11 Truths about Personality Assessment

Clearing up some common misconceptions about one of today’s trendiest topics.

Personality has become trendy. Online channels, social media, and dating apps buzz with quick personality tests and fun results to share with friends. But, as personality assessment becomes more widespread, so does the opportunity for misinformation.

Sarah Hezlett, a scientist and senior director in the Korn Ferry Institute, Korn Ferry’s research think tank, says personality assessments can offer some valuable insights into a person. But, like all tools, some assessments are high quality while others fall short. “Personality assessments need to be used wisely,” Hezlett says. “Don’t use a tape measure when you need calipers.”

Based on a deep understanding of the well-established science of personality, here are 11 truths about personality assessment that clear up some common misconceptions.

1. Everyone has a personality, but personality isn’t everything.

Personality is an important part of who we are. It involves characteristic patterns of feeling, thinking, and behaving, including interactions with others and approaches to different situations. Personality characteristics are just one of the many interesting ways in which people differ (think skills, interests, and values, for example).

2. Personality models have stood the test of time.

Building a personality assessment starts with choosing what to measure. Since personality has been studied for more than a century, there are now many different theories to choose from. Of them, the Five Factor Model—or “Big Five”—is considered the premier framework, relevant around the world. Different from the psycho-dynamic theories popularized by Freud and Jung, the “Big Five” model is a descriptive conceptualization of personality, with narrow traits nested within broader traits.

3. Good personality assessments are supported by strong research.

Personality assessments used for research and job-related insights need to meet well-established professional standards. These include ensuring the reliability, validity, and fairness of results. When robust personality insights are wanted, an assessment, like those offered by Korn Ferry, should always be grounded in science, fairness, and inclusivity. Look for assessments that offer strong psychometric-based properties, clear technical documentation, and even independent reviews or endorsements by third parties.

4. Personality assessments have many work-related purposes.

Personality is measured for a range of applications, and in many different contexts, including the workplace. Personality traits predict a variety of work-related outcomes, such as satisfaction, engagement, and performance, among others. And certain personality traits tend to predict some of these outcomes better than others. “When you combine personality information with data from other sources, like interviews and additional assessments, you can gain some powerful insights to inform workplace people decisions,” says Andrea Deege, director of IP Development in the Korn Ferry Institute.

5. It's important to pick the right report for the situation.

When determining the right fit, sometimes an occasion calls for a custom-tailored suit, with carefully measured dimensions. Other times, a close approximation—say, a small, medium, or large t-shirt—is easier and more effective for the situation. Reports from personality assessments should be aligned with both the intended use of the assessment and the target audience.

6. Simple feedback can help people understand themselves.

One common way people receive personality feedback is through categories—what Korn Ferry calls “personas.” These descriptions are broad like a small, medium, or large t-shirt, offering a starting point for people to understand themselves. Personas and other typologies should not be viewed as exact or complete reports of a person’s personality, and should not be used for talent selection, identification, or comparison purposes.

7. Benchmarked personality feedback can inform work-related decisions.

Making decisions about people at work is consequential and reporting from personality results for this purpose needs to be more precise and tailored, like the custom-made suit. This typically involves comparing a person to what is required for success through benchmarking and norms. But remember: personality is only one of many attributes that contribute to success. Better predication can be achieved when coupling personality insights with data on additional job-related characteristics.

8. Personality assessment response options have trade-offs.

Information about personality can be collected in a variety of ways, including the quick “yes-no/true-false” format (dichotomous), multiple response (Likert-type scales), and ranking (forced-choice response). Force-choice item response theory (FC-IRT) methods are the gold standard for maximizing insights from scores and reducing response manipulation.

9. Well-designed personality assessments are fair.

Personality assessments are often recognized for being fair and equitable. When used properly, they offer objective, impartial insights useful for informing workplace talent decisions that are free from conscious and unconscious biases, which can affect human judgments. Put another way: appropriate assessments should not show differences where differences do not exist. For a hiring process to be fair, many factors must be considered along with a well-designed assessment, including applying an inclusive, equitable, and consistent recruitment process across all candidates.

10. Artificial intelligence (AI) scoring should be monitored.

There’s a human investment in artificial intelligence, yet the term “AI” is often used to describe scoring computations that have been developed by a computer. But, in some cases, AI-developed recruitment algorithms have inadvertently trained themselves to be biased against certain groups, which has led to skepticism about the technique. This makes it all the more important to check AI scoring for inappropriate group differences. Algorithms created by AI can be fair, and not all assessment scoring algorithms are AI-derived.

11. Use best practices for the best results.

Personality assessment is powerful because people like learning about themselves and others. But like any product, there are right and wrong ways to apply personality assessments in the workplace. Best practices say assessments should be transparent, fair and equitable, inclusive, psychometrically sound, and fit for purpose.

Kim Severinsen, vice president of IP Development in the Korn Ferry Institute, says that, despite those cases of misuse, well-designed and fairly used personality assessments are insightful tools with many workplace applications. “Can personality assessment be bad? Sure. But when constructed and applied in the right way, by qualified people, with the right reporting for the situation, they can be incredibly valuable,” Severinsen says.

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