Do personality psychometrics cut the mustard?

Everyone gets involved with personality assessment on a daily basis; ‘I wonder what she is like?’, ‘Would she fit in with us?’, ‘Would she impress our clients?’, ‘I wonder if we could team up effectively?’ These are questions that we struggle with and about which we often make poor decisions. Nothing illustrates this better than the fact that the candidate interview, a ubiquitous element of the financial recruitment process, can be as successful as making employment decisions on the toss of a coin. How is it that we can get it so wrong? The answer lies in the vagaries of the language we rely on.

It’s possible to have a conversation with someone about a third person where you both come away with very different impressions about what was discussed and what was agreed, and that’s the problem. Take the sentence “Henry is prudent, friendly and imaginative” – what could be clearer? But each of those three words will mean different things to different people. My iPad dictionary app gives me 30 synonyms for prudent, 48 for friendly and 30 for imaginative. This suggests that there are literally thousands of different ways (43,200 actually) in which these sentiments may be expressed. Each would have different nuances and different implications. If you think ‘imaginative’ is about being ingenious and I think it’s about being dreamy, then we’re not off to a good start!

The psychometric process simply aims to do what we all try to do intuitively on a day-to-day basis; to find the right words to sum other people up. It faces two challenges; firstly it has to navigate the labyrinthine complexities of the language we use (illustrated by the synonym example above) and secondly, to design assessments that are systematic and fair; capable of being repeated at another time, in another place and with different people in a standardised way.

Research reveals five key reference points that allow us to navigate the semantic confusion, (referred as the Five Factor Model – FFM). This ‘language map’ allows for dramatic improvements in the coherence and consistency of personality assessment. It is the basis for reliable, consistent and replicable procedures that identify the vocabulary that best captures the distinctive personality characteristics of each individual. Using large comparison samples, it can establish how distinctive or otherwise we are in respect of each personality dimension.

Of course, the way we present ourselves when completing a personality questionnaire is subject to the same distortion and manipulations deployed in real life encounters. We all prefer to present ourselves in the best light possible, especially at an interview. Questionnaires usually include ‘impression management scales’ to pick up on this and ‘validity scales’ to identify sabotage or random responding. The best instruments also minimise the transparency of the questions, drawing on the rich pool of psychological research to make inferences from less obvious items. In any case, the expertise required for manipulation – ‘steering’ questionnaire responses to achieve a desired profile – would be considerable and more likely to result in bizarre or undesirable distortions.

The potency, accuracy and comprehensive nature of personality assessment inevitably means that you can get the full picture, warts and all. But, intrinsically, there is no good or bad personality for a career in finance. Certain characteristics are sought after for some roles, of course, but everything you have got in personality terms means that there is something else that you haven’t got. Short people don’t get the benefits of being tall, but they don’t get the disadvantages either. It’s the same with personality.

One area that can cause concern for those responsible for recruiting in financial services organisations is how they explain a profile to the person assessed if it appears unflattering. First you need to consider whether your version of ‘flattering’ is the same as theirs! We are usually quite fond of our own characteristics and also quite forgiving of them, (whether other people are is another matter), and we all tend to project those preferences onto others. Experienced coaches are careful not to make value judgements and avoid the situation where they may seem to be consoling someone about something that that individual sees as their greatest asset.

The value of personality assessment to the person assessed is that it offers a fresh and dispassionate viewpoint; a chance to take stock and re-evaluate. To the coach or interviewer, it suggests issues to be explored. Self-awareness is a very important element because, whether or not our personality gives us an advantage in relation to a particular role, we are all capable of extending our comfort zone and raising our performance. The question is whether the effort this might require is recognised by the candidate and whether, once they appreciate the challenge imposed, they decide they are up for it. On the other side of the interview table, it depends whether the interviewers are convinced about the candidate’s capability and motivation.

Good FFM based personality assessment has an almost uncanny ability to capture the salient characteristics of those assessed. But there is a dynamic aspect to human psychology; a tension between what people are, what they want to be and what they feel is expected of them. All these shape behaviour and performance. It is important, therefore, to also consider past experience, training, qualifications and work history. While personality profiles help to set an agenda for a structured interview, some of the answers will come from this wider pool of information – and from the interview itself. Although, with an agenda and the personality insights now available, this interview will be certainly more effective than tossing a coin!


Geoff Trickey, February 2014

Managing Director
Psychological Consultancy Limited

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