Personality assessment hogwash

Kathryn Crawford Saxer Career Transition

Prospective coaching clients sometimes ask me if I give personality assessments to help them determine their next steps in their careers.

“Assessments are a bit like reading your horoscope,” I reply. “Fun, but not as helpful as maybe you’re hoping it will be for your career development.”

Some coaches swear by assessments, but that’s not how I coach. I don’t think career development works that way.

“But wouldn’t it be helpful to know what career my personality type is best suited for?” clients ask hopefully.

“I know you know this,” I tell them. “But there is no magic wand; there’s no road map. If there were an evidence-based assessment that could effectively guide us – like something out of “The Giver” — we would all be happily thriving in our perfectly suited careers,” I say. (“The Giver” is a breathtaking young adult classic by Lois Lowry that I can’t believe I didn’t discover until my kids were in middle school.)

“In my opinion — and in my coaching practice! — a personality test doesn’t meaningfully add to the conversation,” I say.

(That said, I’m always interested in where clients place themselves on the introversion/extraversion spectrum. Much unhappiness can ensue when an extravert telecommutes from home, for example, or when an introvert’s role is largely in front of the room.)

I’m not the only doubter.

A recent Washington Post article reported on a big data study that could eventually inform our career choices. The study identified four personality types based on huge sets of personality data: reserved, role models, average and self-centered. The authors want to investigate whether “role models” are actually more successful in their careers, but that research is still down the road.

In the meantime, the psychologists quoted in the article were skeptical about the utility of personality assessments. “Personality-type tests are hugely popular, though if you ask working psychologists, they’ll tell you the results are little better than astrological signs,” the article begins, linking to several studies that show that personality types do not predict career success.

“The social psychology community is pretty in line with being anti Myers-Briggs Type personality assessments,” according to an academic quoted in the article.

But like my clients, I am curious about whether personality tests can teach us something about ourselves. So I took the personality trait assessment linked in the article. (You can take the test here.)

I learned that I’m a generally nice person.

Good to know. But not high utility in terms of career development.

First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.