Popularity Isn’t Always a Good Thing! (Especially When It Comes to Assessments)

By Nancy Parsons

Do you remember in high school when some of the most popular kids were not the best for developing true or deep friendships? The same applies to assessments, the most popular are often the least effective for talent development. Styles inventories such as the Myers Briggs (MBTI) are typically low cost, and they can be fun. I had one executive tell me she liked the DiSC styles test because it was “cheap and quick.” For an entertaining activity, that is fine, but what about for talent development? As the saying goes, you get what you pay for…

After interviewing experts, Kathleen Davis of Fast Company published “Why your personality test results are probably wrong” explaining how styles inventories are likely not accurate. She noted, “Personality tests can be fun to take, but they can also be frustrating. They’re black and white. Most popular personality tests assume that people can be classified into distinct personality types. But, people don’t fit into neat boxes. For example, most people are not entirely extroverted or introverted.”

That's why styles tests fall short. They are simple and people are not. People are beautifully complex, with a unique personal collage of strengths, gifts, gaps, risks, vulnerabilities, needs

Ms. Davis also interviewed Art Markman, Ph.D. from the University of Texas who said, “Myers-Briggs was developed in the 1940s, and there have been lots of advancements in the field of personality research since then. […] First, the Myers-Briggs has a low test/retest reliability, meaning if you take it again, you’re not necessarily going to get the same results as you did the first time. Markman says “other kinds of measures, like the Big 5 personality characteristics, are more stable across one’s lifespan and so are more reliable.”

Each person is uniquely complex and cannot be "grouped" or forced into 4, 8 or even 16 quadrants or boxes. That's why styles tests fall short. They are simple and people are not. People are beautifully complex, with a unique personal collage of strengths, gifts, gaps, risks, vulnerabilities, needs, and passions. These styles inventories do not measure these individual in-depth characteristics, risks or needs. Styles inventories provide some general, but often conflicting, inferences. Psychologists often refer to these as party games or liken them to astrology readings.

These styles inventories can be somewhat helpful when an organization has a low budget and needs to get team members to start talking and understanding general styles differences. That is where their usefulness ends. They should not be used in processes for selection, promotions, or formulating accurate personalized developmental action plans.

Given the need to develop talent accurately, to retain talent, and to accelerate success, fooling around with these popular, cheap, and quick style assessments will not do the job. That's why I love what we do -- we dig into the nuances of each person's characteristics and needs with our Big Five personality assessment, the CDR Character Assessment. Then we go into even more specifics to help develop an even clearer sense of self-awareness with our CDR Risks and CDR Drivers & Rewards Assessments. With this heightened self-understanding, people are much better prepared to drive their performance, interactions with others, and careers in the best direction to maximize their own success and happiness.

Again, people are complex. For example, we explain how you can be extroverted most often -- yet under stress, you may switch and become "detached" or introverted in reaction to the adversity in the moment. Another example is that some people are both warm, kind, supportive and friendly, yet they can also be "Egotists" when the heat is on. That seems odd. That means that under stress or conflict this individual becomes pushy, abrasive and, suddenly, full of themselves, which seems out of character for them. These shifts in personality are natural reactions under stress.

When it comes to scientific validity of assessments, styles inventories like MBTI do not meet the standards for an assessment that predicts performance based on research required for employee selection uses. Tests such as these are typically based on test-to-test reliability studies and are not validated based the statistical analysis on actual performance in job. Bottom line, they do not adequately measure or identify the in-depth individual inherent personality characteristics and intrinsic motivation at a deep enough level to develop true talent accurately for the best outcomes.

Annie Murphy Paul wrote an article Personality Tests are Popular – But Do They Capture the Real You?  for NPR. She found the devotion to the MBTI by friends and colleagues rather infuriating, “If my marshaling of scientific evidence against the test failed to change many minds, I hope that the narrative in which that evidence is embedded makes my larger point: that human beings are far too complex, too mysterious and too interesting to be defined by the banal categories of personality {style inventory} tests.” My response to Ms. Paul -- well said!

Let’s look at some simple, yet interesting cases of traits and motivation. Do you think a person can have the following mix of characteristics?

Person One

Leader-like, decisive, competitive, goal oriented and driven to perform


 a team player, builds effective relationships, a great coach, and a mix of being good at operations and strategy


has no interest for upward mobility or increasing power and authority and does not want a promotion (even though this individual has the highest potential of the leader group)

Person Two

Achievement driven, enjoys being in charge, has need for control and close oversight, is tough on staff and is a blunt and direct communicator,


under pressure tends to be suspicious of everyone and questions staff continually; also overanalyzes and creates extra busy work for the team


has high passion to help humanity and volunteers at a local soup kitchen regularly

Person Three

Leader-like, sometimes abrasive, competitive, decisive, and typically very aggressive

Socially skilled and even charming at times


Can sometimes be a soft touch, syrupy and ingratiating with senior leaders while frequently being a bully and condescending with direct reports


For fun, prefers being alone and working on stained glass windows and loves reading historical romance novels for hours at a time

Person Four

Well organized, very charming socially, enjoys a support role, is always eager to be the first one to help, always appears upbeat and is goal oriented, likable, is well connected in organizational politics


Gossips and deploys passive aggressive behaviors, has a very strong ego, and does not accept or handle critical feedback well


Has extremely high concerns for personal safety and long-term job security. Is very risk aversive.

Clearly, a styles inventory would not delve into all the divergent traits represented by the individuals above. As odd as some of these trait combinations are for each person, these are what we refer to as anomalies, and are interesting mixes found in real people. Of course, people have far more traits, strengths, and motivational needs than the short examples above, but these examples give you a quick idea of the complexity of each person that cannot be forced to fit into a styles box. 

Unfortunately, the popularity and the whopping $2 billion revenue generated by these widely used personality styles inventories has led to generic labeling and often dumping all assessments into this category. Often when I mention that I use assessments in my work, people jump to the assumption that it is the Myers Briggs or DiSC. One executive coach had a great rebuttal to this and said that CDR Assessments were like a Myers Briggs on steroids. 

It is important to understand the distinction between personality styles tests versus the Five Factor Model personality traits. In addition, inherent personality-based risk factors and intrinsic motivators are essential to understand the entire profile of an individual. Rather than 4, 8 or 16 style boxes, CDR Assessments, for example, measure a total of 60 personality-based traits between the Character, with 7 scales and 42 subscales, and the 11 Risks factors. Then there are 10 facets of motivation with up to 50 sub-facets for specificity measured as well.  This pinpoints important individual characteristics, differences, nuances and needs of each person.

In my early executive coaches’ training certification workshops in 1999, I used this Viable or Voodoo slide:

Many organizational leaders have concerns using psychometric measures

Clearly, pushing people’s personality styles and needs into boxes or prototypes falls short. Styles inventories miss much of what a person is really like, with their beautiful multi-faceted complexity, and tells you little about what they need to be most successful and satisfied. They also don’t tell you why someone may derail, which is essential to keep employees on the best track. When these styles tests are relied on too much, development misses the mark.  So, as you develop your assessment strategy, the questions are:

  1. Are you using assessments for fun?  Or…
  2. Do you want to invest in helping individuals?
    1. This includes improving their self-awareness to maximize their talent, performance, relationships, sustainable career growth and satisfaction
    2.  Do you want to use the assessment data (scientifically validated) for enterprise-wide initiatives such as: succession planning, custom training designs, team development sessions and more? 

You can stay with the popular crowd, or you can choose to use assessment tools that maximize talent growth and success. In closing, according to Adlai E. Stevenson,

“All progress has resulted from people who took unpopular positions.”