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The trouble with psychometric testing

HR professionals should put a photo of Paul Flowers on their walls – he's exhibit 'A'

By Todd Humber

It’s easy to have a love-hate relationship with personality tests. On one hand, they’re absolutely fascinating — who doesn’t like to find out detailed information about someone’s inner workings? And, even better, finding out about your own strengths and weaknesses and what makes you tick?

But on the other hand, there’s a lot of potential to misuse or misinterpret the results of psychometric testing. One of the best examples of that comes in one of the cover stories senior editor Sarah Dobson is working on for the March 10 issue of Canadian HR Reporter.
It outlines the almost unbelievable story of Paul Flowers, a Methodist minister turned bank chair who led a bank in the United Kingdom into a multibillion dollar capital shortfall and was ultimately forced to resign amidst allegations of buying illegal drugs.

So how did Flowers, who had limited banking experience, attain his lofty position? You guessed it — he aced the psychometric test. Every HR professional in this country should have a poster of Flowers on their wall so they can point to him and say, “This. This is why you don’t use psychometric testing to make a hiring decision.”

This isn’t to say the only value personality tests have is for curiosity and giggles. Far from it — they can be extremely valuable tools in the development of employees, and can give leaders vital information about how best to handle their staff.

I’m a firm believer that leaders need to adapt their management styles to what works and doesn’t work for their individual employees — at least as much as reasonably practical. For example, if you’re dealing with an introvert, don’t call them out (for better or for worse) in front of others, and don’t ask them to make quick decisions on the spot.

Or if you’ve got an extrovert, don’t give them tasks that leave them isolated — put them on team projects as much as possible. You want to play to the strengths of your team, and psychometric tests can be invaluable — and surprisingly accurate — in uncovering what works and doesn’t work for employees.

That’s what good leaders must do: Adapt to their teams, and not vice-versa. You can tweak your management style and how you approach direct reports to get the most out of them. The flip side of that strategy — asking your reports to completely change their working and personality styles — is a recipe for failure. They simply can’t do it.

There are a few, limited scenarios where a personality test can play an important role in the hiring decision. For example, if you’re looking for an energetic salesperson who is required to give a lot of public presentations and build strong relationships with key partners, you’d probably want to confirm that person is extroverted. (Though, it’s hard to imagine many introverts wanting that job in the first place, so it’s a relatively safe bet nearly all the candidates for that gig will tend toward the extrovert side of the scale.)

Some people tend to forget that there are no wrong answers in personality tests — one type is not inherently better than another. Each type has its strengths and weaknesses, but all types have something to offer employers.

Testing for skills is a different cup of tea. Every hiring manager should be doing that, with tests customized to the tasks of the position.

But let’s play to the strengths of personality tests, and use them to help leaders determine the best management styles and to coach employees to play to their strengths, while working on weaknesses. Do that, and you won’t run the risk of hiring a Paul Flowers and later have to explain, rather uncomfortably, that you choose him because he aced a psychometric test.

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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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