2004 - New personality tests
Some journalists road test cars.
Some like to compare the merits of domestic appliances
and others deliver personal critiques of holidays
or restaurants. My own thing is psychometric testing.
It started about 10 years ago when I decided that
the best way to understand the processes behind
psychometrics was to take one of the tests.
Since then I have completed most
of the better known questionnaires and a few that
are less well-known. Beyond that I have undergone
various interviews with psychologists exploring
their methods for finding what makes a person
In the early days I took some
ability tests and they told me what I would have
expected: that I was more literate than numerate.
But the personality tests just kept on coming
and they still do. The market for such tests has
wavered in recent years, particularly in the US
where recruiters have been frightened off by potential
litigation related to any suspicion of ethnic
or gender bias.
But interest has been strengthening
again as recruiters continue to demand some insight
not only of what we can do, but of the way we
go about our work.
This means that it is quite possible
to have an impressive collection of technical
qualifications for a job or a promotion yet miss
out against other similarly qualified candidates
simply because of the way you react in the workplace.
Last week I received assessments
from two relatively new personality questionnaires
and decided that enough was enough. My reservoir
of self-awareness is brim full.
The first was an 81-item, internet-delivered
questionnaire called the Parallax profile, offered
as an optional service to clients of Longbridge
International*, a City headhunter. While some
tests concentrate on opposites in personality
such as comparing introversion and extroversion,
Parallax says it looks at the brain in a three-dimensional
Just in case we might fail to
understand this, Bruce Page, finance and operations
director at Longbridge, which owns the Parallax
process, uses a cardboard-box representation of
the brain, marked up like a grid. On each square
of the grid is a behavioural attribute. This reminds
me a little bit of phrenology where practitioners
would judge your character by feeling the "bumps"
in your head.
Although Victorian phrenologists
were mistaken in their assumptions, scientists
have since proved that different parts of the
brain are responsible for different thinking mechanisms.
Studies have found, for example, that the hippocampus,
a part of the brain that influences our navigational
ability, tends to be enlarged among London cab
A three dimensional grid allows
for a varied analysis of thinking styles. But
what can it tell us about ourselves? The test
decided that I was a "hope generator".
Is that the same as an optimist? It also described
me as a "recursive thinker", whatever
that means, and a "thrill seeker" but
delivered low scores in areas such as wealth and
power-seeking, project-organising and planning.
What it didn't tell me, however, was whether I
would be any good at my job.
In all the reports I have seen
arising out of personality testing, I have rarely
come across an interpretation presented as a negative.
Yet my old school teachers never had such problems.
Phrases such as "disruptive in class"
and "easily distracted" were not uncommon
in my school reports. The behaviour that led to
such comments in the past, however, is interpreted
today as "innovative and creative".
Some commentators believe that
companies want creative people today and some
managers are tempted to agree. In practice, however,
few companies are prepared to tolerate the distracted
and distracting behaviours that can characterise
creativity. The creative can be demonised as a
dissident, a non-conformist or an irritant, sometimes
I suppose I must regard myself
as creative if this surfaces in personality testing
since it is based on self-reporting. It reflects
what we think of ourselves and, to a broad degree,
what we know of ourselves. The problem here is
that we may not know ourselves quite as well as
we think we do.
The Spony Profiling Model, another
test new to the market, seeks to overcome this
problem by asking three former or existing colleagues
of the candidate to complete questionnaires designed
to investigate the strength of his or her self-awareness.
In my case, there was a 90 per cent agreement
between the three colleagues. More than that,
their impressions closely reflected the outcome
of my own test.
Again the test report does not
discuss "strengths and weaknesses".
Personality measures tend to avoid the judgmental
approach. Anything that begins to circle the wagons
around our ego in this way demands some sensitivity.
There are those who can interpret
flattery as a kind of criticism. I know of a cook
who, when you compliment her on the vegetables,
will respond by asking: "What's wrong with
The SPM questionnaire, marketed
by a company called FutureToBe**, was devised
by Gilles Spony, a former lecturer at Cranfield
School of Management, drawing heavily on the thinking
of Shalom Schwartz, professor at the Hebrew University
of Jerusalem, and Geert Hofstede, both of whom
have explored the factors behind different national
Among the findings of the SPM
test are pointers to where in the world you might
find yourself at home. I was not surprised to
find myself among the Norwegians, the Swedes and
the Danes. I don't need to go too far back in
to my family history to find its origins on the
north-east coast of England.
Looking at the map of national
cultures overlaid on a map of the qualities that
the test describes as "motivating factors",
I can see I would have most difficulty finding
common ground with a Venezuelan. This is not an
More of a problem is that I would
probably not see eye-to-eye either with a boss
who stressed the value of hard work, self-discipline,
method, precision and adherence to rules. But
that's what bosses do.
"It is not designed to rule
someone out of a job," says Christine Communal,
principle consultant at FutureToBe. "Its
use should be to enable someone to maximise their
enjoyment of work and the areas in which they
prefer to work."
But such tests are being used
in selection. So would I be so honest in my self-assessment
as a job candidate? I doubt it, although the findings
of these tests suggest that they have ways of
exposing a lack of candour.
There is another question: to
what extent should we allow such profiling to
influence our lives? Perhaps we would be happier
people if we selected our career paths on the
basis of self-knowledge. But where's the fun in
that? And where's the fun in knowing I would write
something like that? Do we want to be so predictable?
as a pdf file