• Thu, Feb 10 2011

Bullish: F*ck Corporate Personality Tests and Take Control of Your Personality

But another thought I had while taking the test was: there are plenty of things here that I could improve on, or have already improved on — for instance, the very first true/false question is “You are almost never late for your appointments.” (See the column for more thoughts on why you might want to work on that, even if you don’t think it’s a problem). Here are some other questions from the short-form test that I think sound more like to-do list items than some probing into an eternal, central soul-nugget deep in your being:

* You feel involved when watching TV soaps. Why soaps? Why not comic books? Isn’t this question introducing some gender and class bias into the mix? Anyway, I do feel involved when watching TV soaps, which is why I know not to start watching, which is also basically the reason I’ve never tried coke: because I would never, ever stop. So, to-do list item: stay away from things that “involve” even though you don’t really enjoy them all that much.

* You prefer to act immediately rather than speculate various options. Hmmn, how about instead of looking at what we do now and calling it a day, we do some research — for instance, about what your boss wants, or how successful your fast vs. slow decisions have been in the past, or about what actually works (for instance, there have been studies showing that excellent athletes have to make decisions literally faster than it is possible to think, which is one reason that intelligence tests have not been helpful in predicting who will play well for the NFL). In other words, who cares what you do, when you are in control of what you could do that will get you ahead?

* You know how to put every minute of your time to good purpose. This is a skill, not some essential kernel of selfhood. No one has this skill when they’re six. Some people develop it, some don’t. This is like saying “You are good at public relations.” You could learn, if you wanted. See Productivity Tips for People With Short Attention Spans.

* You readily help people while asking nothing in return. That’s a nice goal. You could change this about yourself at any time. I’ve previously suggested emailing compliments to people — pick one person a day and just say something nice. Takes 30 seconds. After a year, 365 people will like you. In How to Win When the Workplace Runs on Feelings, I suggested using the downtime of unemployment in similar ways.

* You often do jobs in a hurry. This often has a lot to do with whether you’re struggling financially. If I were a struggling freelancer, I’d probably rush through some things in a half-assed way in order to pay the bills. Since I’m not, I don’t. A little bit of success breeds more. That’s why I’m (hopefully) here to help.

* You do your best to complete a task on time. Who among us shouldn’t work on this?

I don’t mean to imply that personality test results are completely inaccurate; it’s not hard for a test to sort the introverts from the extroverts, for instance. And one friend pointed out that the Myers-Briggs was a good way for people to receive a summed-up, easy-to-understand synopsis of a bunch of smaller, disconnected things they already knew about themselves. Fair enough.

But, just as studies have found that only about 50% of people remain the same personality type after six months, there is some serious fuzz in the system regarding what personality test is really measuring, and why your job might make you take one. Allow me to digress for a moment: I don’t believe in IQ tests for adults. Oh, I do believe that it is possible to test mental performance, much as some standardized tests do. But I believe that what you are testing is indeed “performance” — not some inner kernel of intellectual potential completely unrelated to how much you’ve developed your mind (or not) over the last couple of decades. What would it mean to give a test of “athletic potential” to Michael Phelps? Nothing. There is no test that would give Michael Phelps the same “potential” rating regardless of whether he had bothered to learn to swim. We can only measure performance. Surely potential had something to do with that performance, but we can’t sort it out: we’re grownups, and a lot of stuff has happened to us.

So, while it’s cute to be told that I have the same personality type as Susan B. Anthony, Katie Couric, Hannibal, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Hamlet (fiction – WTF?), you can determine some substantial part of your own personality type, just as you can determine some substantial part of your mental or athletic performance. A lot of us might “naturally” have the sort of personality type that lends itself to knitting all day and having many cats. There are no jobs that are like that; it’s very unlikely you could even support yourself selling handmade goods on Etsy to people who aren’t allergic to dander. And if your personality type makes you naturally a great artist, you’re going to have to stretch to also develop the personality qualities needed to market and sell that art. You don’t get anywhere by staying in your comfort zone.

If you didn’t stop reading towards the beginning of this column to go take the free quiz, sure, do it now. It’s fun. And then make a note of the questions you wish you could have answered otherwise, and hope to be able to honestly answer otherwise in the future.

Not to get all existentialist on anyone’s ass, but you can mold and shape your personality, bonsai-style. You can cultivate parts and kill off others. I was a bitter, miserable, sarcastic child. Later — much too much later — I realized that sarcasm doesn’t much help anyone, at least when directed at individuals (it can be quite enjoyable when directed at otherwise unbearable developments in the news). I was also simply being made miserable by the institution of childhood itself, just as all of us would possess somewhat different personalities under crushing poverty, for instance. No one who knew me way back when would ever have guessed that I’d be a pretty ridiculously happy adult who enjoys helping people for a living. But I am! Because it’s just better that way.

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  • Lindsay Cross

    When I was in high school, there was some test where each answer corresponded with a color. The color you had the most of was the type of personality you most exhibited. He arranged the colors in a box. (Sorry, I know this is a little confusing to explain.) He said that our second highest scored color would be connected to our first color, either right/left or up/down. Everyone acted like he was a magician who knew us really well.

    Except my two highest scores were diagonal. When I told the teacher this, his response was, “Umm…. that doesn’t happen.” Except it did. So either I’m extremely exceptional (not likely) or the test was crap (more likely).

  • Lilit Marcus

    We had similar tests when I was in school. I was pretty sure they were sponsored by the military because they matched your skill set up with a branch of the armed forces. Just a theory, though.

  • porkchop

    I loved that you found so much positive material in the MBTI even though you don’t really trust it.

    It’s true that some of the descriptions are flattering (as an INFJ, I can apparently read minds and predict the future). Jung is known for a positive viewpoint of personality (despite his (I am totally oversimplifying) view that personality is fixed for life). It’s designed to be a positive spin on neutral. Myers and Myers describe INTJ as “determined to the point of stubborness” which isn’t really a complement or an insult, though it may feel like one or the other. (your views on changing yourself, striving to get better results from yourself, and even your tree analogy, are SO ADLERIAN. Alfred Adler is my fave!)

    In the corporate world, the MBTI can be dumbed down to the point of insult–a glorified horoscope is an excellent description. For a true administration, you have to take the inventory without seeing the results, then talk to someone educated in the theory and come up with your own letters, then discuss your inventory results. Also, the letters aren’t meant to be an excuse for your behavior. People think that a preference for Feeling over Thinking gives them permission to ignore evidence, but really it’s giving them a reason to ask, when making decisions, whether they could make a better decision by seeking evidence.

    Interesting facts about the MBTI include that INTJs, followed by INFJs, are the best performers in school and that standardized tests are usually written by these types. The tendency to use of sensory information (S), and to second guess oneself (P) are actually punished in school.

    Anyway. That is what I learned in counseling school…

    The MBTI is really useful (not least for the reasons you explained) but people either treat it like the be-all-end-all or else oversimplify it until it’s just a parlor game.

    • Jen Dziura

      Ha! Thank you for this. The INTJ / standardized test connection is certainly a new one on me.

  • Sam

    We had a test like that in my middle school too that we had to take every. single. year. It was always total B.S. – one time, it told my brother that he would be a great window washer.

  • eEv

    I read an article recently– tried to find the link and was not able, but it was saying that if you focus on defining your personality, you’re only limiting yourself. I much prefer your method of working on improving things that need to be improved, rather than just going “Oh, I’m a such-and-such type so I’ll never be good at that.”

  • Simon Bostock
  • Anj

    The MBTI is definitely a useful tool for general guidelines about your personality. The key is to use the test to build upon strengths and identify weaknesses you can work on. As with any self-reporting, there is a good chance you’re going to misrepresent yourself.

    As with any test, its important to take the results with a grain of salt. I think the people that administer these tests and the companies that offer them have to play up the benefits and validity of the test but that doesn’t mean that they are the definitive measure of your personality. Labeling of any kind is counterproductive and should be discouraged!

    I don’t really know if anyone in psychology or counseling (I’m a counselor) really stresses the MBTI or tests like it because we know that personality is dynamic and can be changed. Its really the companies that offer the tests that play it up!