Are personality assessments valuable tools for the CEO? Or are they little more than corporate astrology?
Do you enjoy meeting new people at social events?
Would you describe yourself as fearless?
Do you like to complete one project before beginning another?
These are the familiar types of questions more than 80 million Americans answer each year as they complete personality assessments, often in the context of their work. In fact, more than 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies now use such assessments with their employees. By 2027, assessing personality types is estimated to be a $6.5 billion industry.
Gauging an individual’s reaction to these assessments is in itself an interesting personality test. Some will dive right in, eager for their results and the insights they might bring. But others will grumble, saying they don’t want to be labeled or put in a box. Regardless of where one might fall, many CEOs and leadership experts attest to personality assessments’ utility within organizations. Handled with care, they may be able to offer value even to the skeptics in a workforce, and ultimately create a more harmonious, collaborative team.
For the CEO, the landscape can be confusing. There is a growing proliferation of assessments available, many of them highly variable in quality. As mentioned, many in their workforce may be resistant to personality tests. And then there’s possibly the biggest problem: the fact that so little of the information gleaned from personality tests is actually shared and used in a productive way.
How Not to Use Personality Tests
The first objective personality assessment of the modern era was rolled out by the US Army in 1917. The goal of the Woodworth Personal Data Sheet was to identify soldiers likely to suffer from shellshock, now identified as post-traumatic stress disorder. Not long after, similar tests sprung up in the corporate world. Like Woodworth’s, these tools were largely focused on pinpointing maladjustment and identifying employees who might cause problems in the workplace.
This set the unfortunate template for how personality assessments are misused in more recent times. These tests get bad press when they are used to judge employees’ fitness for certain jobs (such as using them in the hiring process) or are given too much of a scientific sheen that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. An ominous HBO documentary from 2021, Persona, purported to show the “dark truth” behind personality tests and highlighted how they can even discriminate against disabled people.
There’s a fairly simple fix to these issues. Personality assessments have never shown the ability to predict a person’s job performance, and thus should not be used for screening out job candidates, making promotions, delivering employee reviews, or otherwise rewarding or penalizing people. It’s when leaders try to use them this way that they get into trouble.
However, personality assessments do have uses for people managers up to and including the CEO—namely, as a way to build a shared language for understanding and talking about the abundant differences between the people who make up their team and company.
A Shared Language
to Describe People
Every field has its own specialized argot. As Texas CEO Magazine owner Joel Trammell likes to point out, an electrical engineer can talk all day about autoreclosers, bushing, and choppers, but when it comes to talking about the human beings on their team, the vocabulary becomes more limited. It’s “Yeah, Suzy’s great,” or “I really like Steve.”
One of the great values of a good personality assessment in the organizational context is that it gives managers a shared language for talking about the people they are responsible for. In the examples of tests below, it’s clear how personality assessments provide precise descriptors—not for putting people in boxes but for understanding what their tendencies and preferences are. Particularly when an organization embraces one of these assessments and makes its language part of its culture, employees at all levels often develop a rich new way of understanding each other and themselves.
For example, one person may find themselves frustrated and mildly annoyed every time they meet with a colleague. But rather than letting this frustration fester and assuming that person is just kind of a drag, they might see that their colleague has, in DISC terms, a Conscientiousness (C) style, which makes them prone to emphasizing process and going through the correct steps. This person might also see that their colleague’s Conscientiousness style clashes with their own primary DISC style, Dominance (D)—a style that makes them want to act quickly and assertively, not worry about the details of the process. With this language and understanding, these two employees can get on a level playing field, talk about their different styles, and move forward nonjudgmentally. Rather than get annoyed by each other, they might now laugh: “Look, I’m a D,” one might say, “so as you know I’m eager to get started. But I know you’re a C, and I value your ability to wrangle the details.” From there they can capitalize on their complementary strengths rather than get stuck in a standoff against each other.
A CEO can build this kind of understanding with his or her executive team and others—even if he or she is not the most people-oriented person. There is also immense power in knowing that a workforce is growing this type of interpersonal understanding among themselves, that they are cooperating toward the same goal rather than fighting each other every step of the way.
So what are these different languages a team can adopt? The following review of three well-known personality assessments is, of course, far from exhaustive, but these are some of the most popular in the current business world. Though some tools have certain advantages, the most important thing is to get a team on the same page and speaking the same language.
The DISC assessment is based on the work of American psychologist William Moulton Marston, who first described the principles of DISC in the 1920s. (Marston was also the creator of Wonder Woman and a key contributor to the development of the lie detector.) Later, in the 1950s, organizational psychologist Walter Clarke adapted Marston’s principles into a self-assessment intended to identify people’s fitness for working in certain roles. As mentioned previously, this use never panned out well. A DISC self-assessment can’t reliably identify who’s a good hire. But it can reliably place a person within the DISC framework (i.e., people consistently get the same results after taking multiple assessments) and point to characteristics that influence how they work with others and deliver results.
In its most basic form, DISC identifies a person as a D, I, S, or C. Marston’s earliest terms were Dominance, Inducement, Submission, and Compliance, but subsequent revisions have resulted in less loaded terms that more properly describe the following types:
D is for Dominance. People with a D style are the hard-driving go-getters. They like results—and they want to see them quickly. They tend to take charge naturally. They are often confident in themselves and expect a lot from their peers
I is for Influence. People with an I style are social butterflies, and their primary aim is to ensure that everyone is having fun. They tend to be good talkers and natural charmers who build connections with others quickly. They’re often great at persuading people.
S is for Steadiness. People with an S style like to keep things stable and predictable. They like to know what to expect and aren’t big risk takers. Harmony among their team and environment is very important to them. They are the keepers of the peace.
C is for Conscientiousness. People with a C style value process and procedure—they like doing things the right way. They have a strong eye for detail, highly value competence and accuracy, and tend to be very independent.
Reading through these descriptions, it’s likely that you were able to see which you identify with most. It’s also likely you thought of a few people you’ve worked with who have one of these styles that tended to rub you the wrong way. Maybe you’re an I (Influence), and you were put off by how your D (Dominance) boss never asked a single question about your personal life. Or maybe you’re an S (Steadiness) and you couldn’t stand how a C (Conscientiousness) colleague was always creating friction by taking people to task for missed deadlines. The permutations possible for misunderstanding are endless.
This is why it’s so valuable to understand your own style as well as that of your colleagues. There are currently many DISC assessments available from different providers, many of which further segment people into subtypes: Dc (Dominance with secondary Conscientiousness), Si (Steadiness with secondary Influence), and so on. Mileage may vary on the specific advice these self-assessments give, but there is power in knowing your core style and how it plays out in your leadership.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is probably the most well-known personality assessment outside the corporate context—though the Myers-Briggs Company says that more than 88 percent of the Fortune 500 uses the test in some capacity. The test is rooted in the work of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. Two American women, Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers, developed Jung’s work into the assessment, which places a person within four dichotomies:
1 • introversion or extroversion (I or E)
2 • sensing or intuition (S or N)
3 • thinking or feeling (T or F)
4 • judging or perceiving (J or P)
The result of the test is one of sixteen four-letter initialisms: INTJ, say, or ESFP. A person’s placements coalesce into a distinct psychological type. Many online tests will tell you your type after a quick quiz, offering all sorts of advice and showing you which celebrities and historical figures share your type. For example, at 16Personalities.com,
you can learn a memorable name for your MBTI type—ISFJs are “Defenders,” for example, while ESTPs are “Entrepreneurs”—along with data about your overall orientation toward life and your strengths and weaknesses.
Is there a certain MBTI type that tends to perform well in the CEO role? The Center for Creative Leadership did a study that showed that CEOs tend to be certain MBTI types, such as ENTJ (Extroverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging), INTJ (Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging), and ESTJ (Extroverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging). However, there is likely not much value in predicting performance from such an assessment, as with other roles in the organization. For one thing, different organizations and scenarios call for different types of leaders, meaning that any MBTI type could be an effective CEO in the right situation.
CliftonStrengths (formerly known as StrengthsFinder) is a very different assessment from DISC. Rather than describe a person’s personality in terms of four broad areas, CliftonStrengths uses self-assessment to identify a person’s top strengths from a total possible list of 34. Developed by Don Clifton, an American psychologist and former chairman of Gallup, CliftonStrengths operates on the theory that people perform best when they lean in to what they are naturally good at rather than trying to solve for their weaknesses. Thus, CliftonStrengths’ online questionnaire (available at Gallup.com/CliftonStrengths) reveals the areas in which someone is most likely to excel, so he or she can capitalize on what he or she is already good at.
For example, one of someone’s top five strengths might be Learner; Gallup describes Learners as having “a great desire to learn and want to continuously improve. The process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites them.” Another strength is Discipline, a strength of people who “enjoy routine and structure” and whose “world is best described by the order they create.”
The 34 strengths are organized into four domains: Strategic Thinking, Influencing, Relationship Building, and Executing. (Interestingly, these almost map directly onto the four DISC styles.) For organizations that use CliftonStrengths, it is common for employees to list their top five strengths for coworkers to see—maybe outside their door or in a digital collaboration tool. As with DISC, understanding one’s own strengths can lead to greater self-knowledge and development, and knowing one’s peers’ strengths can lead to better collaboration and better use of their unique abilities.
For Brandy Schade, a Dallas-based certified strengths coach and founder of Strengthology, discovering CliftonStrengths was literally life-changing. Her brother, Trevor, introduced her to the assessment over 10 years ago. “As I applied the personalized recommendations I received from Gallup to my life,” Schade says, “I quickly experienced improvements and felt happier. I started sharing the assessment with all of my friends and family members and began helping them to leverage their strengths. They also experienced an immediate impact from their gained perspective. When I saw that I could help people get results in a very short amount of time, I changed my career trajectory and began my journey as a strengths-focused leadership consultant.”
In an organizational context, Schade has seen how knowledge of strengths helps leaders identify what they bring to the team and identify gaps in their thinking. She also notes that it can help them set their teams up for success. “[CEOs] must learn how to engage each person differently to unleash each individual’s greatness and to set them up for success,” she says. “The executive leadership team must also learn these skills so they may effectively lead their teams. The ripple effect of this approach is tremendous—an engaged company where everyone is doing their best work every single day.”
Schade recommends that leaders get the full ranking of their 34 strengths from the assessment, versus just getting the top five. “They need to understand what they uniquely bring to their teams,” she says, “what their greatest leadership gifts are, what their secondary strengths are, and have an awareness of what their brains rarely spend time thinking about.”
It’s worth noting that, like other assessments, CliftonStrengths doesn’t do a good job of predicting overall job performance. But it can help a CEO or other leader understand who might work best on which type of projects, know how to best support and collaborate with people, and mediate when people with very different personalities come into conflict.
he Other Options Are Numerous
DISC, CliftonStrengths, and MBTI are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to personality assessments that can help CEOs and their organizations succeed—from Big Five to Enneagram to Hogan.
One of the most in-depth assessments was created right here in Texas by Dr. Roger Birkman in the 1940s. At the time, Birkman was working at the University of Houston, looking at psychometric assessments for choosing pilots for the US Air Force. Over the following decades, Birkman developed his ideas into the Birkman Method, which according to its website is an “instrument to better understand interpersonal dynamics and achieve higher performance through positive psychology.” The Birkman assessment is distinguished by its extensive research backing and its broad application in business and related domains, from career coaching to HR to organizational development. Birkman passed away in 2014 at the age of 95, but Birkman International continues from its headquarters in Houston; it was run by his daughter, Sharon, who served as CEO and president from 2002 to 2019 and now serves as chairwoman.
Mixing and Matching to Get It Right
Ultimately, it’s wise to spend a little time shopping around for the assessment—or assessments—that best fit an organization’s culture and team. Often a combination works well.
Carrie Vanston, an executive coach, speaker, author, and CEO of Austin-based Leadership Mindset Success, uses an array of assessments to meet the needs of her clients. The tools she uses include CliftonStrengths, the Energy Leadership Index (ELI) Assessment, the ELI 360 Assessment, and her own proprietary Executive Leadership Assessment. She notes that while people often lump assessments all together, each of these tools has a specific purpose.
For one of Vanston’s clients, the Energy Leadership Index Assessment and its attitudinal insights delivered great results. Working with Vanston, this executive was able to understand that bringing up his “compromise energy” would help him be the leader his team needed at the time. And it did—his team became much more cohesive, and he was able to better collaborate with an individual with whom he had been having big challenges.
For another client, CliftonStrengths was the biggest eye-opener. One CEO discovered that she had Context among her top five strengths. “People with this strength ‘instinctively set aside time to examine past events as well as the lives of historic figures,’ ” Vanston says. “Sure enough, my client said she loved and identified with historic stories and personalities. We started intentionally building stories that included past events and historic figures to make her point when interacting with her customers and staff. This gave her an interesting twist that helped get her point across while inspiring people to follow her lead.”
Meanwhile, 360 assessments—while not strictly a personality test like the others—can supplement information from other tools with feedback from peers in the organization.
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By and large, CEOs underestimate the practical uses of personality and working-style assessments. If understood and deployed wisely, these tools can positively shift the trajectory of individual leaders and organizations.
“The best CEOs know what makes themselves tick,” Vanston says. “The more you know about yourself and your team, the more you can understand and intentionally create the business and life you truly desire—and impact the world around you for good.”