Tag Archives: personality

Attacking the Myth That Personality Tests Don’t Add Value

For this month’s myth, the last on the topic of psychometrics, I have chosen a slightly different approach. I’m coming out in defence of personality tools; when they are used correctly and understood in the right context. Rather than reinvent the wheel in this regard, I have chosen to highlight what I believe to be a very reasoned article on the topic in Forbes by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic.

Before posting a direct link to the article, I want to set the context for the value in psychometrics. For me, it is based on 5 key points:


  1. Predicting human behaviour is difficult: The psychometric industry often over steps the mark with the levels of prediction it claims to have. Assessments are not crystal balls and the search for the greatest predictive tool which is easily generalizable across multiple contexts is futile. The corollary, however, is not true that due to human complexity assessments have no application and understanding a little more about a person’s behavioural preference, and understanding a framework of personality, has no value. On the contrary, it is valuable for the very reason that human beings are complex and more information on individual differences and frameworks to help us conceptualise behavioural patterns does add value to the people decisions we need to make. Psychometric tools provide a framework for understanding personality and provides a simple, relative measurement model to assist decision-making..


  1. Human beings have free-will: It never ceases to amaze me when I meet people who are sycophantic with respect to their devotion to a particular assessment tool. It is as if they choose to ignore the concept of free-will. Behaviour will inevitably change across situations and with different reinforces, and this is so inherent that it needs no further explanation. What psychometric tools can do however is estimate the likelihood of behavioural change and the preference for behaviour. The assessment does not supersede free-will but rather helps us to understand how free-will be displayed a little bit better.


  1. Lying, or distortion, is a problem for any assessment method: Lying is something humans often do! A common argument against personality tools is that people may present themselves in an overly positive light. It should be noted that the same criticism can reside in any assessment methodology, from interviews to CVs.  It affects many dimensions of life, from employment to those hoping to meet Mr or Ms Right via an online dating site. Quality personality tools attempt to mitigate this issue with response style indicators such as measures of social desirability, central tendency and infrequency.


  1. Behaviour is an indication between the situation and preference: Much like the comment on free-will, the situation should never be ignored when attempting to understand behaviour. Personality tests provide us with part of the puzzle, and in doing so they help us understand how someone is likely to behave. The keyword in that sentence is ‘likely’, and how ‘likely’ depends on the strength of the behavioural preference and the situation.


  1. Personality assessments are a simple, coherent and quick method for shedding light on human complexity: The bulk of personality tools are used for recruitment. When recruiting a person, we need to make an expensive decision on limited information and in a short timeframe. This necessitates the need to look at all the feasible ways of making an informed judgement. At its most basic, the instrument is: a collection of items that have been clustered along psychometric principles, resulting in a degree of reliability over time and internal consistency thus giving meaning to a wider trait. A person’s responses are then compared to others who have taken the tests. Assuming the norm is relevant and up-to-date, and with spread, it gives us an indication of the person’s relative behavioural preference against a comparison group of interest. The information is used to make inferences on likely behaviour together with other information collected. That is the sum total of the process. For argument’s sake, the alternative would be to say that human behaviour is all too complex and we should operate without asking any questions at all. That is equally untenable.


The problem is not that personality tests have no value, but that practitioners over estimate their value and predictive power. Psychometric test providers may also confuse the issue by over promoting their assessment, marketing their uniqueness; and extolling the magical powers of their special item set. When understood in the right context, personality assessment can add value. When used as part of a complete system, interlinking recruitment to training to performance management, a deeper understanding of how personality impacts company performance can result. I agree that there are some tools that do not meet minimum psychometric standards and as such their usefulness is limited, but for those assessments that attempt to simply ‘do as they say on the tin’ the problem lies not with the assessment but the practice of the users and unrealistic expectations.


I strongly encourage you to read this short piece on the seven common, but irrational, reasons for hating personality tests: http://www.forbes.com/sites/tomaspremuzic/2014/05/12/seven-common-but-irrational-reasons-for-hating-personality-tests/


Healthy Thinking

According to Wikipedia, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a psychotherapeutic approach that addresses dysfunctional emotions, maladaptive behaviours and cognitive processes. CBT achieves these outcomes through a number of goal-oriented, explicit systematic procedures. Cognitive behavioural therapy is one of the most widely used clinical interventions. It is thought to be effective for the treatment of a variety of conditions related to mood, anxiety, and personality. Given the success and widespread application of CBT it is surprising that it is rarely referred to as the basis or a component of work-place training or intervention. This is even more so surprising given that so many aspects of various training courses have elements of CBT and in particular the key premise that changing maladaptive thinking leads to change in affect and behaviour.

Many practitioners steer clear of using psychological terms to describe their interventions. This is somewhat of a shame as it leads to a situation where watered-down interventions result. The reality is that there are a range of quality techniques that have their genesis in the CBT movement and have huge application to improving workplace relations and work place productivity.

One workplace intervention that is explicit about links to CBT is Healthy Thinking, as developed by Dr. Tom Mulholland. Healthy thinking, or HT as it is commonly known, is at its core a reframing technique. The programme teaches participants how to become more aware of the impact of their thinking on their emotional state and how this leads to behaviour.  The programme also has a range of simple to remember and simple to use cognitive cues that people can use to evaluate their thinking process and whether it is indeed a help or hindrance.

As with all the products and training that OPRA promote we tend to adopt an approach of trialling internally first. Our motto is that unless we are convinced of a solution’s merits it is unlikely to have value to our clients.

While I had many insights that I could share from my experience with HT the one that I found most salient is that for psychology to have an impact it must be useable. HT works not only because it is in part based on aspects of CBT but that Dr. Tom has packaged it in such an easy to remember framework.  Being able to identify what type of unhealthy thinking I often resort to, and have an antidote at the ready has been invaluable for being able to have a positive impact on my thinking. Being able to TWIG (an mnemonic for processing a thought before allowing it to drive emotion and behaviour) ensures that I now have a process by which to evaluate whether a thought is useful or needs to be replaced. The removal of ‘Moan-Zones’  (places to have a whinge!) in our office has resulted in a much more positive working environment.

While the concepts of CBT may be perceived as the domain of psych professionals I strongly encourage all our clients to take a look Healthy Thinking and identify applications to improving workplace performance. Whether it is a training course, the e-learning or just a book on how to be a healthier thinker I’m confident that there are lessons that all our clients will find enhancing. Click here for more information on Healthy Thinking.

How Does Emotional Intelligence Relate to Teams?

How does emotional intelligence relate to teams?

Emotional intelligence (EI) can be defined as the ability to recognise, understand and manage the emotions of oneself, of others and of groups. The concept of EI and its contribution to the effectiveness of organisations is now well researched and supported. However, as Druskat and Wolff (2001) point out this has generally been discussed in terms of the impact at the individual level and the reality is that most of the work we do and the decisions we make is in teams. Because overall performance relies so much on team cohesiveness and awareness, enhancing emotional intelligence across the team is crucial but what does this look like and how does it differ from strategies aimed at enhancing individual emotional intelligence?

The key differences between the concepts of individual and group emotional intelligence as defined by Daniel Goleman suggest that someone with high emotional intelligence is aware of emotions and able to regulate them both inwardly and outwardly. However, just because a team is made up of emotionally intelligent people does not make for an emotionally intelligent group. A team must not only consider the emotions of the individuals within that group, but they must also be mindful of the emotions of the group as a whole, as well as the emotions of other groups in a broader context. According to Druskat and Wolff, establishing emotionally intelligent group norms where specific attitudes and behaviours become habits that enable trust, group identity and group efficacy is the answer for creating emotionally intelligent groups and ensuring functional team performance.

There are a range of potential strategies for enabling emotionally intelligent behaviour in teams at these three levels. Interpersonal understanding and perspective taking were two strategies that Druskat and Wolff discussed as ways that people can become more aware of their team members’ perspectives and feelings at the individual level. Interpersonal understanding refers to a team’s ability to pick up certain behaviours of its members and recognise the cause of them.  Perspective taking refers to the way teams stop and take the time to consider the perspectives of everyone as opposed to simply going with the majority. An emotionally intelligent team would query if there were any perspectives they had not yet heard or thought through fully. Therefore, a group norm of interpersonal understanding and sensitivity is established and helps to nurture trust and a sense of group identity among its members.

While establishing these norms at the individual level is important, many teams can struggle to recognise emotions at the group level. In a study of effective teams, the authors found that having a group awareness of the team’s strengths and weaknesses and means of interaction were critical in facilitating group efficacy.  Group emotional intelligence is about bringing emotions to the surface and understanding how they impact the performance of the team, then facing them in an open and honest forum. The last type of emotional intelligence that any high performing team should have is the ability to understand emotions outside of their team. Sometimes a team can become so caught up in their objectives and ways of working they can struggle to understand why other groups in the organisation don’t share their viewpoint or enthusiasm. Successful teams are not only aware of others’ perspectives but are capable of influencing outsiders simply by how they frame their own needs and perspectives.

While emotional intelligence at the individual level has been well supported, emotional intelligence at the team level is critical to ensuring the success of a team. Through establishing norms for emotional awareness and understanding at all levels teams can create a culture of trust, group identity and efficacy resulting in high performance. Training courses can be hugely beneficial in increasing emotional awareness and helping people to regulate emotions. Many companies are now choosing to invest in leadership development courses and team building workshops which can inform teams of the importance of establishing emotionally intelligent norms and provide strategies in doing so. What norms exist within your team and what does your team do to encourage a supportive and trusting environment?

Druskat, V., Wolff, S. (2001). Building the Emotional Intelligence of Groups. Harvard Business Review, 81-90.

The Biology of Traits

I have posted before about the value, or potential lack of, personality testing. A more fundamental question that has been raised is the basis for traits in the first place.

As a foundation, we must look to neuroscience and genetics. This is not my area but I have provided a synopsis for readers of this blog from another forum posted by an academic from Victoria University, New Zealand (Dr. Ron Fisher):

“We have very good evidence now from twin studies that there is a large genetic component to personality scores (with estimates varying between 30 and 70% of the variance being due to genetic differences). The search for the genetic encoding of these differences has started. I do not think we will find simple mappings that follow Mendel’s laws but rather complex interactions between different alleles positioned on different chromosomes. However, these studies will eventually give us some clues about the complex interaction of genes and how they then lead to personality expressions.

The expanding neuroscience mapping also opens up interesting opportunities. We will never be able to read a person’s mind based on the activation of cells in the brain (since this violates Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty – a colleague in physics pointed this out once). However, I predict we will be able to map inter-individual differences in activation in specific parts of the brain that are akin to traits”.

So where does this leave personality testing? I, like Ron, believe that psychometrics is a step towards understanding human behaviour (specifically, the consistent part of human behaviour). I believe that consistence will be described semantically by traits, and understanding more fully the behaviours that make up those traits is the real question for trait based personality theorists. To achieve this we need a far more collaborative approach as scientists and practitioners. We must not be swayed by excessive commercialisation that is the bug-bear of this industry.

To conclude, I will leave the last word to Dr. Fisher who had this to say in a post on another forum:

“In the near future, genetic mapping and findings from neuroscience will complement psychometric findings in our understanding of why certain people behave in certain ways. Whether these techniques will ever find their application in work settings, I am not sure. But it would give us a better answer to what lies underneath the currently observed clusters of items as found in factor analytical studies”.

Are Tests Really That Different?

One of the myths I have long spoken about is the idea that there are great differences between various psychological tests. In essence, the argument is that if there is a science to personality, or cognitive ability, what they measure must be similar. This is fundamental to the basis for construct validity between tests, i.e. what they claim to measure. I was recently introduced to a paper that explored this exact issue. Not surprisingly, the similarities between similar tools are far greater than their differences.

Grucza, R.A., Goldberg, L.R. (2007) The Comparative Validity of 11 Modern Personality Inventories: Predictions of Behavioral Acts, Informant Reports, and Clinical Indicators. Journal of Personality Assessment, 89, 2, 167-187.

In science, multiple measures of the same constructs can be useful, but they are unlikely to all be equally valid indicators. In psychological assessment, the many popular personality inventories available in the marketplace also may be useful, but their comparative validity has long remained unassessed. This is the first comprehensive comparison of 11 such multi-scale instruments against each of three types of criteria: clusters of behavioral acts, descriptions by knowledgeable informants, and clinical indicators potentially associated with various types of psychopathology. Using 1,000 bootstrap resampling analyses from a sample of roughly 700 adult research participants, we assess the relative predictability of each criterion and the comparative validity of each inventory. Although there was a wide range of criterion predictability, most inventories exhibited quite similar cross-validities when averaged across all three types of criteria. On the other hand, there were important differences between inventories in their predictive capabilities for particular criteria. We discuss the factors that lead to differential validity across predictors and criteria. The tests used were:
1. The revised NEO inventory (NEO-PI-R: Costa & McCrae, 1992)
2. The California Psychological Inventory (CPI: Gough & Bradley, 2002)
3. The 5th edition of Cattell’s Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF: Conn & Rieke, 1994; Russell & Karol, 1994)
4. The Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI: Hogan & Hogan, 1995)
5. The Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI-R: Cloninger, Przybeck, Svrakic, & Wetzel, 1994)
6. The Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire (MPQ: Tellegen, in press; Tellegen & Waller, in press)
7. The revised version of the Jackson Personality Inventory (JPI-R: Jackson, 1994)
8. The Six-Factor Personality Questionnaire (6FPQ: Jackson, Paunonen, & Tremblay, 2000)
9. The HEXACO Personality Inventory (HEXACO-PI: Lee & Ashton, 2004)
10.The set of 100 unipolar adjective markers of the Big-Five factor structure developed by Goldberg (1992)
11.The 485 items in the IPIP-AB5C Inventory (Goldberg,1999a)

I believe that if we are to progress, what is required is a recognition of a fundamental science that underpins the discipline. Measures must be related back to that science. No other discipline has this great variation in taxonomies of measurement nor should I/O psychology.

The Real Basis for Personality Tools

Judging from the amount of private correspondence about my last blog, it seems that it has caused quite a stir. To be clear, I’m a fan of personality testing but am not a zealot. I believe it has a role in any thorough assessment process but:

a)      It should not be over priced.

b)      Tests are far more similar that they are distinct.

c)       Its power of prediction is far lower than the public are led to believe.

d)      It is flawed and therefore must be used with a degree of healthy scepticism.

Self-report tools have clear limitations to the measurement of personality and this is confounded by the nonsense that we can tap unconscious personality using self-report measures of behavioural preferences. This said, the idea that there are clusters of behaviours that can be used to predict other clusters of behaviours is the basis for construct validity and has found huge support at a global level (I.e. The big five). The next question for the science of trait theorists is what commonalities exist at a primary trait level. When test distributors are all distributing common models at a facet level, progress will be made.

From an application perspective, I do question the predictive power of personality tools. The fact that they predict at equally poor levels is not a convincing argument for a practitioner. I would argue that while researchers like Hogan provide a great service to the theory of personality they diminish that contribution somewhat when they try to quantify it with a degree of specificity that is unwarranted. This is a problem for a discipline when theory oversteps evidence to appear sounder. An analogy is the religious who try desperately to convince that God exists using reason when the basis of their belief is more often faith.

Personality is central to the study of psychology (which I am passionate about). The key for me is part predictive validity (application) and part understanding human behaviour (science). In terms of aiding application, the key must be system thinking. The battle is not between test providers all showing the strength of their magical question sets (and producing larger quantities of so called validity research as the basis) but rather a shift in what constitutes evidence for application. We need more complex examinations of how personality assessments interplay with environments and all other manner of variables (both individual and external) to give practitioners tangible results that they can use. This requires both stronger theory building, complex modelling, and between computational analysis.

Test providers should be exploring different and more comprehensive methods for determining test utility. In this regard, what is important is solid theory and solid science rather than using weak paradigms of what constitutes evidence to justify test sales.