The Dark Side of Personality Testing

A few years ago I attended a short course in coaching. The trainer was  a certified practitioner in Neuro Linguistic Programming and had included some of these techniques within the course. However, he imparted this knowledge with a warning – that these “powers” could potentially be used for evil.

It’s tantalising to consider that there’s a subversive underworld where corrupt NLP practitioners groom gullible managers with their superior listening and communication skills, but forgive me if I’m a little sceptical. While the ethics of hypnotised but compliant employees are questionable,it would  certainly make Human Resources’ role a whole lot easier. Or perhaps it’s just a big conspiracy to keep us all in a job. I’d certainly expect nothing less than super powers for the price charged for some of the big name NLP courses.

I’ve been discussing another pseudo-science this week – personality testing. It’s surprising how many people believe without question in the robustness of these tools when they are little more effective in predicting a good performer than is analysing their handwriting. It’s even more unnerving how so many organisations still use these tests,  craving a homogenous workforce where everyone fits into a neat little box.

It might be the hype surrounding the upcoming new Star Wars movie, or perhaps just the approach of All Hallows’ Eve, but the lure of the dark side seems stronger than ever. Take for instance this alarming piece of psychometrics, actually advertised as the ability to be able to turn the worst characteristics of your boss to your advantage. There’s even a gimmick where you can select their worst trait to receive some tips of how to deal with them. Choose “diligent” and the first tip is to “remember they’re a control freak”, another is to “get them to do your work by asking for help”. How very productive. This is surely a joke.

In the early noughties the film Minority Report portrayed an Orwellian future where thoughts were analysed and perpetrators arrested before they committed their imagined crimes. This test is like HR’s dark element giving up the pretence that personality testing is a reliable selection tool and admitting that really they just want to weed out all the weirdos. Of course organisations don’t want anyone with subversive tendencies, but an arbitrary assessment masquerading as a development tool is not the answer. Choose the dark side with extreme caution.

7 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Personality Testing

  1. Good morning Helen,

    An interesting piece. I’d raise some caution in that there are some very well validated psychometric and personality tests that are incredibly insightful and reliable. The ones based on no more than whims and fancies are the ones to be cautious of. The ones designed with the very widely accepted ‘Big 5’ factors are the ones to be trusted – Openness, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Extraversion, Neuroticism.



    1. Hi sukh thanks for commenting. I think all personality tests should be treated with caution. A reliance on them as anything other than an indication of what a person Might be like is dangerous. Not forgetting that the results can be faked!

      1. I guess it depends on the value we place on what they might help us better understand about ourselves.

        It’s not dissimilar from arguing that all HR policies should be treated with caution, all L&D interventions should be treated with caution, and all comp and bens packages should be treated with caution.

        The tests which are well designed have a built in mechanism which highlights if someone is trying to fake the results.

  2. Two thoughts – firstly I think I’d like to live in “a subversive underworld where corrupt NLP practitioners groom gullible managers with their superior listening and communication skills”!!

    But secondly – there are properly statistically validated tests that can give a reliable indication of what a person might be like, and which have a method for detecting if someone is trying to fake or manipulate the results. It’s something I considered (in an SME context) here:

    1. I think “might be like” are the important words there. Just don’t answer yes to the question in the personality test that asks you if you would rather live in a subversive and corrupt underworld…if you want the job anyway 🙂

  3. Pingback: Top 20 HR Blogs to Follow | The HR Tech Weekly

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