The cult of personality testing


I feel so bad writing this, as I was once a big proponent of this theory, but whilst we are on the subject of ineffective mainstream training courses, there is a subject popular in sales training, and also recruitment, that you might be surprised to find is based on scant evidence.


Myers-Briggs (MTBI) and its various colourful variants are a great way to fill two days of content and get fantastic delegate participation, but sadly the evidence doesn’t support the usefulness of it to your business. Sorry to shoot the golden goose of sales training, but training is expensive, and it must be evidence based. Corporations spend millions on this kind of training and it has become a mainstay of learning and development, but with little evidence it works.


Personality testing is a billion-dollar industry and is worshipped almost cult-like by sales organisations and HR departments who thrive on this as a means of screening and categorising candidates and employees, rather than focusing on aptitude tests for the actual job - tests which will give a much better indication as to whether someone can carry out the job required.


In her excellent book ‘The Cult of Personality Testing’, Annie Murphy Paul looks in detail at the history of Myers-Briggs and suggests that it’s based on flimsy evidence. There is virtually no academic rigour behind any of the claims and it is mostly based on hunches developed at a kitchen table in the 1940s.


Moreover, Myers-Briggs, now presented and known more familiarly as MBTI, is an extension of Carl Jung’s basic personality profiling, which was devised for analysing the clinically insane.


It describes the interplay of a person’s proclivity towards introversion or extroversion, set against an individual’s propensity for emotional display. It all seems to make sense and once you have a personality type or colour assigned to you, you feel like you understand yourself that bit better.  There are often tears on training courses when the delegates receive their four-letter code or colour which explains everything that has ever happened to them.  Your quest for meaning is over and now as a convert you want others to discover themselves.


Through this lens of understanding you now feel empowered to operate in a way that will get you to the dizzy heights you are entitled to. It also provides more excuses for why you don’t listen well sometimes or aren’t assertive in certain situations.


Sadly, most delegates quickly realise once the dust has settled, that this newfound insight has little or no bearing on their effectiveness.


And for employers, suddenly the ‘Red/ ENTJ’ personality type you just employed, which you were told by the test would ideally fit the profile for sales, doesn’t have a basic grasp of how to use IT. You spend half your managerial life coaching them how to fill in a simple spreadsheet or teaching them the basics of your industry.


When the same theories are applied to sales and planning sales calls, we are often asked to make judgements about a potential customer’s personality type and adapt our style of approach appropriately.


Think about this for a moment, it’s important (in poetry this would be a caesura).


You know yourself well because you spend all of your time with yourself, so you probably can broadly categorise some of your character traits. But how much time do you spend with your customers? Even in a very integrated business where you spend many hours with your customers, how well do you know them really? Do you know them enough to give them a four-letter code or a colour to match their personality?


People are individuals and this kind of weird categorisation, based on pseudo-science is totally unhelpful.  How insulted would you be if a salesperson selling to you decided on one or two meetings that you were an INTB?


We know from good evidence from research presented in the ‘Challenger Sale’ book by Mathew Dixon and Brent Adamson, that customers don’t want you to psychoanalyse them, they want you to add some value to what they are doing by educating them. Tell them and sell them something that will make them able to do things better and more efficiently.


That takes expertise in their industry and an understanding of the problems and bottlenecks they have in their business.  This takes time, coaching and substance to achieve, not some silly fad.