Personality Testing: Caveats & Provisos to Consider when using Psychometrics (Part II)




If you are reading this blog, chances are that you may have read Part 1 and are curious to know about the other three themes or caveats that you must consider while using personality testing.


Part I and II of this series exhorts you to mull over the following, before you become a convert of a particular personality assessment tool, and let go of normal curiosity and healthy skepticism:


  1. A critique on the inherent design assumptions and axioms of Personality Testing
  2. A better understanding of the design of Assessment and Scales
  3. Positioning of psychometric tests today – what anxieties and fears do these tests target?
  4. Human behavior from the group-as-a-whole perspective
  5. The Dark Side or your De-railers – What does all this mean?


The FETISH for Personality Profiling

Before I move to theme 3, I have been agonizing over the question – “What is it about the American ecology that has led to Design, Research, and Deployment of a large number of personality assessment test?”

  • Is it because a large part of behavioral sciences including Industrial / Organizational psychology are concentered in USA?
  • Is it because they have superior research standards and access to statistical tools?
  • Is it because modern capitalism, quite often associated with USA, is quite receptive to assessment, when it comes to hire and fire processes?
  • Is it because strands of American culture reinforce the notion of the Homo economicus – that a man or a woman is rational and utility seeking consumer and producer and can thus be predictable?
  • is it because American culture loves quantifying and digitizing every human phenomenon and then labeling it?

I am not really sure on this one.

Except that It is truly remarkable! It is only in America would you have a personality test that looks at the personality of your Dog – really, there was a recent study that explored the evidence of the Big 5 even in dogs, donkeys, rats, guppies and octopuses.

An analysis was made on 56 breeds of dogs and they came up with a 3-factor theory – Reactivity, Aggression, and Trainability. As a dog lover, I feel helpless as I marvel with how 3 factors can define the personality of my dog.

Well it does not stop here for even brands and products have a personality!

USA has pioneered research on profiling Product Personalities – any self-respecting brand manager and market researcher would give you stories and anecdotes about how they are good at, firstly in describing a Brand Personality that can be endowed to a product (Car, Jeans, Paints et al) or brand, and secondly how advanced statistical techniques and tools can enable you to build this persona and sell it well.

My favorite personality profiler was around a recent test that looked at – “Which Star Wars personality are you?” I so desperately wanted to be Yoda… but that is another story.

My personal speculation is quite aligned to many thinkers believe – that the American society is largely an immigrant society as opposed to traditional societies across Asia and Europe. Thus, the American society in 1800s and 1900s was built around ‘Strangers’ – and that this created many an anxiety within the society.

phrenology 1

Do you remember Phrenology? A pseudo-science that originated in Edinburgh Scotland and became quite popular in USA in 1800s, and believed that the shape of your skull determines your predictable behaviors and mindsets.

I think the funniest take on phrenology as a predictor of human behavior and traits was by Quentin Tarantino in his film Django.

skull 1

The movie reaches a pivotal moment where the ruthless, psychotic colonizer and slave owner Calvin Candle, played by Leonardo Dicaprio, picks up the skull of an African Negro and extolls over the ingrained cowardice of the “negro race”, as depicted by the shape of their skulls!


Predictability & India

Well I do not wish to encourage American bashing, for many Indian managers and coaches have jumped on the bandwagon of predictability and familiarity through testing.

Indian culture has had its own preoccupations with labeling and predictability

Horary astrology, numerology, tarot cards, tea leaves, handwriting analysis – well the list is unending in our deep desire to know the future and predict the person in front of us – as far as Indian society is concerned. I am not joking but once a traditional south Indian firm once made me go through a handwriting test to look at my character and behaviors before offering a formal contract of employment! I agreed to take it because I was afraid to say No, and that I was curious how my profile would emerge except that it was never shared with me.

When the occidental expert emphasizes on scientific testing as foundation for new age personality tests – many of us as Indians have our oohs! and aahs! moments for we need not feel as small and as inadequate compared to when we mapped the placement of difficult planets such as Saturn and the Rahu in our astrological charts to determine the character and future of the next person!

So, this takes me to exploring the next caveat – what and whose anxieties and fears are being targeted by this growing ecology of personality testing in India.


Caveat 3

Positioning of psychometric tests TODAY – what and whose Anxieties and Fears does this ecology target?

While personality testing got initiated to look at deviant human behavior of residents of asylums and prisons, these, today, are deployed more frequently and on a much larger scale for the normal average person on the street. The personality tests have steadily made their inroads into capitalistic economies with fervor where firms and businesses are either growing and expanding or shrinking – the tools are being used extensively for selection & recruitment, coaching, and development.

It is not just the MNCs or global firms in India that seem to be using personality assessment. Hogan, as shared by their distributor in India, claims that promoter driver Indian firms seem to be more inclined to use and deploy such tools for their senior and middle management.

Delving deeper leads me to take your attention to the following patterns:

3.1        The Anxiety of the Ruling Clans

It is well known that people at the top of the hierarchy have to manage more anxieties and fears than a middle or a junior level manager would – some of these are systemic that unconsciously accumulate at that level because of the role!

While many firms at senior and middle management are clannish, they are discovering that they have to induct lateral talent if they wish to grow further or even survive. The consequent anxieties around recruiting and onboarding such a lateral yet senior leader into the firm are palpable for trusting the ‘stranger’ and inviting him into the clan is so nerve-racking. It is worse when one is looking at a woman leader for some of the traditional firms.

I recently heard an anecdote where the CEO would want to look at a psychometric test that measured not just the personality but also the business / commercial acumen of the incumbent recruit and then take a decision to recruit a senior leader …

I understand and empathize with the fears … except that such tools may not be 100% fool proof.

Firstly, all scores are self-referenced quite akin to exaggerated claims on resumes and curriculum vitae.

Secondly past commercial acumen does not guarantee its continuity in the future.

There times when the same incumbent leader, having been recruited, may still feel like an outsider within the firm, and like any guest, is unwilling to take critical decisions and keen to avoid financial ownership, despite having great commercial acumen!

Very often the personality test becomes a crutch to lean upon – it is still okay for me as long as the crutch gets replaced by real engagement and relatedness with the human being over time. It does not serve any purpose if the assessment scales of the individual are used every other day to judge and evaluate the incumbent leader.


3.2        The Anxiety of the HR Head

Often the responsibility of building a team especially at leadership level is exclusively dumped at the doorstep of the HR leader.

Many organizations believe that just like the Purchase function is solely responsible for the quality, cost and delivery of the input material, the HR function is morally and solely responsible for the quality, cost, and efficiency of the human being recruited and used over the years.

Thus, the psychological ownership of onboarding the outsider into the organization is owned up as a crown of thorns by most HR heads. This results in anxiety and stress and the HR head is desperate for tools and ways of making the process more certain, and more effective. It is this desperation that seduces the HR honcho to the call of the psychometric and its claim of mapping the Stranger to the extent that it can even predict behavior.


3.3       Looking the Other Way when Organizations create Stressful conditions in the first place!

One of the recent waves on personality testing has been the tremendous focus on de-railers or dysfunctional behaviors that manifest when the employee is in stress. The search very often is for the perfect candidate who remains cool despite all odds and whose profile does not show many ‘de-railers’.

While this idea of de-raliers maybe an important factor to explore – what is shocking that not many leaders want to question the presence of stressful conditions that trigger it in the first place.

Nobody ever wishes to ask – “Why do we need to have roles and culture in organizations that create an arena like intensity in the first place?”

testing 2

Gabbar to Kalia: “You need to really watch out for your de-railers – you seem to get on the flight more too fast and then get passive aggressive with me! We need to get a coach for you asap!!”


Thus, I suspect that one of the needs that personality assessors collude with the top management and the HR juggernaut is – “We must not challenge the type of organizations that are getting created in the first place – where it promotes only hyper-masculinity, rivalry, non-negotiability, relentless pace and fatigue … but we can partner such organizations by offering ‘perfect profiles’ of leaders with no de-railers through tests!”

It is a bit like Donald Trump wanting teachers to wear guns to prevent attacks on schools without questioning the fact that perhaps there are too many guns in the market in the very first place …


3.4        The VUCA Paradox

The acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) has been around for decades – but has been more often used these days. (Read my blog on VUCA).

I do not believe that these four aspects of human existence have intensified in the past decade or two. 100 years ago, Europe was battling with a VUCA context triggered by WWI. 75 years ago, the world was at war between the Axis and the Alliance and USA was mulling to throw an atomic bomb on Japan. 50 years ago, the world was battling the cold war between the communists and the capitalists. The Vietnam conflict was intensifying. The hippie movement was fighting for peace, and Man was making an attempt to land on the moon.

So, one wonders why VUCA is being heralded in corporate boardrooms as the new age tsunami which finds us ill-equipped to deal with it. AI, robotics, big data and technological obsolescence are monsters that lie in the VUCA’s wake.

My cynical orientation leads me to believe that fear and anxiety are excellent motivators to sell tools that promise predictability and stability. By leveraging VUCA as a Root Cause (which it certainly is not) and Predictability to attenuate the VUCA Effect (De-railers), I must say we have a winning formula!

While Concluding, I think the greatest fear that serves the assessment and profiling offerings, is the Fear of Intimacy One can keep one’s colleague at bay, reduce one’s interface to transactions, and role-taking circumscribed by instrumentality and all is well! One can endorse civil behaviors and yet not deal with intense emotions within. One can remain untouched as long as one knows how to manage the interface. And all this happens because one can trust what the Personality Inventory reveals about them and there is no need to go beyond this …


Caveat 4

Human behavior from the group-as-a-whole perspective

A huge source of my ambivalence with psychometrics is that the profiling instrument determines behavior as the function of one’s individual personality, without acknowledging the role of the teams, groups and communities he or she is a part of.

It was Kurt Lewin who elegantly defined a function of Individual behavior, as a function between the individual and the context / environment. This equation excited many.

Two great thinkers in 1950s, Wilfred Bion and S H Foulkes, did pioneering work in creating knowledge and understanding of the ‘Group-as-a-whole’ concept – each believing that the group is more than a sum of its individual components, and that Group Dynamics or phenomenon is critical while looking at individual behaviors, for there are inextricable linkages within the group. Group unconscious processes such as Basic Assumption Fight / Flight also enabled one to understand and work with Individual behavior.

Bion’s work led to the field of system psychodynamics and some of my earlier blogs are built on several foundations of this work. Foulkes’ work was leveraged into therapy into groups and many models of the same are deployed in alcoholic anonymous and other groups.

Essentially the Group-As-A-Whole perspective underlined the premise that the Individual may be working on behalf of the Group – that there could be unconscious group processes that lead to an individual to behave in a particular manner.

Common parlance that even managers use is that the individual gets set-up by the group to enact certain behaviors on behalf of the group – without any being aware of such unconscious processes within the group.

Let us take the example of projective identification

A group of high performance managers may be collectively sitting on fear of failure and / or fear of obsolescence. It is very probable that one such manager may get set-up to enact these fears and he or she may regress into dysfunctional behavior or behave like a fool or commit self-sabotage (read career damaging moves). When he or she does that, the rest of the group may congratulate themselves on their level-headedness, their Equanimity and their professionalism, and feel relieved and good about themselves.

In this example, yes, the individual who behaved in a dysfunctional manner may have traits that support this behavior. His or her profile may indicate or even predict such proclivities.

But what gets ignored or not looked at is the group as a whole – and how the individual may have introjected this fear and how the group (through projective introjection) would have felt relieved, affirmed, and even joyous to an extent.

People deploying personality instruments left and right and center seem to believe that the Individual ought to be the only focus of enquiry… My decades of training in group dynamics or system psychodynamics rejects this belief.

The caveat that I would like to re-iterate is the need to look at Lewin’s equation again: Behavior = f(Person, Environment)

My disquiet arises when I don’t hear HR professionals, coaches and consultants ever refer to the systemic or the group processes these days!

Nor are many really interested in exploring group unconscious processes as these emerge in the here and now.



Caveat 5

How dark is your Dark Side or your De-railers?


Why do we use the term – the De-railer or the Dark Side for personality profiling.

The first time I hears the term ‘Dark Side’, I remembered Jack Nicholson in the Shining. For those of you who do not read ‘dark’ literature by Stephen King, you must see the film which is considered a classic by many. The film begins with the nice guy, wanting to be an author, a college teacher with a family who agrees to look after a hotel that gets snowbound during the winters in Colorado.

testing 1

Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson) is this creative writer, a loving husband and father who slowly turns into this monster murderer as the Overlook Hotel pushes him into the dark side. The bloke goes around with an axe, having signed a loyalty contract with the stakeholders of Outlook Hotel – most of do so too – I meant the “loyalty = do as you are told” contract. He chases his wife and seeks to murder his kid … and that’s the whole movie!


Now that is some Dark Side or a De-railer!

And if I were to keep the analogy alive, the little kid shouting ‘REDRUM’ is your personality profiler!


On a serious front, Is there an assumption that all human beings as modern corporate denizens have to only be:

  • Functional and rational,
  • Ambitious and extroverted,
  • Compliant and decent,
  • Dutiful and diligent,
  • ‘Positive’ and collaborative,
  • Ethical and mature…


… and that any other trait or behavior of the human being is really really dark!  And if it is, then I wonder what is this dark side for normal human beings that we are all afraid of. Our societies are getting more polite, more efficient, and smoother – any rough edges seem dangerous today.

My fear is that the Indian socialization, which can be anyways repressive and intense, may describe many expressions that render the organization behaviors as taboos. So, perhaps there should be no anger – direct or passive aggression for we don’t know how to deal with it. There should be no envy and jealousy for we need to be with each other like a happy family. There should be no withdrawal or sulking and of course no bull in the china shop behaviors!!! And if you want to kill your boss for that brief moment – you ought to be in an asylum…

My fear is that terming certain behaviors as de-railers would kill the ability of the organization to collectively introspect and challenge itself.

Maybe the modern organization does not really wish to engage with human beings, with their innate complexity, their messy subjectivity, their emotionality and reactivity – and this delusion is being increasingly believed in by many a manager.

Aren’t normal human beings interesting and playful to engage with – including all their peccadillos and their imperfections?



This has been one long blog across part 1 and 2.

I use personality assessment tools and psychometrics – I do and I am aware of how powerful these tools are, as well as the immense trust and surrender sometimes the person sitting across you puts in you.

It is this immense power that one holds that triggered this blog, and the irresponsibility of the non-discerning wielder of such power that provokes me. I guess I don’t need to quote the Spiderman movie quote here…

I would like to reiterate the immortal words of Professor Pulin K Garg, who was with IIM Ahmedabad for several decades and influenced many of us in Sumedhas. One of the many lines that Pulin wrote was – “I am THIS, and THAT, and MORE …” referring to the innate richness of multiplicity in each one of us. Pulin spoke of Identity (inclusive of personality) as a PROCESS and I agree with him on this front.

How psychometric tools have helped me is to kick-start a journey within … and wonder at immense possibilities as well as pull my hair at our refusals and denials to budge and blossom.



The references have been many over the past three weeks but here are some that I remember:


  • The Cult of Personality Testing, How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves– Annie Murphy Paul
  • Baron, H. (1996). Strengths and limitations of ipsative measurement. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 69, 49-56.
  • Bowen, C.-C., Martin, B. A., & Hunt, S. T. (2002). A comparison of ipsative and normative approaches for ability to control faking in personality questionnaires. The International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 10, 240-259.

One thought on “Personality Testing: Caveats & Provisos to Consider when using Psychometrics (Part II)

  1. It is important to note that most instruments have their origin in US defence funded research and that ‘war’ is the underlying ‘thesis’ (for want of a better word). The unarticulated belief in most business organisations is that they are at war and hence the love for instruments. Even the ‘group as whole’ work of Bion and others emerged in the context of war- World War!!

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