“Hi, I’m Yejin, and I’m an ENFJ, an Enneagram-Type-1-Wing-2, and a Ravenclaw/Hufflepuff hybrid.”
Sound familiar? With the growing popularity of personality assessments, these kinds of introductions don’t seem so out of the ordinary. In my (admittedly hyper-millennial) network of professional and personal connections, questions about moral alignment, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), Enneagram personality types, Hogwarts House, and astrological signs are all commonplace icebreakers—in both personal and professional life. But is our reliance on these tests founded, and can they predict—and positively impact—how we function in our work lives?
Why are we crazy about personality assessments?
The popularity of personality assessments may be related to the human affinity towards tribalism, Constance Grady suggests in Vox. A key part of how our brains function, tribalism accounts for the very human tendency to look for a group and stick with it, which ultimately impacts the way we perceive and experience the world around us.
There is something alluring about finding one’s place in the world by identifying with a particular personality type. As Grady writes, “an affiliation based on personality type feels as though it’s built on an objective truth.” For many, assigning and identifying with labels and sharing common cultural vocabulary allows for people to more easily and readily relate to one another. And that feels good!
Are personality assessments effective?
The ubiquity of personality tests isn’t contained within the digital walls of Buzzfeed’s endless supply of quizzes. Around 20% of Fortune 1,000 companies use the MBTI in their hiring process. And among Fortune 100 companies, a whopping 89% use the MBTI, either during the hiring process or for team-building and coaching exercises later on.
Over the past few years, many studies have revealed personality assessments to be dubious and pseudo-scientific. The MBTI is meaningless for three main reasons: (1) it relies on untested theories of Carl Jung; (2) the model relies on false and limited binaries; and (3) the assessment provides inconsistent and inaccurate results.
Critics of these types of assessments also speak to their proprietary nature. Randy Stein, a psychologist at California Polytechnic State University interviewed by Scientific American, says, “What those tests will tell people is true or false is determined by what people are willing to pay for. Their process as a company is to tell people whatever will sell the product.” People are literally buying into these models of self-knowledge. Even if people recognize the apocryphal nature of some tests, what harm can come from relying on them?
The bad: Using tests in place of getting to know someone
In a recent article in the New York Times, Quinisha Jackson-Wright writes about the way in which institutional use of the MBTI can and does undermine the value of inclusivity. When companies use something like the Myers-Briggs indicator to make HR-related decisions (hiring, promotions, firing, etc.), they are choosing to systematize and codify a model that has no scientific backing, and are often hiring or promoting people like themselves. Additionally, some companies first categorically determine which personality types suit particular positions best and make important human-related decisions based on these neat boxes. But we all know that humans are messy, and that the entirety of our beings cannot be neatly organized into types and categories.
Importantly, by relying on an institutional use of a personality assessment, people within organizations can also easily decide to use information about one’s “type” instead of actually building a professional relationship with someone. In a podcast episode of The Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam speaks with individuals whose lives were actually harmed by their participation in a company-mandated personality test.
There is no real or effective stand-in for doing the work of relating to and connecting with a person. But instead of using these assessments as a replacement for relationship-building, can we use them as catalysts?
The good: building self-awareness for the purpose of growth
Growth and personal/professional development are easier to access when we understand our defaults. Writer David Foster Wallace once gave a commencement speech for Kenyon’s graduating class of 2005. He began his speech with a parable: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”
In talking about building awareness, Wallace goes on to say, “It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.” We need to learn what our default settings are in order to adapt, change, empathize, and learn. Wallace tells us to remind ourselves that this is water.
While personality tests clearly have deep limitations and should not be used prescriptively, they can help us to understand our natural, hard-wired default settings so that we can change when we choose to change. We could use these personality tests as a jumping-off point to becoming self-aware. Most of us are not trained to consider why we do what we do, think what we think, and feel what we feel. Many of us aren’t given tools to reflect on how we feel when we’re in conflict, what kinds of interactions we find energizing/depleting, how we respond to change, etc. Rather than rely on results from assessments as singular truth, we can use any of the characteristics, behaviors, or patterns that surface from a Sorting Hat Quiz or MBTI or Enneagram, and use that information to reflect on our place in the world and how we might want to adapt.
This is water.
Are you a fan or critic of personality assessments? Have you had a positive or negative experience of using a personality test at work? Share your story with us!
Yejin Lee is a nonprofit professional and career coach based in New York City. She is most passionate about supporting nonprofits in operationalizing a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) framework, and assisting individuals in thoughtfully identifying and strategically pursuing professional goals. Yejin also loves cooking, eating, annotating TV shows, and hanging out with her husband and sassy shiba inu.