Pigeonholing is for the birds

Young frustrated businessman trapped in small carton box

My ex-husband’s parents had a business. A very successful family-run business, well established and respected, run in a traditional management style that had worked well for decades. In the early 1990s, when they belatedly discovered the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), it was as if they had discovered fire. It would solve communication issues! Make people managing easy! Attract the right people for the job!

So for the first time ever, they made interviewing and résumés secondary and tertiary, and did MBTI testing on all job applicants, instead.

Enter the applicant I’ll call Bob. MBTI said he was perfect, and he was hired without further ado.


“Shame they spent all that money on MBTI,” I said to my then-husband some months later when he was having his fifteenth Bob-induced nervous breakdown, “instead of making sure Bob actually had some brains to put into the job.”

I know I sound awful, but intelligence wasn’t Bob’s strength. Which would have been OK if he’d been an eager learner or modeler (which he wasn’t). Or not spent the intelligence he did have wreaking interpersonal havoc with each and every single person in that workplace (which he did).

Bob was fired, and MBTI was never mentioned again.

Personality tests, on their own and as they are, have their place. But not every place. And certainly not an overly important place. I believed it then with Bob, and I believe it now with associates who describe me with one letter of DiSC (two on a good day). Recently, the stats backed me up.

Or rather, not so recently. Over 10 years ago, a study that should have made HR headlines but didn’t told us that personality tests are the second-worst recruiting tool – not to mention people management tool – there is. But they persist. Why? I have a few theories, but they’re not important. What’s important is that we can do better.

Personality tests may – if they do what they’re supposed to – tell us who or what people are, but they can’t predict performance. If that’s the case, what are they good for? It reminds me of the fabulously crabby Lucy Van Pelt, after her brother Linus tells her a fascinating but useless piece of trivia:


Given that personality profile information can’t predict performance, or attitude, or motivation, there’s only one thing you can do: proceed to pigeonhole people with it.

Now… you may think you wouldn’t, you couldn’t, you won’t, you can’t, but let me tell you, the odds are stacked well against you on this one. Let me introduce you to the fact – not idea, but fact – that we are all highly suggestible and relatively easily influenced. And place this fact as a backdrop against the phenomenon of confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias happens all the time. When we interact with each other, we have expectations of each other, so we seek out information that confirms these expectations. In fact, we’ll give greater weight to information that confirms the expectations rather than disproves them, particularly if we’re not motivated to question our beliefs.

Imagine this: you’ve read someone’s personality profile – an official, scientific-looking document. Whether you admit it or not, you’ve just had some very compelling ideas about that person suggested to you. When you meet them, the things they say and do magically fit what you just read. Will you then question what you see and hear? Gee, I don’t know: your firm has just spent thousands of dollars on these profiles, so how likely are you to be motivated to disprove them?

And so it will go. Another worker pigeonholed. Another person’s potential ignored. Another opportunity for effective management set aside. Another shot at excellence gone to waste.

I initially turned to the Language and Behavior profile, and lately (and happily) the iWAM assessment, because they combined my lifelong love of words and language with my newfound love of NLP. But when I realised that they don’t measure personality but behaviour, performance, and attitude, and do not put people into neat little boxes, I was rapt. Here was something I could really make a difference with, I thought. Turns out, people aren’t so easily swayed from personality profiling. Maybe personality profiling has a confirmation bias all of its own, yes?

You don’t need to come to me for your staff assessment needs (although if you want to, awesome), and you don’t need to completely forget about personality testing. You just need to know what you need that information for. And if the answer only serves to limit and pigeonhole people, there’s only one thing to do.

Give it the bird.


Photo credit © SergeyNivens via DepositPhotos