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.

  • Interesting post. I agree that personality traits are not absolutes, but I still think there is value in understanding personalities. Yes, any of us would do anything given the right circumstances, but we don’t work and live in extreme circumstances most of the time. Our primary personlaty trait suggests how I am “most likely” to behave or how I “prefer” to behave. And knowing your preferred style allows me to communicate and relate to you more effectively.

    Enjoyed your comments. Very thought-provoking.

  • Bob

    Oh my. Personalities, behavior, emotion, preferences…complex stuff, indeed. Just call it people. Some you like, some you don’t.

    But how us people can get so, well, complicated about things, eh? And then, sometimes a quick summary will do.

    Went on one job interview. All of the people I interviewed with told me their Meyer Briggs 4 letter indicator.
    As if I had them all memorized.

    Another interview with who would be my boss summed it up rather nicely.

    ” There are some people here that I don’t get along with all that well but you wont find any assholes here.”

  • Thank you for starting a very interesting thread. Your comments are well taken. You write about personality as if it were a single concept. Gordon Allport has identified some 65 definitions of personality at last count. I say this to butress your points, not to undermine them.

    Even if we could agree on 20 or 30 or 40 definitions, it’s absurd to think that a business executive knows enough about personality to use it effectively.

    Personality thus becomes a tool of the consultants. While I wouldn’t deny them a livelihood, sometimes it seems as if they prefer to be practitioners of a mystical art, obscured from the rest of us. This increases the fear and dread around psychometric testing.

    The most pernicious effect of personality is that it tends to divide or stereotype people, rather than to unite them. Type sorters are among the most problematic.

    Personality is such a squishy concept, it’s hard to believe that it has been accorded such power in the world of business. Yet, everyone wants a silver bullet. Eveyrone wants to know whom to hire or promote. Make it simple. A number of companies have gotten rid of these tests because managers, seeking the straightest line between two points, misuse them.

    It’s my impression that there is such rampant misuse of personality assessments that the world of work would be better if most of them just went away. It’ll never happen, but if it did, one wonders if there would be more honesty in the workplace.

  • Bob


    Excellent observations. BTW, I got pretty good at manipulating the DISC assesment.

    Not to worry though, perhaps DNA testing is on the horizon. ;>)

  • Any manager who wants to become more psychologically aware about people and teams should start by reading Dr. Harry Levinson of the Harvard Medical School.
    He has authored numerous books and articles (including “The Great Jackass Fallacy”) that are clear, easy to understand and incredibly insightful. Rob, he’ll make you smarter I promise.