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Which element are you?

No, I’m not talking about an online quiz. (Though there are plenty of that ilk.) I’m talking about an official test my colleagues and I took at an internal company team-building event earlier this year. We answered some questions, and we were told whether we were Earth (decisive, practical), Wind (organised, analytical), Water (empathetic, compassionate) or Fire (creative, enthusiastic). We got into groups and had to give presentations about our strengths and weaknesses.

My group, the Fires, was too creative for its own good and not organised enough (which I think was the point): our ‘presentation’ was mostly playing a Game of Thrones clip of a fire-breathing dragon as we clumsily fumbled through YouTube videos to find the right footage because we hadn’t prepared well enough. So although in an office we bring a fiery energy that sparks inspiration, according to this assessment, maybe what we need is to work with more practical types who can actually implement those ideas properly.

…Right? It’s easy to draw conclusions like this from the kinds of tests that are used in the workplace: the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Big 5, DISC… odds are, you’ve taken at least one of these or something similar either online for fun or at work on request.

Personality tests may seem silly or, in some cases, daunting, but experts there’s more to them if you know how to use them properly (Credit: Alamy)

Of course, whenever something becomes popular it gets scrutinised, quite rightly. Personality tests are one of the internet’s favourite snackable diversions and they’ve been formally used in workplaces for decades. And critics are not wrong: there’s plenty to be sceptical of.

One of the most famous measurements, for example, Type A versus B – you’re A if you’re driven and organised; B if you’re laid-back and adaptable – purportedly has its roots in the 1950s American tobacco industry, where cigarette companies invented ‘Type A’ as a high-strung target demographic who needed to buy its product right away to take the edge off.

These days, there’s no shortage of news pieces pointing out the flaws: that some of the most popular tests were made by people with no formal psychology training and hinge on unproven theories, that people get different results when they take the same test at a different time, that they shove complex humans into boxes, that the self-reporting they require is biased by nature, that it’s all a huge snake-oil money-making scheme, how the traits the tests measure don’t accurately predict what kind of employee the test-taker would be.

One of the most famous personality measurements – Type A versus B – purportedly has its roots in the 1950s American tobacco industry as a sales-targeting tool

Yet we still take them, discuss them and maybe even become a bit more aware of our workplace behaviour based on what we’ve learned. So despite the flaws, are there some advantages to performing these tests – and is it how we implement what we’ve learned that is key?  

Entertainment or utility?

Proponents of personality tests say there’s more to them than entertainment if you know how to use them properly.

Alisa Cohn, an executive coach based in New York City who’s administered hundreds of personality tests, says people should make sure there’s no negative outcome. She’s not just talking about using them in hiring decisions to preserve a company culture – selecting particular personalities, which is unethical and possibly illegal – but also about the dangers of using them to explain away behaviours without trying to really understand or improve them.

Cohn points to one of the scales used in Myers-Briggs: ‘P’, which stands for ‘Perceiving’. If you’re a P, according to the test, you’re supposed to prefer flexibility and spur-of-the-moment plans, not schedules.

“’I’m a P, so I’m always late, so you’ll have to forgive me.’ No, if you’re a P, you should leave 20 minutes early,” Cohn gives as an example. She says these tests are useful because they shine a light on blind spots and prompt self-awareness as well as trigger needed dialogue between colleagues.

If little else personality tests can give you and your colleagues something to talk about – or help you guess the most outgoing person at the work holiday party (Credit: Alamy)

“On the other side of that, if someone recognises this person tends to run a little bit late, they should realise [the other person] isn’t being disrespectful,” she says. “It’s just the way they are. We need to talk together about it.”

She says that despite putting a label on you, many of these tests simply highlight preferences, not necessarily skills you do or don’t have – she compares it handedness. If you’re right-handed, it doesn’t mean you can’t use your left hand, it just means you prefer the other one.

Deborah Borg, an HR and communications professional for an architecture firm in upstate New York, sees personality tests as tools for both the “development side” – where they are administered to existing employees – and the “recruitment side”, for job candidates.

Borg says personality tests act as a timesaver in the recruitment process because they give her a better idea of which questions to ask and how to frame them.

“If you have a series of questions that point to, ‘I prefer working independently versus on a team,’ or, ‘I like working with details or data’ – then you might probe, ‘When’s the last time you had to work with a lot of detail? Tell us what you worked on, tell us how you dug into that information’,” says Borg. “You [might] only have an hour with an interview, so being able to be frugal with that time is really useful.”

There tests are useful because they shine a light on blind spots and prompt self-awareness as well as trigger needed dialogue between colleagues

Conversation starters

Personality tests can also serve as a reminder that not everyone sees the world the same way. Cohn points to one example: say you take a personality test and you get typed as someone who likes to “lead with data”. Assuming that your working style is the default can lead to problems, so these tests are designed to give you a reality check.

“Other people want to lead with stories or razzmatazz,” she says. “There’s no right or wrong. [These tests] give you dialogue and language to learn that people are different, and [how to] marshal the strengths of all those differences.”

Susan Stehlik, director of New York University’s management communication programme, says she’s used personality tests in her classes and executive education courses. She likes to think of them as “great conversation starters” for “conversations that maybe you’re not comfortable having”.

“Where you get into trouble in workplaces is when people [are] very quick to label themselves, label everybody else and then start to apply it in situations where it is inappropriate – dangerous, actually,” she says.

Personality tests are often used in interview settings, which, instead of being discriminatory, can actually be helpful tools for recruiters (Credit: Alamy)

She mentions one instance when she was working with a marketing team who used personality labels ineffectively: one team member was characterised as an ‘introvert’ who didn’t speak up in big meetings and therefore other team members didn’t engage with him. But Stehlik says that’s only one side of his personality, and in one context. It doesn’t mean he has no ideas; it means others need to be aware of how to best get him to use his full potential.

“Stop labelling him – you’re a multidimensional personality, and that [introversion] may be one aspect of you in that context [of a large meeting],” Stehlik says. “You need to start paying attention to including him in conversation, because he’s not going to be the conversation-starter in a large meeting.”

She says she’s found personality tests most useful when, for example, you realise someone in the team favours details and traditional schedules while another colleague prefers ambiguity and lots of options. It’s about acknowledging differences – even those that might drive others nuts – and working out how to give each other feedback in a way that’s respectful, plus learning to appreciate complementary differences and how best to use them in a workplace setting.

If nothing else? It’s fun and gives people something to talk about.

At our team-building event, I wasn’t surprised to find out I was Fire, with its inherent strengths and weaknesses. But bonding with fellow Fires – and going down creative rabbit holes such as what our theme song should be – was fun, and it was also useful to see where other colleagues ended up on the ‘element spectrum’. It helped me realise who could potentially complement my Fire-ness. (My Wind score, for example, was an impressively dire 0%.)

Hours after taking the test – days, even – we were still talking about it, and the subject dominated work drinks at the pub on the afternoon after the exercise. We were engaged, enjoying ourselves and felt closer as a team – which was the whole point of the event in the first place.

“People can find them pretty fun,” Borg says. “If they don’t find they’re being judged.”

Bryan Lufkin is BBC Worklife's features writer. Follow him on Twitter @Bryan_Lufkin.

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