Comment Of The Day: “Using Personality Testing For Anything But Party Games Is Unethical”

I was very pleased that the post on personality testing triggered the lively discussion it did. The topic is a long-time source of irritation to me. Reducing the infinite variety and complexity of human character to any test should obviously set off ethics alarms, and making life-changing decisions based on such lazy short-cuts to assessing character is a bright-line Golden Rule breach. Anyone who wants to start understanding my character should read all of the posts on Ethics Alarms, and even then should prepare to be surprised.

Before I get to Sarah B.’s Comment of the Day, let me relay the link to Extradimensional Cephalopod‘s website and its basic mindsets section in his Foundational Toolbox for Life.

I’ve combined two of Sarah’s comments here, because they are closely related and I couldn’t choose between them. Here is her Comment of the Day on the post, “Using Personality Testing For Anything But Party Games Is Unethical”…


I know a manager who believes strongly in personality testing, and focuses heavily on the Clifton Strengths profile. He has convinced everyone that it is the way to go and has every one of his employees list their five strengths in order on their work emails, just like some places want preferred pronouns. Everyone I have talked to about this seems totally bought into it. I volunteer here, and thus don’t have to have my Clifton profile done, but when I was introduced to my supervisor (T), he introduced himself as a strategist, which means that he knows how to get from point A to point B in the best possible way, but has a weakness with communication, so we should just all do what he says without question, because he knows better than we do and he doesn’t have time to communicate. If you want someone who is good at communicating, talk to person H. Another of my supervisors (D), introduced herself with her main strength, the ability to think out her problems very well, but as a down side, she must have time to think, so don’t bring her a problem and expect a solution that week. She needs quiet time to work it out.

This is not a way to introduce yourselves, in my opinion. Frankly, I’d rather be known for who I am and let you determine what you think my strengths and weaknesses are, rather than a self reported test that gives me, however accurately, an assessment of those things I am strong at and tells me to make them stronger. I’d rather work to be a well rounded person. I’d also rather think of myself, not as a combination of personality traits, but as a whole person, a person who may have strengths and weaknesses, but who can work to overcome weaknesses and may let certain strengths founder as a choice.

Even if strengths are good things to have, we have to work on our weaknesses too. Frankly, T lets his “strength” in strategizing be an excuse for acting like a controlling jackass. If something doesn’t work perfectly, he blames it all on others, and says we didn’t listen enough. He cannot handle changing conditions, because they throw off his plan, so he gets stressed and pushes people badly. I have nearly quit because of him, but am too stubborn and want the experience for later in life. D uses her “strength” as an excuse to not organize or prepare for anything, all with the excuse that she didn’t have adequate time to think through the problem. If a problem arises needing a quick solution, she shuts down totally, claiming that there is nothing to be done, and won’t accept anyone else’s solution to the problem. We go from about to do our work to completely cancelling our work in moments.

These personality tests, be they Meyers Briggs, Clifton Strengths, or any other test are, at best, statements on who you are at the moment. I admit, I have many things in common with the Meyers Briggs ISTJ and I do think of Spock as a kindred spirit. However, I am not a combination of letters or personality traits. I am a human, with strengths and weaknesses, and my responsibility is to cultivate my strengths as I choose and shore up my weaknesses within reason. I wish to be a person who is always changing for the better until the day I die. A personality test can, at best, tell you who I was at the time I took it, but if my goal is to improve myself daily, it cannot tell you who I am now…

The problem is not that some of these strengths aren’t intertwined, but that the the upper management is sold on the idea that you have five strengths and you only need to work on those five strengths. The upper management, with whom I do not interact with regularly, tests everyone at a certain level and above and reports those strengths. In other words, they do not test people and then hire them, but test the hires. That is probably the better way to do things, but that means that these people are being told to look at their strengths, work at them and them alone, and to not worry about their deficits. This means that they barely even know what the other 27 strengths are, much less what ones work well together. T has his five and they mean X. D and H (his direct reports) have their main strength that he knows and the other four are…whatever they are. That’s their responsibility to know and work with.

Why T and D get the exact strengths they get is based on self reporting. They handed people out a sample of the extremely long questionnaire to pique interest. I took that sample quiz quickly, just to see what I could see. This involves a whole bunch of statements requiring answers of gradations of agreement. A statement could be, “I usually plan things well” or “I need time to think through my problems.”

I believe that the first problem is having everyone take a test that requires that they know themselves. I personally think that T has quite the ego and would state that he plans things well, whether or not he actually does. D, on the other hand, is fairly self effacing in all areas except ones that she is very strong in. Getting her to say that she agrees or disagrees with a statement, unless it involves music, her kids, or her little brother is a process in and of itself. I believe that I could study up on Clifton for a while and then target the test to get whatever score I wanted, but if I went in cold I’d get a hodgepodge of answers that wouldn’t actually describe me well. I tend to answer these questions differently depending on the day, who I dealt with, and what actually happened recently.

People like T and D get their jobs because they are qualified by other means. They are two of the triumvirate that leads the music branch of a larger organization. They both have PhD’s in music. I’m not sure about T’s exact degree, but D has a PhD in piano performance. They are phenomenal piano players, and T is amazing on the organ as well. They blow my skills out of the water, no question. However, if my opinion means anything, I believe that I am a superior accompanist to either of them, since performance skills are not accompaniment skills and vice versa. They got out of their educational institutions with the mindsets needed to be superior musicians, not leaders. My degree is in engineering, not management. I am a good engineer, but hate managing people. My education is not the fault of that, but if I were to have the ambitious desire to be a manager, I would need to overcome my lack of people skills or be promoted because of my engineering skills because those would be seen as more important.

This management issue is exactly as Jack has described the potential problem with the new Democratic FAA head. Do you want a manager who is skilled at the subject matter being managed, or someone who is skilled at managing? Each is fraught with problems. Subject matter experts can handle the details and can help when sticky situations come up that requires a great deal of knowledge, but don’t inspire people to work well. Managers can bring out employees’ best work, but if a situation comes up where expertise is needed, cannot handle the problem. Which is better? It is hard to find a subject matter expert who can also manage. In my engineering discipline, we have to have a lot of foundational knowledge and managing people just doesn’t make the grade. Musicians spend all their time alone in practice rooms, so don’t learn to manage often. On the other hand, there often aren’t enough subject matter experts who also got an MBA. Where is the line drawn? I have no answer.

3 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “Using Personality Testing For Anything But Party Games Is Unethical”

  1. I appreciate the nuanced analysis of the situation, Sarah!

    Also, thanks for the plug, Jack!

    Copying my reply here in case people want to continue the discussion on this post:

    If I understand correctly, the paradigm at your workplace is that everyone chooses a few things to claim to be skilled at, and everyone else is required to treat them as if they are skilled at those things and accommodate them in everything they say they are not skilled at? There are ways of uniting management skills with subject matter competence, but that doesn’t sound like one of them.

    Perhaps the easiest way, though not necessarily the most efficient, is to have managers who are skilled at managing and support them with subject matter experts who are skilled at explaining the fundamentals of their craft and translating specific situations when they come up. Of course, the manager still has to show they understand what’s at stake when they make judgment calls.

    If someone can be skilled at the technical details and at management, that’s wonderful. Otherwise, the management skills and subject matter skills don’t all need to be in the same head all the time, but everyone should at least understand the foundational principles of what everyone else does. Furthermore, people need to be able to communicate with each other, even if that communication is facilitated by a third person. At least, that’s how my institution mindset suggests to do things. How does that sound?

    • Oh no, EC, you moved over here! Good thing I always copy and paste. Continuing discussion, and I appreciate your thought provoking replies.

      First, in an attempt to be fair to the organization I volunteer for as an accompanist, the process isn’t exactly as you point out if someone tries not to game the system. People self-report in a lengthy test their opinions are both opinion and fact based statements. Statements that indicate the strength strategy in this assessment might be:
      I prefer planning to spontaneity. (Agree with a 10)
      When I plan, things never work out the way I want. (Disagree with a 1)
      Along with many others questions for the topic, as well as 31 other topics.

      I personally see this as problematic, as I think that I do well at planning, but today my plan was totally derailed because my happy four-year old turned into a monster the instant I suggested we do something I thought she’d like. If I am someone who likes planning and tends to view my successes more than my failures, I’d answer the second question very differently than someone who focuses on failures equally or more than successes. The self-reporting component, as well as the fact that we all have inherent biases that this test does nothing to alleviate lead to a list of “skills” that we all have to trust people have and accommodate them in things they are not skilled at.

      I agree that this is a failed model of how to manage people. As for your suggested example, I think that it has merit in some instances, but not others. In the organization I volunteer for, that would work out well. Truly, you do not need a genius musician to organize and plan for other musicians. A person who can organize and communicate could run us well, with the amazing musicians taking a secondary role and lesser musicians like myself having the opportunity to chime in when the work load gets a little hard and we need some easier music.

      Conversely, my old job suffered from having managers not be subject matter experts. In certain operations, decisions where money, the environment, and human safety hang in the balance, there isn’t always time to consult with multiple people. A decision has to be made and made quickly. The answer cannot be preserve money at the expense of someone’s life or destroying the environment, but it also cannot be lose tens of millions of dollars to make it 100% safe, or keep the environment clean by harming people and completely wrecking your bottom line. When you take a complicated process worth millions of dollars a day and something goes wrong, you have to know what you are doing to make the right choice.

      As an example, I had a situation that I believed to be a fireball waiting to happen, but a colleague of mine who did not work my exact position argued was totally safe. I then spec’ed out a mitigation plan that involved 4″ pipe for delivery and a 1″ orifice plate for measurement purposes. However, I was unable to be present for installation of my fireball suppression plan as I had fatigued out and OSHA has opinions about that. The manager on site found that it was much simpler to install a 1″ tubing line than a 4″ pipe for a temporary issue, believing my colleague’s statement that this was an unnecessary step, and not knowing the difference between a 1″ plate and a 1″ pipe, called it good. Long story short, we blew a 30 ‘ high fireball in to the sky, nearly destroyed a catalyst servicing truck, and put a half dozen men in deadly danger, forcing them to work at 400F for a day in suits that really weren’t rated for quite that hot. A manager sometimes needs to know the subject matter because they can’t get experts for the decision or they listen to the wrong expert.

      Addendum: which subject matter expert should you listen to? The one with 30 years experience in the field but who has never worked specifically high temperature high pressure hydrogen, or the one with only 3 years experience, but who works high temperature high pressure hydrogen units daily? A managerial type may have trouble answering that question.

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