic guitar, and feel the feels.

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