Years ago, when I worked at a tech startup, the entire company got two days off to attend an offsite meeting. The purpose of this meeting wasn’t to recap our sales figures for the year or to strategize for the next quarter. It was to get to the bottom of how much red, yellow, green, and blue each of our personalities contained.
You either read that sentence knowing exactly what I’m referring to or you’re wondering if I was involved in some kind of company-sanctioned mushroom trip. For the uninitiated, these colors represent the possible outcomes of the DiSCⓇ Personality Test, a self-assessment measured by four key character traits: Dominance (green), Influence (red), Steadiness (blue) and Conscientiousness (yellow). And it’s not the only type of personality test being used in the workplace—you’ve got your Myers-Briggs (INFP here), your Enneagram (I’m a 4), and even, in some cases, your horoscopes (My big three? Libra, Aquarius, and Pisces).
While the DiSC Test was originally developed with job performance in mind, many professional teams are turning to all kinds of personality tests to better understand themselves and how to work best with their colleagues. In a time when many teams have yet to meet face-to-face and knowledge workers are rethinking their relationship to work itself, these frameworks can offer a clearer path to connection—both internally and externally—at work.
The do’s and don’ts of using personality tests at work
At their best, personality tests can provide an opportunity for teams to talk about their own individual perspectives and ways of doing things that can foster more seamless collaboration. But experts caution against relying too heavily on personality tests in a professional setting.
One of the earliest and most popular tests, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) was initially developed in the 1940s as a “people-sorting tool” meant to help people find a job that was best suited to them. Over the years, many concerns were raised about whether it was ethical to use personality tests for hiring purposes. While these tests can offer a gateway to introspection and connection, they aren’t wholly prescriptive of who people are. Flagging potential discrimination, the consensus after years of debate is in: personality inventories should have no place in a company’s hiring process.
“The problem is that people type themselves as the person they want to be, rather than the person they are.”
In areas where personality tests can be helpful tools—such as team bonding exercises—having a clear understanding of how they work prior to the initial assessment is key. Among the various tests and profiles that are available, the Enneagram has seen an especially huge workplace resurgence. But as with any trend that reaches the masses, it’s not always used the way it’s intended. “Enneagram got so hot in the last few years, but in general, it’s not well understood,” says Brian Taylor, Vice President at the Enneagram Institute.
As Brian sees it, the disconnect comes from peoples’ innate attempt to reframe the question at the center of the assessment. “Enneagram is a tool for self-discovery,” he says. “It can be used to begin to understand why we are the way we are and see which aspects of one’s personality may be holding them back.” But in the context of the workplace, the central question often changes from “Who am I?” to “What kind of employee am I?”
This change in framing can also warp Enneagram results. “Especially at work, people can mistype themselves,” says Brian. “The problem is that people type themselves as the person they want to be, rather than the person they are.”
The tendency to answer personality tests with aspirations in mind, rather than honestly, defeats the whole purpose of the Enneagram. “Getting your Enneagram number should be the starting point for personal exploration,” says Brian, and without the right reference point to start from, that’s very difficult.
Getting to know your colleagues—and yourself
Today, that line between “Who am I?” and “Who am I at work?” is blurrier than ever. There’s been an ever-growing trend, especially as the pandemic merged our work and personal lives even closer together, for employers to encourage their team members to bring their “whole self” to the workplace—and for employers to create a safe atmosphere for them to do so.
This is easier said than done, however, and many organizations face a chasm that they’re struggling to fill. The move to more remote work cultures made it much harder for people to get to know their colleagues. As in-person interactions are greatly reduced, we’re left with paler proxies—Slack DMs, online all-hands, and virtual one-on-ones—to try to relay our identities and get to know one another.
From within this chasm, the personality test is re-emerging to be used at work the way it was always intended: as a tool for self-discovery and exploration. And armed with self-knowledge, people can connect with their colleagues better, too. For instance, interpersonal conflict and tension can be particularly challenging in a remote environment. Personality tests can provide a shared language and a safe form of expression for diverse teams—that is, if all team members including managers are supportive.
...the personality test is re-emerging to be used at work the way it was always intended: as a tool for self-discovery and exploration.
“Both employer and employee need to want to really go there and be open to the possibilities of where it will take you,” says Brian. Whether it’s used as a jumping off point to a getting-to-know you conversation or a tool for someone to understand their own conflict style better, personality tests can act as guide posts for connection in an increasingly virtual work setting.
Part of the puzzle
For weeks following that offsite, the office was abuzz with people comparing their results. There was a lot of, “That’s a very Red thing for me to say,” and, “I’m trying to be a little more Blue.” While having our personalities neatly filed into a framework was interesting, we still relied heavily on our daily, face-to-face interactions to get to know each other better. In a post-2020 world where these interactions are fewer and farther between, personality tests can have more significant effects.
Now that we have remote workplaces to contend with for the foreseeable future, it seems like personality tests have finally found a niche in the workplace that they’re well suited to. And in a time where our work selves and non-work selves are more enmeshed than ever, the ways we use personality tests at work are becoming much more similar to how we use them in life outside the proverbial office.
When an employee is empowered to tell their own story about who they are, they can use that information to better understand and advocate for themselves. Completing a personality test might not solve the whole puzzle for us, but it’s certainly a tool we can use to fill in a few pieces of it.