One-eyed one-horned flying purple people eaters

Are popular personality assessments worth the time and money business spends on them?

Is psychology a science?

Psychology as a Science

Is psychology a science? That's a fair question to ask. Psychologists, themselves, are also asking that question.

Why does this matter for us in the businesses world? It matters for the following reason and it matters a lot. People create businesses and people create business successes. This will continue to be the case forever - or, at least until Artificial General Intelligence and Robotics eventually (and finally) replace all of us.

People Objectives

If people create business successes, it makes sense to (a) get the best people, (b) have those best people do what they do best, and (c) keep them as 'happy' as possible, so that they will elect to continue offering their services to your organization.

The statement in the previous paragraph clearly makes sense to most of 'corporate world' too. Thus HR and managers are generally tasked to ensure that these three objectives are achieved. So far so good, but then they proceed to get this so very wrong so very often. Few companies are able to truly achieve just one of these objectives and fewer still are able to achieve two (or all three) of these.

Why is this so?

Well, there are, of course, many reasons. The most important reason is the notion of corporate politics; i.e. the notion that my success is more important than the success of anyone else and that my colleague (not our competitor) is therefore my biggest enemy.

This article is not about corporate politics though. And it is also not about some of the other reasons for failure - and flawed remuneration approaches is one example of another big reason for failure.

We will rather focus on the negative impacts of the implementation of (what we assume to be) psychology-as-a-science and the severe limitations that such implementations seem to have in corporate environments. These implementations are often the root causes of failures to achieve objectives (a) and/or (b) and/or (c).

Let us, in fact, limit ourselves even more. Let's not, for example, comment on many of the psychology-as-a-science practices such as the pervasive 'scientific' 'assessments' of people's inductive and deductive reasoning abilities, and how these practices may also negatively impact on objective (a). It certainly appears as if many of us have personally observed superbly talented and hugely competent people being unable to clear these reasoning-assessment hurdles.

Personality Assessments

So, we will only consider one of these psychology-as-a-science implementations, namely personality assessments.

There have been many of these types of personality assessments over the years. The Myers-Briggs approach is one such example. Some call it discredited. Others disagree with that view. And Wikipedia calls it "pseudoscientific" and an example of the "Barnum effect" and "flattery".

Another common approach is the True Colours system. Again, as in the case of Myers Briggs, there are criticisms pertaining to the limited scientific basis on which it rests. Even so (probably) the most serious True Colours criticism pertains to the risk of the stereotyping of people - and most of us have also often observed that scenario playing out. It usually does not end well. Furthermore, it would also be reasonable to assume that the negative impacts of those "not-end-well" scenarios then often outweigh whatever the positive impacts of the True Colours assessments could possibly have been.

A third common approach is the CliftonStrengths (or StrengthsFinder) system - developed by Don Clifton (while he was chairman of Gallup). Again there is criticism - and in this case the criticism seems to be mostly around the concept of creating a false sense of competence. If a person, for example, is naturally inclined towards strategic thinking it does not mean that he or she is a competent strategic thinker. They may think strategically all day long, but may really suck at that.

Thinking inside the box

Let's revisit the opening question to this post ("Is psychology a science?").

People (i.e. all of us) are immensely complex mechanisms. Does it really make sense to put us in small boxes? Let's look at just two counter-arguments to such a notion.

So, even if these tests were perfectly scientifically correct then ...

Firstly: All of us develop and grow. We change over time. Our boxes change shape. The boxes get bigger and smaller. The boxes morph into other shapes. The speed at which we morph differs between people and it changes, for each of us, during our lifetimes. We are creatures of both nature and of nurture. (Read the section on "Personality Traits" in this hyperlinked Wikipedia article).

Secondly: Our rational brains allow us to step outside those boxes when required - and we often manage to do so. We role-play for political reasons. We use our intelligence and our reasoning ability to override our personalities and our emotions. We act tactically and we act strategically. We often consciously use both our strengths and our weaknesses to our advantage. As individuals, our most compelling behaviours are driven by the me-first principle.

Looking out for Number One?

Back to corporates: Even if we assume that all of these assessments are truly useful and are truly accurate, there still is the following question: Now that we have the 'answers', what will we do about it? I.e. (see points (b) and (c) at the start of this post again), how can we have people do what they do best and have them 'happy' in their jobs.

It is here where the wheels truly come off. Wikipedia called Myers-Briggs "flattery". The flattery attribute is also probably true for most of these types of assessments. We love reading our results and how 'true' it is for us (i.e. Wikipedia's Barnum Effect). We fall in love with our assessments. So, then we endlessly reflect on our results.

But, what about the assessment results of my colleagues or my team? Huh?

Men and Women of Action

So, one of a few things then happen. Most of the time nothing happens. Absolutely nothing. All that effort and money down the drain (so to speak). I.e., doing the assessments become yet more examples of typical corporate cargo-cult behaviour. We do this because (uhm, well) we do this. Doing this is probably good even though we suspect that it is probably useless.

But, yes, nothing then changes.

Doing nothing is bad enough as it is, but it still gets worse. We have observed, more than once in our careers, the re-assignments of people to areas where the 'scientific' assessments clearly showed they should not be assigned to. Crazy stuff in many cases - and usually not because they want to 'get rid of' the person. Au contraire.

Homo Whatever

Let's look again at the second of our two counter-in-the-box-arguments above: rational-brain stepping outside the box. It is this counter-argument which we want to dwell on now.

Is it perhaps so that, when I complete personality assessments, I am primarily doing so as Homo Sapiens? But I am also a Homo Economicus and/or Homo Politicus (which is how people, probably and mostly, act in business scenarios).

For this writer there was, some years ago, a bit of an epiphany. Being rated towards the extreme end of introversion, questions such as "read a book vs. enjoy a party" are easy ones to answer. Recharge happens alone. Discharge happens when with people. Studied physics, mathematics, applied mathematics and computer science. Clearly the right person to keep away from others and lock in a backroom. Not a people person at all.

Yet, this same person obsessively thinks about how to make others (i.e. people) 'happier' and more productive, is more interested in understanding technology than doing technology, and so forth. Introversion is a personality trait. But it could, very well, be the case that such a (then-assumed) disinterest-in-people is very wrong. It may, in fact, not be a productivity trait, or a study-trait, or an achievement-trait, or an interest-trait for that very same personality-trait 'introverted' person.

So, yes, we are messing with people. We are shooting ourselves in the foot. We make too many assumptions about people. We have too many boxes in which we want to put them. We are not thinking about objectives (a), (b) and (c) deeply enough.

We are screwing up when it pertains to our best and most important assets.


Time for a quick 'funny' breather

When many of the above (i.e. personality assessments, hiring approaches, and more) are then also combined with AI, even stranger and weirder things may happen. Have a look at this very recently published article.

So what now?

What then are the answers? How should we manage and lead people - if not through, for example, faux psychology-as-a-science methodologies?

It seems as if there are three broad types of approaches: the dictator, the mediocre and the servant.

And, what was discussed above is part of the approach of the mediocre. It is the way that everyone else does it and it is thus the road to middle-of-the-pack mediocrity. But it is therefore also the road to eventual ruin. If competitors, or newcomers, find a better way they will succeed, you start to die. Outperformance (when someone achieves that) kills mediocrity.

The dictator-approach of Elon Musk/Jeff Bezos/Steve Jobs gets most of the media attention; the visionary with all of the answers. Here you fit-in or you f-off. Employees who are okay with that eventually become the majority. There are also few time-wasting cargo-cult ceremonies here. All that matters here is success.

This dictator-approach is probably the way to the greatest levels of success. But these successes are extreme examples of survivorship bias. We tend to forget about Adam Neuman, Sam Bankman-Fried and Elizabeth Holmes - and we forget about millions of other wannabees and failures. This approach is therefore also the way of the biggest risk; the equivalent of betting all of your money on that one horse.

So, we then also have the option of servant-leadership (for lack of a better name). "The leader exists to serve the people". We will not discuss this concept here. There is enough information available elsewhere. But, suffice to say that the most consequential service that the leader can render to the team is to make good decisions. Servant leadership should not ever devolve into inaction. It should radiate constant action and constant decision-making. The difference is in how those action-decisions are arrived at. The best servant leaders are not weak. They also inspire those around them and are prepared to lead and make the difficult decisions. But their methodologies exclude dictatorship, my-way-or-the-highway, a***-kicking and cargo-cult pretense.

And this approach includes features and attributes such as empathy, as well as the willingness to listen and to learn: to learn from the team - and to learn about the team and each complex individual in the team.


The types of cargo-cult approaches (such as personality assessments) covered above, are simply excuses for doing the hard work, namely to develop proper leadership - for example through servant-type mentoring.

It is much easier for us to just do that obvious 'stuff' that everyone does. This, however, then amounts to doing nothing (or doing worse - if resultant information is then simply ignored and/or contradicted by subsequent actions).