(Photograph: YouTube)

HBO Max recently released a documentary called Persona: The Dark Truth Behind Personality Tests, Being that this topic covers a big part of what I do as an Industrial Organizational Psychologist (I/O Psychologist,) I was very interested in this particular discussion. Aside from the ominous tone of the title, the way in which the film was presented does not shine a positive light on the use of personality tests. In my career as an I/O Psychologist, I work intently to offer clients useful information and tools that will help their organization. Because I am passionate about what I do and how I use and have seen assessments be used positively, I wanted to give my insight into some of the claims brought forth in the documentary.

There were several points of interest but in my honest opinion, the points I will be focusing on here, are the ones that really matter to anyone making decisions to use assessments or for those taking assessments, especially to get a job. These are the main points I want to clarify:

  • Using assessments in the workplace
  • Personality assessments specifically
  • What does ‘the dark truth’ really mean
  • How much of this information is useful for you to make assessment decisions?

Using Assessments in The Workplace

As the documentary stated, employee-based assessments have been used for years and continue to grow in popularity/use for recruiting, hiring, selection, development, and succession planning. Perhaps many other reasons exist, but these tend to be the main reasons assessments have been developed and are used by over 70% of businesses today. The primary focus of the documentary was on personality assessments, specifically the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and ‘The Big Five.’ MBTI is the name of a specific assessment while The Big Five refers to the Five-Factor Personality Theory, a heavily researched and used theory in many assessments today.

As shown in the documentary, MBTI was developed by mother, Katharine Briggs and daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, in the late 1800’s. Eventually, Katharine, learned about Carl Jung’s Type Theory and found a way to incorporate and apply it to the continued development of the MBTI. I am not going to go through all the history and development, but I do agree that using the MBTI for hiring, recruiting, or selection is an inappropriate use of the assessment. It was not designed nor is it validated to be used for that purpose. For this very reason, any company using it for those purposes could encounter legal issues with their selection and hiring practices. I am amazed at the number of large companies that still use this instrument today for hiring. It has limited use internally but has been effective for teams related to communication styles, conflict resolution, and understanding differences.

The Big Five was not explored in much detail throughout the film, and it was not clear that this is a theory used in several types of assessments today, including Emotional Intelligence. Personality assessments alone are used heavily for leadership development or different types of coaching situations and many of the more popular assessments use The Big Five to assess personality characteristics and associated behavior.

Personality Assessments – Specifically

Personality assessments relates to a broad category of many types of assessments available today. Some use different types of personality theory, like MBTI – using Type Theory. There are other personality theories, but in general, valid personality assessments are developed based on a theory or model that has been standardized. Standard assessments are important, especially to meet legal regulations and considerations and have some form of scientific psychometrics, which includes validity, reliability, and norms. The other critical element is that the assessment must be used for the purpose it was designed for and has been validated and standardized to use. Personality assessments used alone, are NOT designed for predicting job performance since they measure personality/behavioral characteristics of ‘how’ the person will act on the job, not whether that behavior will help them to do the job effectively. Used alone for selection and hiring, personality assessments are only about 30% effective. That percentage changes when used in combination with other types of assessments (e.g., cognitive assessments.) Those combinations will increase the rate of effectiveness to about 50-70% + when choosing the right people for the job, whether they are internal or external candidates. Cognitive assessments are used more and more today and have been researched and standardized as effective and valid for selection and hiring purposes.

So … What Does ‘The Dark Truth’ Really Mean?

The implication from this film is that we are all doomed if we are using personality assessments. Much of the audience might take that one step further and think that all assessments used in the workplace today are personality assessments relating to MBTI, as they explained in the film. For this reason, it is important to understand ALL of the facts and understand the history of assessments a bit more.

Historically, it is not unusual for assessments to be developed based on someone thinking it would be good or important to measure X. There are so many different types of assessment available today, that as a need occurs, often it is developed into an assessment of some type. What is important is that the assessment is used for the purpose it is designed for, that the assessments use some type of theory or model as a basis for developing it, and that it is standardized–researched for validity, reliability, and normed against populations before it can be considered credible. Putting together a bunch of questions and an associated score does not mean you have a valid and/or standardized assessment that you can use confidently and safely in the workplace.

What the documentary accurately pointed out, was the initial MBTI concept was created by Katharine Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers. This initially is not a bad thing, but where this becomes potentially harmful is that over time, and likely because of the social environment at the time, it was developed with bias. Industrial/Organizational Psychologists are working more and more today to research and evaluate assessments against bias, and redesign them accordingly. I can’t speak specifically to what MBTI has done to improve their questions and format in order to eliminate bias, but I do know that they have continued research and made revisions over time.

The implication that all assessments are biased is simply NOT accurate. There are specific scientific methods to eliminate that and offer valid and reliable assessments for workplace use, that do not have an adverse impact. These also can be legitimately defended for EEOC and other legal regulations, that are critical to a diverse and inclusive work environment.

How Much of This Information is Useful for You to Make Assessment Decisions?

Although the negative implications stemming from the film, regarding the use of assessments in general is concerning, I am happy that psychological assessments are receiving more attention with films like this. It would take a lot of time and many documentaries to cover all the types of assessments and how to use them effectively. If you are considering or are currently using assessments for making workplace decisions (hiring, selection, development, etc.), it is important that you use assessments designed for the purpose you will be using them for. For example, you would NOT use MBTI for hiring purposes, as that is not what it was designed for. Instead, find assessments that are designed for your specific purpose and business objective. Then ask questions of the vendor related to adverse impact, validity, and reliability. Find quality assessments that make your job easier and add value to whatever process you use it for, like hiring or internal selection.

  • If you want to find the right people for the right job, that falls under a job performance type of assessment, or job fit.
  • If you are looking for people that have the competencies you expect, to meet the job requirements as you have defined in the job description, that falls under job performance or job fit assessment.
  • If you want to use assessments for leadership development or coaching, including a personality assessment is important so you can help them gain awareness of how others perceive them and how their behavior affects their decisions or employees.
  • If you have job types that require quick learning skills, a focus on keen decision making and problem-solving skills or have a lot of responsibility for key business decisions, including a cognitive assessment will help.

You can select assessments individually based on your business objective or find vendors that offer multiple types of assessments. One drawback that was not explained in the film is getting trained and/or certified to use all of these assessments. These are sophisticated tools and understanding the results is key to your success and the success of the people taking the assessments. Most vendors require certification of using their assessments to protect the misuse of them. Finding a solution that is cost effective and doesn’t require that you be an I/O Psychologist or spend a lot of time and money to become certified, can be challenging.

Having worked in the assessment space all of these years, I am familiar with the many types available and variations that vendors will offer. The evolution of assessments is to have them be easy to use, cost effective, saves you time, and provides the results in an acceptable, easy-to-understand report without a lot of undecipherable graphs and language that is hard for the non-professional to use. A bright spot in the assessment industry, are the vendors that do the analysis for you and offer an easy-to-understand report that aggregates multiple assessment types (increases validity and reliability) into a job fit and competency score. The competency scores can be matched to the job description, used to develop interview questions and onboarding steps, assist with performance management and career development, and be used for succession planning.

In closing, as with anything in life, there is often more than meets the eye. Documentaries like ‘Persona: The Dark Truth Behind Personality Tests,’ are important in bringing about awareness, but always make sure you understand all of the facts before you make a decision. If you are going to implement a new strategy, tool, process in your work environment, it is vital that you do your research to make sure that whatever you use will be of benefit and positively aid in your objectives. Good luck!

Persona: The Dark Truth Behind Personality Tests is now available on HBO Max