Are you an Enthusiast-Challenger? Or do you feel like you’re more of a Loyalist-Peacemaker?

No, actually you seem like more of a Tweaker-Collaborative, maybe with a little dormant Risk Taker thrown in.

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Or maybe you embody aspects of Introversion, Sensing, Thinking and Judging. Maybe you’re a classic Logistician.

All of these examples come from the world of personality tests—punchy assessments that don’t take up much of your time but, once you’ve answered a number of questions about yourself, will cut to the very core of your being.

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Some of the more reputable ones are the products of decades of research and study. Others are relatively slapdash and have little more science going for them than your average “What does your favorite Disney movie say about what kind of ice cream flavor you are?” quiz.

What can we actually learn about ourselves in the process of taking these assessments? Do they have the capacity to surprise us, or are they just confirming what we already know?

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And how useful are their findings in our everyday lives, both in the workplace and the social sphere?

That knowing/doing gap is why some people don’t find value in personality tests,” says Tamara Kleinberg, creator of the Innovation Quotient Edge (IQE) Assessment. “You could read a report about yourself all day long, but if you don’t take it and find out the tools to translate that into action, so what?”

I see your Protagonist and raise you a Virtuoso.

Most of the mainstream tests get at the same thing: evaluating people on the “five-factor” model of personality traits. There’s even a snazzy acronym: OCEAN. For the uninitiated, that stands for openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

Lately, the HEXACO model—honesty/humility, emotional stability, “xtraversion” (see what they did there?), agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience—is also gaining steam, but OCEAN still reigns supreme.

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When the Enneagram Institute seeks to classify you as one of its nine personality types, it is drawing upon an OCEAN foundation. When the 16 Personalities test combines the Jungian theory of introversion and extraversion with tenets of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to come up with its various Architects, Mediators, Consuls, et al, it is drawing upon that tradition as well.

All of this is to say that the most effective personality tests—the ones that stand up—tend to have a fairly rich psychological tradition behind them.

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“The problem I’ve seen in this space is everybody thinks they’re a psychologist,” says Frederick Morgeson, professor of management at Michigan State University. “They might be smart, intuitive people, but there’s a whole science of how you develop these things, and how you prove that they’re doing what you say they’re doing. Anybody could develop a test: ‘Which character are you from Seinfeld?’ Somebody made that up. It means nothing, but it’s fun to do.”

Morgeson and Robert Tett, professor of psychology at the University of Tulsa, both study personality tests mostly in the context of how they can be used in the workplace. Companies sometimes administer assessments to prospective employees to aid in the hiring process, or have current employees take personality tests to gain better insights into team dynamics or opportunities for greater productivity.

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Tett says the most predictive personality assessments have a couple of essential traits going for them: reliability and validity. For a test to be reliable, it means that you’d expect to get much the same results in it if you took it on Monday, then took it again next Wednesday. Validity, in this context, means that the things the test is telling you actually ring true.

If an employee who scores high on “conscientiousness” is the same guy who always shows up for work an hour late…the company’s test of choice might have a problem.

“There is information that the respondent can take out of a personality test—self-knowledge,” says Tett, who goes on to say that an organization can also glean information that can inform opportunities for making a better fit between the worker and the job.

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“It’s pretty straightforward, but basically, does the person have the skills and motivation necessary to do a particular job?” Tett asks. “Personality comes into play in that respect.”

But there’s one aspect that even the best personality tests cannot account for: lying, either intentionally or unintentionally. If you believe that you’re an open, warm-hearted person but everybody else you encounter thinks you’re a bit of a pill, then you might be susceptible to “self-deception” when you take a personality test.

If you know you’re an unrepentant braggart but answer “strongly agree” to a question like “I’d rather the team get credit for a successful project than take credit myself,” well, then you’re just faking. Yes, that’s the technical term.

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Both are examples of “social desirability” or “impression management.” Basically, you’re telling your employer—or yourself—what you think is more acceptable, rather than what’s actually true.

“They’re going to give you a test that says, ‘I work hard,’” Morgeson says. “You really want that job, so what are you going to say? ‘Nah, not really. I don’t like working at all.’ So some of the problems revolve around what we would call ‘faking good.’ It’s the issue of faking and how it impacts the validity and reliability of these assessments.”

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Tests can include carefully worded questions, and some even include built-in traps—questions worded in a way that would seem to be fishing for one answer while they’re actually looking for another—which can cut down on this sort of bias. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to totally erase it.

That’s just human nature.

Don’t blame me, I’m an ISFP.

Okay, so you set aside 20 minutes of your day, answer like 100 oddly intrusive questions and, after all that, the test you’re taking comes up with this: “You’re an introvert, with sensing, feeling and perceiving traits. You’re like Steven Spielberg!”

No doy,” you think. “I’m always propping up the walls at social gatherings, worrying about what everyone else is thinking about me and empathizing with the guy who just took a sip of the punch and made a sour face. And I love Jurassic Park. Tell me something I don’t know.”

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Personality assessments tend to tell the even somewhat self-aware among us things we already know about ourselves.

That can be a good thing. It can reinforce your strengths and give you a roadmap to possibly shoring up your weaknesses. Or it can just cause you to entrench further into who you already are: “Yeah, I have a domineering personality. I like to take charge. Why should I care how that makes other people feel?”

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“It can be liberating in some ways, in the sense of facing your limitations and dealing with them, as opposed to sticking your head in the sand and ignoring it, or sort of fumbling through life trying this and that out,” Tett says. “It might give people new ideas on careers they might not have considered. It depends on how you react to your test scores. Whether you go ‘Whatever. That’s who I am,’ or [are] more proactive and say, ‘That’s who I am. What can I do to improve this limitation or leverage this strength into a better situation?’”

Kleinberg embodies that ethos with the IQE. She intends her assessment to be a supplementary piece to the more conventional personality tests. Kleinberg says the IQE takes the facets of your personality into account and applies them to how you innovate.

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She came upon the idea about 20 years ago when she was leading a marketing pitch meeting that her firm’s creative team bailed on. Going around the room and brainstorming, she quickly realized that everyone in attendance had the ability to contribute to the creative space, despite that team’s absence.

Yes, even the accountants.

They were just as innovative as the ‘creatives,’ just nobody recognized them as being innovative, and they didn’t have the room or permission,” Kleinberg says. “That was the moment of, ‘Wow, maybe we’re thinking about innovation and creativity the wrong way. Maybe it’s not about a couple people with cool shirts and cool titles. Maybe it’s about how we all do it and how we all can contribute.’”

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Kleinberg says the IQE report includes concrete action steps people can take to embrace their innovation style and has even greater utility when used on groups of people within an organization. It could help an employer, and maybe even co-workers, see that maybe Greg in accounts payable isn’t slacking off at work all the time. He’s just innovating in a different way.

“The mistake a lot of us make is we gravitate to people like us,” Kleinberg says. “I say, ‘This is how I innovate, so you have to innovate that way.’ But you don’t. You do it differently. I need to understand how you do it so I can respect it and recognize it.”

Test-Taker Beware

According to Morgeson, there’s another brand of “faking” that’s rampant in the world of personality assessments. It comes from the test companies themselves.

“Beware of the marketing and always pay attention to the science,” Morgeson urges hirers. “If [a test company] comes to you and says you’re going to have a 100 percent success rate—first of all, that won’t be true. So, immediately know they’re lying to you­­—the second thing you should do is say, ‘Show me the proof.’ A reputable assessment or test vendor will be able to provide a detailed technical report to be able to demonstrate that their claims are true.”

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The ones that count have reliability, validity, a structural tie to psychologically recognized models of personality—and an eye toward cutting down on social desirability bias.

These are the tests that have the potential to tell who you truly are, even if you happen to be lying about yourself.

Finally, treat it like a science. Because it is.

“Simplicity is seductive,” Tett said. “We all want simplicity, and if it’s presented so simply that anybody can understand, it’s probably not very diagnostic, and you’ve got to be wary about it.”

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Here are some examples of personality tests that are free and easy to understand. To find out more about their psychometric qualities, like reliability and validity, you should ask their publishers about the science behind their development and intended purposes. Better yet: Look for studies conducted independently of the publishers. Free is great, but validity is the essential characteristic of a good test and usually worth paying for in the long run.

  • 16 Personalities: breaks down the “big five” (remember OCEAN?) personality traits into realms of mind, energy, nature, tactics, and identity. Plus, the test has been taken online more than 150 million times, so it has a large pool of data from which to draw its conclusions.
  • Institute for Health and Human Potential EQ Test: helps pinpoint your level of “emotional intelligence,” or how well you’re able to handle your emotions and read the emotions of others. It evaluates not only your level of emotional intelligence but also areas for improvement.
  • Skills You Need: designed to help people in their career paths. It evaluates test-takers on listening skills, verbal communication, our old friend emotional intelligence, and their aptitude for working in groups and teams, with a goal of highlighting areas in which employees are proficient or deficient.

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