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What’s in a Label?

As regular readers know, we have issues with the labels that people give others – labels make it too easy to put someone or a group of people in a box. It is also often a convenient way to ascribe someone’s actions or thoughts without determining the potential complexity that sits behind those actions and thoughts.

As an example, a popular choice in many companies has been the adoption and use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a test that separates individuals into sixteen basic “types” based on their self-reports of life preferences. A lot of companies take the test very seriously and in many cases it is used as a factor in recruiting and promoting individuals.

By some reports, almost 90 percent of the major US companies use the Myers-Briggs test for employee selection, placement, or counseling. But studies show that the test does not predict behavior of any kind with much validity. One problem is that the test has what statisticians call low test-retest reliability. If you retake the test after a one-month gap, there’s a 50 percent chance that you will fall into a different personality category from your original category. With such low reliability, the test is unlikely to have much predictive validity.

Before we explain why pigeonholing people into personality types is not a good idea in business, let’s look at the general disadvantages of using personality assessments to predict behavior. Unlike members of more collectivist cultures (such as Asia), Westerners seem obsessed with people’s personality traits as a means of understanding and predicting future conduct.

If we want to know what employee Smith will do under conditions of time pressure, we tend to ask ourselves, “What kind of person is Smith?” That isn’t a crazy question, but in practice, even the most valid personality tests have only modest predictive power. Nonetheless, many people quite confidently rely on impressions of personality to explain the actions of their friends and colleagues. Their confidence is often misplaced.

The problem is that we exaggerate how consistent people are across both situations and time. If someone is lazy around the house, we might conclude that he or she is also likely to be lazy at work. If someone was easily distracted in class, he or she will also be easily distracted at work. But in many cases, this kind of cross-situational behavioral consistency does not exist. Most of us are a lot less consistent in how we behave in different situations than we think we are. Relying on these mostly false beliefs about behavioural consistency and hence predictability, we are overconfident about how accurately we understand and can predict others.

Social psychologists call this tendency to rely excessively on personality descriptors, and to be overconfident in our capacities to predict behavior, the fundamental attribution error. Attribution refers to everyday explanations that claim that other people’s behaviour is a product of a trait. If even weakly valid traits, like extroversion and conscientiousness, have low predictive value, an unscientific trait categorization like the Myers-Briggs score is going to be totally useless for purposes of prediction.

One group of researchers studied the actual value of the Myers-Briggs test in teamwork applications and concluded that it “does not account for behavioral differences nor does it exactly clarify which characteristics of a particular function an individual may exhibit.” More generally, careful scientific reviews, including statistical meta-analyses, find little value in personality test scores, including scales that are more valid predictors of behavior than the Myers-Briggs.

In our work with clients we have found that exercises like MBTI do provide some value in that they can provide clues to how we should communicate with each other. Beyond this though we do find it rather too formulaic a test that fails to consider the complexity of human interactions. Our approach in determining recruitment fit or future potential is to use assessment centres where a range of exercises can be used to provide an indication of an individual’s knowledge skills and attributes.

Too often we see misattribution of labels and attempts to dumb down the complexity of human behaviour through the use of these labels. Next time you feel the temptation to label a person think of the wider context and not just the specific, immediate circumstances. Some context and trusting your own observations will be more beneficial in the long run……after all, opening a jar of pickle and finding marmalade is rarely a good thing.

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