Let’s Talk About….. Personality Tests

SATURDAY

“It’s my personality.” Helen giggles. “I’m hasty and stubborn…. apparently.” As usual she arrives at our coffee meet like a whirlwind. “You ordered the cake?” She looks around for a waitress. “On the plus side, I’m also dynamic and persuasive.” She winks at me.

I don’t doubt it. Especially when it comes to cake.” I’m sure I’m wearing my bemused face. “What the Hell are you talking about?”

“Workplace Personality Testing. We had an online workshop with some Training and OD Consultant yesterday.” She steals a bite of my millionaire shortbread before announcing dramatically, “I am….” (pauses for further dramatic effect). “SUNSHINE YELLOW.” She takes a bow. “With a shot of Earth Green. Ross was Fiery Red. No surprised there then. Funny how I always like the arrogant arses.”

“How much did that cost?”

Sounds like something you’d find in low-brow girlie magazine to me.

“Half a day online for eight hundred quid. Training budget. Team development.”

I drop my scone, incredulous.

“What qualifications do they have?”

“Dunno, but she has a website and everything. And a laminator.”

TUESDAY

I wait for my 17-year old outside a modern building in the business park, where I dropped him two and a half hours earlier. I don’t know who’s more nervous, me or him.

Tom has lived and breathed his application to study medicine. Years of graft. 5 A’s at Higher. Predicted A’s at Advanced Highers. Summers spent grovelling to doctor friends so he can get experience for his personal statement.

Now it all hinges on the UCAT or the University Clinical Aptitude Test, a computer-based assessment under exam conditions, meant to determine ‘attitude’ and ‘professional behaviour’. Eh?

Basically, sort the wheat from the chaff and determine who’s worthy of being a doctor, and who’s not.

A high-stakes two and a half hours.

Score below the cut-off, and the Universities don’t even look at your application, despite the plethora of A’s, the blood, sweat and dreams, the shit-hot personal statement.

Never was a young person better suited to a medical career. My son is dedicated, kind, caring and works harder than either of his parents ever have.

Argh!

Let me give you an actual UCAT example:

Dodos aren’t always weak, but they are always zipzaps. Not all those that are zipzaps are weak, but they will always be boings.

Place ‘yes’ if the conclusion follows. Place ‘no’ if the conclusion does not follow.

  • All those that are zipzaps are dodos
  • A weak dodo is a zipzap
  • A weak animal cannot be a boing
  • Some boings are dodos
  • More zipzaps are weak than boings

A brief survey of my colleagues, not one of us has ever had to treat a poorly zipzap, boing or dodo, weak or otherwise.

It’s hard to imagine that people who get it wrong, make any less compassionate, caring and interested doctors than those who get it right.

My son goes to a rural, state (non-private) school. He’s the only kid in his year applying to medicine.

Had he gone to Hutchy or Glasgow High (the privates), he’d be one of the hot-housed group they’ve been training on UCAT questions for weeks.

Should I be kicking myself for not paying three thousand pounds for an intensive week’s worth of UCAT tuition from someone on the internet ‘guaranteeing’ to get him into the top decile of scorers? (yes, they do exist – zipzap gurus).

As I sit in the car, my heart thumping, waiting for his wee face coming out beaming or crumpled, I ponder the inequity, and ultimately the impact of these recruitment methods.

Questions are not calibrated for race or class. They’re not dyslexia friendly. They tell you nothing about an individual’s potential. They can be taught to willing students who have the means and the money.

It’s a brutal way to divide a bunch of talented, smart young people, brimming with enthusiasm into ‘worthy’ and ‘not worthy.’ More reflective of socio-economic advantage than actual ability.

FRIDAY

I get sent to an assessment centre.

I’d applied for a management post at a neighbouring health board.

Yup, I recognise the old Myers-Briggs MBTI questions. A million repetitive statements forcing me into ridiculously impractical binary choices.

Which of these sentences best describes you?

  1. I keep my thoughts to myself
  2. I speak up
  1. I prefer to improvise
  2. I prefer to follow a clear procedure
  1. I like to co-operate
  2. I like to compete

I sit opposite the beardie man in a cosy jumper awaiting personality judgement.

“Well Dr Lloyd, seems like you are a big picture thinker: you quickly see patterns from complex systems; you’re an innovator; you strike me as someone who is extraordinarily right-brained.” He smiles at me and nods “And those are good things.”

No shit Sherlock-Giles. You force me into a million binary choices between always being a systems woman or always being details woman. Like most people, I do both, all day, at the same time. Otherwise reports, letters and waiting lists would never get sorted.

“On the down-side, your results suggest you have a low threshold for tedious errands.”

My sceptical eyebrows find it difficult to contain themselves.

I think I see a laminator in the background.

Those drawn to Myers-Briggs type nonsense: those who sort the world into worthy or not worthy; categorise us all into ENFP, ENTJ, INTP, INFP; make everyone Yellow, Green, Blue or Red – ARE THEY ALL OBSESSED WITH COVERING THINGS IN PLASTIC?

What colour does that make them?

Let me consult the latest Cosmo, because it has as much credibility as the quiz on ‘This Wedding Dress Test Will Tell You Who To Marry.’

What an utter, unscientific pile of dangerous poo. Laminated.

The (Non) Science

The scientific community for once are united. Myers-Briggs-type personality tests should have been consigned to a post-war junk-heap long ago.

The origins date back to Katherine Briggs (1875 – 1968) and her daughter Isabel Briggs-Myers (1897 – 1980).

With no formal training, Katherine started experimenting with her own, and the neighbour’s children. She became a devotee of Swiss Psychiatrist Carl Jung, who’s 1921 book ‘Psychological Types’ provided a vocabulary and validation to her perceptions of her daughter.

Isabel picked up the mantle during the second world war, revisiting her mother’s work to aid the war effort. She designed a questionnaire alongside her own daughter and friends. Once again, a family affair round the kitchen table, aimed at finding people jobs that best suited them.

The MBTI has no grounding in science. Jung’s theories themselves weren’t drawn from science or data.

To date, personality tests correlate poorly with job performance and have no test-re-test reliability (meaning you don’t get the same results the second time you do it, or the third, or the fourth).

The MBTI is not calibrated across society and, and as you might expect from a questionnaire first conceived over a hundred years ago, contains erroneous and dangerous ideas about race, gender and class.

The Big Business

SO WHY ARE WE STILL OBSESSED WITH IT?

Since the 1960’s, some 50-million people have taken the test.

Personality testing is a $2bn industry, and growing around 15% per year.

Today, more than 2 million people take the MBTI every year, including 60% to 70% of American prospective workers.

I’ll let those numbers sink in.  Myers-Briggs and its multiple ‘people sorting’ imitations have taken over. Horoscopes of the business world. Pseudo-scientific poop.

£800 for an online morning of team development, not including the salary costs of those attending and the lost hours of productivity.

Quite simply…….

We are still obsessed with personality tests because WE LOVE THEM.

They are simple. They reduce the human psyche down to a handful of ‘are you this, or are you that?’

They put the responsibility for workforce culture onto the individual. No need to equality impact assess our policies, address workload management or workplace bullying.

It doesn’t challenge the status quo.

Men will still be paid more, hold more managerial and boardroom positions, do less childcare. The workplace can still promote patriarchal systems, structures and thinking.

But personality tests are entertaining.

They cater to our narcissism and our need to belong.

They make us feel normal and special at the same time.

Oh, and they make the first round of ‘culling’ the thousands of medical school applicants so much easier. You don’t even need to read the applications.

Let’s Talk About….   A Movement of Compassionate Systems Leadership

It’s been a traumatic two years for lots of us.

Post covid, the last thing we need to be doing across workplaces as we embrace new ways of working and digital technology, is dividing people into sharks, penguins, sloths and Tasmanian devils. Or reds, yellows, blues and greens. Or 4-letter acronyms.

Please, no more meaningless personality testing.

Instead, imagine a recruitment policy and an organisational culture which focuses on inspiring innovation and quality in the Brave New World. I’m thinking about health and social care. But heck, yes, across society. From Westminster down.

We have a limited window to build back fairer from a virus that caused some communities and sections of society to suffer more than others. People who were already marginalised through structural, economic, social inequity and therefore compromised in responding to the extra impact of a pandemic.

How do you foster the organisational cultures of innovation and quality necessary for building back fairer?

Compassionate Systems Leadership.

Yes, this bit IS data-driven:

  1. Inspire Vision and Strategy: Demonstrate an unwavering daily focus on vision, strategy. Nurturing optimism, efficacy and progress.
  2. Positive Inclusion and Participation: Create psychological safety and encourage your team to ‘listen with fascination’ to each other, develop mutual understanding, empathise and support each other. Ensure your team has a diversity of people, inputs and voices. Complement it by role modelling consistently positive attitudes to difference (of opinion, professional background, experience, of demographic difference).
  3. Enthusiastic Team and Cross-Boundary Working: Inter-team working. Compassionate system leadership. Frequent face-to-face contact, attention, understanding, empathy and helpful support to people across the boundaries. 
  4. Support and Autonomy for Staff to Innovate: Positive leader affect (or mood) is associated with positive mood across employees, enhanced team performance, higher rates of behaviours that benefit others and higher rates of creativity and innovation. Give staff the autonomy and support to play and to innovate.

I know, I know.

More complex than the simplicity of whether you’re a dog person or a cat person.

Maybe less fun.

But way, way, WAY more transformational.

PLAY AND INNOVATE.

INCLUSIVE AND MENTALLY HEALTHY WORKPLACES.

Read this with an earlier blog I wrote, probably my most important blog to date, The True Object of all Human Life is Play:

I have it laminated.

HA!

Had you fooled.

Not a laminator in sight.

Save that for the Sunshine Yellows and the Zebras.

%d bloggers like this: