By Leon Gettler
Companies spend millions of dollars a year on psychometric tests which measure personality types, learning styles and the personal preferences of their employees. Personality tests are a key part of today’s workplace, from accounting firms and banks to sales and marketing outfits, from call centres to production and engineering businesses, airlines and mining companies. Psychometric tests are there to provide insights into an individual’s ability and personality. A psychometric test is not just an aptitude test. It is a tool designed to measure knowledge, abilities, aptitudes, personality, intelligence and motivations.
Employers and consultants swear by their predictive value, claiming they reduce turnover and boost productivity and sales. Trouble is, psychologists have spent decades arguing about whether something as wily, complex and changeable as human nature can be accurately measured. So how effective are they? What are the issues?
The world of psychometrics is dominated by the Big Four as represented by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Cattell 16PF (16 Personality Factor) model, the Occupational Personality Questionnaire and the Hogan Personality Inventory, which between them dominate the market in testing.
Recruitment firm Michael Page says they have a real value. “There are different types of tests, but generally they’ll be used to measure how people differ in their motivation, values, priorities and opinions with regard to different tasks and situations. In terms of personality, the tests can give an indication of the working style favoured by a candidate and how they interact with both their environment and fellow workers. The tests are helpful at analysing the more ‘hidden’ traits of an individual. Formal education and past experience will not always provide a clear, up-to-date assessment of these personal skills. Aptitude tests, for example, could help to provide a better, more realistic and current view of a candidate’s abilities than a formal certificate of education.”
So how should managers use these tests? The Harvard Business Review has a list of items managers need to check: know the law to avoid anti-discrimination claims, know the business needs (“Psychometric tests will not help you if you don’t have well-established measures of job performance”), reduce the risk of cheating by having the candidate take the assessments in the office or by monitoring candidates via video conference if they are remote, share the results with candidates and test the tests to ensure the tests predict success on the job.
Then again, the critics of psychometric tests say they over-categorise people. As Baden Eunson says in Management Today: “Testing works quite well in a limited set of circumstances, but Einstein might have ended up a permanent Patents Office clerk and Churchill as just another appalling upper-class twit, as both performed badly in school. Other downsides of testing include the predictive validity of a number of tests being quite low, depending on emerging or unfounded concepts, such as emotional intelligence and handwriting as a surrogate for behavioural self-revelation and honesty – much objectivity may be spurious. Testing may also only admit those candidates who most closely match the existing culture and values of the organisation (cloning), when what is most urgently needed is fresh blood to challenge that very culture and set of values. Testing may also discourage excellent candidates from applying. This may be because of a fear of the process, a fear of clinical psychological concepts, or the thinking that any organisation that would use testing is not worth working for.”
For sure, these tests can identify personality traits. But unlike rats and other lower organisms who have been psychology’s favourite subjects, humans can do exceedingly complex and varied things. This is why a class-room failure like Churchill went on to become one of the world’s greatest leaders. So the tests are fine, but there are limits.
Still, people-sorting mechanisms will continue to be big with recruitment firms and consultants who want the business, corporations that want the certainty and psychologists who want to be seen as scientists.
Maybe managers should also rely on face to face interpretation and assessment. Now that’s a radical concept but there’s a lot to be said for meeting people and assessing for ourselves what they’re really like. Every good manager should have the tools within their personality to assess the suitability of people they meet.