Surely every HR professional has encountered personality-typing tools such as the Myers-Briggs type indicator (MBTI), DiSC or the Enneagram. If you haven’t, the process is simple: complete a questionnaire, get it scored, and hey presto your personality type is revealed.
Though widely used they are, however, not universally admired. The most positive views are held by highly enthusiastic (bordering-on-evangelical) believers. For them such tools are essential for almost everyone and everything: career development, selection, team building and so on. Next most positive are those who give qualified approval, regarding them as quite useful but only for some things. Then come the very wary and mostly sceptical who see them as somewhat helpful for a few very specific purposes, but at the same time view them as potentially a waste of time and even dangerous. Last are those who wouldn’t touch them with a bargepole.
Why such differences? In part it’s because of our personal reactions. For some discovering what they believe to be their personality type is life-changing. For others the experience leaves them cold. These differences also reflect the extent to which we like to categorise things and find doing so useful. But I think these differences exist largely because of a lack of clarity about what these tools can in principle do and what they can in practice actually achieve.
So what can they achieve? Why use them? The first reason relates to the presumed benefits of increasing awareness. These tools supposedly tell us what we and others are like as people. Having this knowledge will (so the logic goes) lead to greater fulfilment and effectiveness because we discover that we are quite different to a co-worker, and by understanding such differences we work together better.
The second reason for using these tools – and indeed any personality measure – is because personality is assumed to predict future behaviour. If we know about someone’s personality we can perhaps predict their level of performance in different roles and take that into account when selecting or designing their role.
Both these reasons for using personality-typing tools make sense in principle. However, in practice they both rest on the assumption that typing tools accurately measure what we want to measure. To put it another way: the practical value of personality-typing tools depends entirely on the extent to which they are valid measures of personality.
Personality means the characteristic ways in which people think, feel and behave. So here’s the killer question: is personality something that actually fits tidily into types or categories? Or is it something that has a number of relatively independent dimensions or traits along which people vary? In other words, what is the most accurate way of measuring people’s personality – types or traits?
This may seem like a picky point but it’s really not. If we incorrectly put anything into categories that don’t exist then what have we achieved? It may look neat. It may ‘make sense’. We may like it. But it’s wrong, misleading, practically unhelpful and even harmful.
So what is the evidence for distinct personality types versus personality traits? Fortunately there’s plenty and it mostly demonstrates that personality is not structured around types but traits. I may, for example, be a bit more extrovert than you and you’re a bit more conscientious than me. But that does not mean we have different personality types as such.
Using tools that divide personalities into types is not the most valid way of measuring it.Using inaccurate and misleading measures of personality will not help to increase awareness much, nor to predict future behaviour. Which are, after all, the two main reasons for measuring personality.
Rob Briner is professor of organisational psychology at Queen Mary University of London and HR magazine’s third Most Influential Thinker 2018