Personality at Work: Sometimes Asking a Question Is the Solution

A few weeks ago, Matt Winn wrote an interesting post about personality typing in venture capital. Matt’s firm uses the predictive index sometimes, and it’s not a test I particularly care for. Actually, I’m not a huge fan of personality tests in general.

My arguments against them rarely convince people to change their minds, but nonetheless, I’ll explain my position. First of all, I think there is a significant Forer effect in these personality tools. Personalities are complex and situational, so if words are vague enough, we interpret them in ways that apply to us and they seem correct.

Secondly, and more importantly, modern neuroscience has discredited the idea of a personality to a large extent. Our behavior is heavily dependent on the situation and environment, but we humans have a tendency to control our environment to make it as stable as possible. Thus what appears to be a stable personality is really just a stable environment. That’s why judging someone’s personality often leads to the fundamental attribution error.

A few years ago I read the excellent book Liars, Lovers, and Heroes, which talks about brain science and personality. The authors pointed out at several points in the book that, under the right circumstances, anybody would do almost anything. Some of us just require more extreme circumstances than others. It supports the idea that personality traits aren’t absolutes.

Matt was at SXSW and we struck up a conversation about his post while walking to an event. After going back and forth about the value of the PI and other tests, Matt made at excellent point.

Regardless of the accuracy, it gets people thinking about personalities in the office.

He’s right. Different people act different ways in a given office environment, and just having a discussion about how to interact with certain co-workers, the best way to present information to them, the best way to handle dissension – that’s a good conversation that will help improve work relationships. There is value in the discussion, even if the test that kicked off the discussion is only partially correct.

Consultants will tell you these tests are great because they make money by selling them. Always be wary of those motivations. But in the daily grind of the office, meta analysis of how we work with each other falls by the wayside, and it’s good to have something to bring our attention back. Sometimes just asking the question can be a solution.