The History of Personality Profiles and its Relevance in Today’s V.U.C.A Environment
The Professional Environment of Today
Today’s professional environment presents itself as a V.U.C.A one – a workplace that is constantly changing and teemed with confusion and unpredictability, many organisations are trying to enhance strategies in gaining insight into individual and group behaviours. One way in which this is done is through the employment of personality profiles in the workplace. This has been a widely popular practice, where 62% of human resource professionals use personality tests to vet candidates (CEB Inc., 2014). However, is the practice of using personality profiling relevant in this volatile space? With change being the only constant, how beneficial is it for employers to align specific employee personalities with organisational goals?
The History of Personality Profiling
Before personality profiling became popularised in the corporate space as a means to accelerate and value-add to the teambuilding and hiring process, it was first used in the 1920s in the military. Robert Woodworth developed the first self-report personality inventory to collect personality information and psychiatric problems on the U.S. Army personnel in World War I (Kaplan & Saccuzzo, 2017).
It was then that personality inventories became further broadly developed as a psychological measure to obtain individual personality functioning, and came to include trait-like features such as introversion. As the US entered World War II in 1941, there was an increasing need for psychological services in the clinical aspect and also in the personnel selection process (Butcher, 2009). Thus, tests like the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) were used for selecting pilots and special services personnel (Butcher, 2009).
The Emergence of Personality Profiling in The Workplace
After World War II, developments in personality assessments continued at a high rate, with the emergence of new scales such as the NEO-Personality Inventory (on Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness), The Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF), Comrey Personality Scale (CPS). It was also during this time that personality assessments expanded for use in industrial and organisational settings, similar to what was done in the military. Organisations have then made use of such assessments to create a more efficient and effective hiring and team creation processes (Butcher et al., 2006).
Currently, we think of personality assessments in the organisational space as an objective measure of individuals, where employers can get insights into the various personality traits of potential employees that will predict good or bad work performance and behaviour in the future. Many factors that are often looked at include emotional stability, judgment, conscientiousness, interpersonal skills, motivation and attitude. Organisations see these traits as predictive factors of employee ability, work performance and effectiveness in working in teams (Butcher et al., 2006). As such, organisations see this as the easy and go-to method to employ in the hiring process to see which candidates are likely to be a good fit for the organisation or a certain role. It can also be an efficient way to create teams with complementing personality traits.
In the U.S., there has still been a heavy emphasis placed on the use of personality assessments in counselling, clinical psychology, school psychology and in organisational psychology. Whether this trend has continued for reasons of tradition or effectiveness, the personality profiling industry has not lost its place, and is now a $500 million industry, with growth rates of an estimated 10 to 15 percent annually (Goldberg, 2019). In Singapore, this practice is also becoming increasingly popularised in supporting team building, enhancing team performance, and solidifying positive organisational culture. During this time of pandemic, Singapore organisations are also turning to more online assessment tools to evaluate potential candidates in the hiring process as face-to-face interviews become harder to administer. This includes cognitive assessments as well as personality profiling (Tan, 2020).
There have been many organisations who have utilised tests such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) in order to create a foundation for strong team cohesion. MBTI analyses generate reports on individual personality traits and how their personality is complementary to certain other personalities. For example, ISTJ and ESTP are regarded as the two personality types that work well together in the organisational space (Myers & Myers, 1995). ISTJs are regarded as organised problem-solvers and analytical in nature, while ESTPs provide balance to ISTJs as being likewise analytical but also having good interpersonal skills and energy. When looking at such descriptions, organisations are inclined to utilise these tests in creating ‘power teams’ that will push for greater performance and quality of work. This can also help to reduce the chance of team conflict, as the understanding of each other’s interaction styles should help to defuse misunderstandings (Berens et al., 2002).
Other popular assessments that have been used also include: the Big Five (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism), Enneagrams, DISC (Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, and Conscientiousness), and Emergenetics, where the Big Five has also been frequently utilised in organisational psychology for its predictive power in a wide range of professional outcomes (Judge et al., 1999). For example, inferences can be drawn where individuals that are high on Openness are likely to be more imaginative, creative, and embrace novel experiences. Thus, these individuals are likely to value-add to the overall job performance in the organisational space (Nikolaou, 2015).
Being Cautious in Employing Personality Assessments
Undoubtedly, with these assessments having roots in military personnel selection, we can see how they do have certain validity in selection processes as a whole. However, organisations must be careful not to over-rely on personality profiling, and to view personality profiling as the end-all in selecting employees, especially since we can also see trends of personality profiling seeping into pop culture and being repurposed for entertainment value (Sanderson & Huffman, 2017).
Organisations may benefit from being slightly wary on relying entirely on personality profiles in selecting potential employees. While personality assessments can help employers identify strengths and weaknesses in employees, they should also be careful in thinking of personality profiles as static and unchangeable. Personality traits and their correlations with certain work outcomes are a matter of probability – the existence of a certain trait does not guarantee a specific positive work outcome; they are not absolute (Moffa, 2011). Furthermore, personality traits are not as binary and clear-cut as these tests make them out to be. As such, organisations can start to think about using personality profiles as a diagnostic tool to understand the state of an organisation at a particular point in time, rather than a tool to label employees and their abilities.
According to a 2014 study by Aberdeen, only 14% of organisations have data to prove that their personality assessment strategies have a positive impact on their business (Martin, 2017). Instead of merely following general trends of adopting personality profiling strategies, it may be useful to also take the time to assess the specific profiling approach. Thus, in our next article, we will discuss the validity of using personality profiling and how organisations can effectively utilise these profiling practices to enhance organisational processes.
 With V.U.C.A standing for:
Jasmine Low, PhD., Camellia Wong, MA., Kam Wing Shan
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