Friday, September 24, 2004

Another view on personality profiling

I thought my previous post would be my finale on personality profiling, until I got chatting yesterday with my friend and colleague Todd Harris. Todd is Director of Research at PI Worldwide, a leading firm in the field of personality profiling. I have been very fortunate to work with Todd as part of an organizational development consulting team helping a local nonprofit.

(Todd and I were waiting for Dr. Otto Scharmer of the Society of Organizational Learning to give his talk on his recent book Presence. For more, see this book review entitled "The Deeper Dimensions of Transformational Change: A Call to Collective Inquiry and Action.")

Todd has read "The Cult of Personality" (which I discussed in my previous post) and finds it very biased. I was curious to hear more and so I asked Todd about the relationship between personality and behavior. He shared a few insights with me, based on his career in studying that relationship.

Todd mentioned that in the 60s and 70s there was a quite a debate over whether personality was something that could be measured at all. The "yea"s carried the day and there is not much debate over that question anymore.

As to the relationship between personality and behavior, Todd agreed that this depends on context. He explained that there are "strong" contexts and "weak" contexts in this regard. A burning building would be "strong" -- producing a similar running-out-the-door response from just about every inhabitant you could imagine. Other situations are "weak" and leave much more room for the influence of personality.

To the degree that there is room for influence, personality is arguably the most significant single factor influencing a person's behavior on the job. The only other factor that could be argued to be more significant is cognitive ability. Other factors like motivation also play a role. Todd said personality is generally attributed 20-30% share of the total influence on behavior, among these traits. (How they measure that, I have no idea.)

Personality is unique among behavior-influencing traits in being non-discriminatory. In other words, cognitive skill tests are biased with respect to other traits like age, gender, and race; whereas personality tests show very little bias on these traits. So in addition to the strong influence of personality, there are legal reasons for employers to use it as well.

Finally, Todd emphasized that personality tests are just part of the puzzle that managers try to solve. They can be abused, but when used correctly these tests provide very helpful information.

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