Personality tests are bad for diversity, equity and inclusion—that was the topic of a popular update on LinkedIn recently, which created a lot of buzz without much progress toward a solution or ideas to contribute to improving the field.
It is relatively easy to stand against something and criticize existing tools; it is much harder to stand for something while being able and willing to do something about it.
A lot of experts commented on how biased and pointless those assessments were and how the people who agreed with the post were much smarter than the creators of those tests. The paradox is that their own confirmation bias, topped with some Dunning-Kruger effect, made them feel they were objectively right, which also created a strong in-group bias and reactive devaluation that shut down the possibility of learning or having constructive conversations.
There are three key insights that can be taken from this:
Everybody is biased.
As long as somebody has values, beliefs and needs, they are positively biased toward their own preferences and negatively biased toward different options. There is no person who is completely unbiased or without judgment, ergo, no solution they create is likely to exist without bias.
Carey Morewedge, professor of marketing at Boston University Questrom School of Business, helped carry out a study in which only one of the 661 participants surveyed said they were more biased than the average person. The researchers found that almost everyone believed they were less biased than their peers. This is called “blind-spot bias,” where we all think we are more aware of our own mental shortcuts than others. That does not make it true, though.
How could we test it? One of the most popular answers to this question is the IAT (Implicit Associated Test) developed by Harvard University. What most of those experts fail to realize or mention is that even the test is not as unbiased or as valid as they might think.
“It can predict things in the aggregate, but it cannot predict behavior at the level of an individual,” said Calvin Lai, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University and director of research at Project Implicit, where the test was developed. A person should take it dozens of times and the average could be a good indicator of how their biases might influence their behavior.
Discrediting tools instead of those who misuse them is not useful.
Personality tests should not be used for performance evaluation or recruitment as they measure preferences, not skills. Having said that, they were not designed for it anyway. The real issue is not the concept but the people who use it for purposes it was not meant to be used for.
The idea of four personality types started over 2,000 years ago with Hippocrates, who theorized that personality traits and human behaviors were based on four separate temperaments. Since then, dozens of researchers have come to the same conclusion: We are all a combination of the four personality types. They exist because they have very different values and needs, so they tend to behave in a way that meets those needs and reflects their values. It is logical, if you have much more need for certainty in your life, that you will make very different choices than those who need more variety, just like those who need to stand out will behave differently from those who have a strong need for belonging. The challenge is that we often know our habits but not the real reasons why we do something.
Good personality tests are about getting to better know ourselves and others who think, feel and behave differently. They are about building self-awareness and communication skills that can bridge the gap between our intention and our impact on others. Would you say those qualities are bad for diversity, equity and inclusion? I would say that is the foundation of it.
Incomplete solutions cannot deliver complete results.
To be perfectly honest, I felt that something was missing from personality tests, too. That is why I started my research over 15 years ago, which revealed that we are all a combination of the four personality types, but we were all conditioned differently by our environment. Our personality determines how we want to behave, but our environment (culture) determines how we “have to” behave. Using psychometric assessments without cultural intelligence is like learning how to drive in an empty parking lot and assuming you could manage in a busy city full of road work, cyclists and drivers who view the highway code and speed limit as suggestions.
For instance, you and I could have an identical result, but it would not mean that we would act in the same way. The reason is that even though we have very similar values and needs, we faced different challenges and found different best practices to get along with ourselves and others.Also, how much could we truly be ourselves? In other words, how often did we have to pretend to be someone else by conforming to the norms around us? The answers to these questions are absolutely fundamental in order to help a client understand themself better.
Inclusion starts with self-inclusion, as it is hard to get along with others if we cannot first get along with ourselves. It is often said that hurt people hurt people. The ones who know who they are and are OK with it do not need to bully anyone to feel important and don’t need to hide to feel safe.
Well-researched, culturally intelligent personality assessments used by licensed experts can provide a solid foundation for DEI. It may even be unlikely to happen without it.
The next time we have the urge to dismiss a “biased” idea, let’s remember that it might be because we are just differently biased. Criticizing a complete field that helped tens of millions of people for a small percentage of rouge trainers and bad assessments sounds like a textbook case of discrimination, does not it?
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