HR mythbusting: Can people be sorted into personality categories at work?

Our series by Adrian Furnham and Ian MacRae explores myths HRDs should be seeking to debunk in 2018

I am an extrovert but she is an introvert. He is a Monitor Evaluator while I am a Plant. They are all psychopaths and she is definitely borderline.

We think and speak in categorical or type terms. It seems natural to put people in neat little boxes: ENJT, ISFP. But we know there are degrees of everything: the extreme extrovert vs. the person who is slightly more extroverted than introverted.

It is important to distinguish between traits and types. Types (e.g. gender) are regarded as categories of membership that are distinct and discontinuous. People are (usually) either the one or the other. Left- or right-handed, male or female. But even these types are being challenged.

In trait theories people differ in amounts on a single continuum. Trait theorists see the differences between individuals quantitatively rather than qualitatively.

The typologists are concerned with preferences that are perhaps inborn or learnt. They are sorters into categories. The traitists are concerned with universals possessed in different amounts. They are interested in measurement and particularly interested in extreme scorers. They believe that nearly all characteristics are normally distributed.

Typologies are academically out of fashion because assignment has often proved too arbitrary and unreliable.

The world of psychiatric diagnosis still seems to use types in the sense that people are either labelled/diagnosed X (depressed, anxious, schizophrenic) or not. Typological theory suggests a discontinuity between similar behaviours, while trait theory does not. Trait theorists believe that on all variables there is a continuum and that cutting people off into types is therefore arbitrary, or at least follows a set convention.

There has been a long fight between psychologists and psychiatrists regarding diagnosis. The psychiatrists favoured the typological approach to diagnosis. People are or are not a clinical narcissist, or obsessive-compulsive, or whatever. But psychologists have always supported the spectrum hypothesis: every behaviour is on a continuous spectrum from (very) high to (very) low. Nearly everything results in a bell curve: a normal distribution. This applies to physical (body shape) and psychological (personality) characteristics. So extremes of anything could be seen to be abnormal.

Without doubt the most widely-known and used personality test in the world is the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). It is estimated that 3.5 million people take it every year in the US and it has been translated into 24 languages. It was developed before the war but became widely known and available after 1975.

It is based, very loosely, on Jungian theory and is a four-dimensional model that allows people to be described by four letters (e.g. ENTJ, ISFP) representing their particular type. Typologies tend to offer richer descriptions than explanations. Hence there are many detailed descriptions of particular types.

Marketing people who favour psychographics also like typologies. One recent study on wine drinkers illustrated this perfectly as they were divided into five distinct categories:

  • Experimenters need relevant information to purchase wine, which is what they are looking for either online or request from friends.
  • Status seekers are those who, given the fact that wine is a flagship position in society, are keen to have as many gadgets that allow them to express themselves and show their social status.
  • The conservative connoisseur has the basic means of communication and information but does not fully master it, relying more on personal experience.
  • The ordinary drinker doesn't care how often they consume or the wine image, as long as it is an alcoholic beverage. They are easily influenced by what they see on television or read online.
  • The cultivated hedonists are wine consumers for whom harmony and socialisation matter. They are more interested in drinking wine with good company and to capture moments.

All very interesting, but we do not know why people fall into those categories; whether they can and do change from one into another, or whether people can be extreme or mild experimenters.

So… it is natural to think of people at work in categorical terms. But it may be too crude and unhelpful for HR to make good people decisions on this basis. On most psychological characteristics we are in the middle: ambiverts rather than introverts or extroverts. We are much more interesting of course when we are at the extremes.

Adrian Furnham is professor of psychology at UCL, adjunct professor of management at the Norwegian School of Management and co-author of Myths of Work with Ian MacRae. He was awarded an HR Lifetime Achievement Award at 2017’s HR Most Influential.

Check back on the website every day this week for more HR mythbusting pieces by MacRae and Furnham