How to Use Personality Tests for Leaders

Ultimate Guide to Leadership Assessment 

Understanding How We're Wired

Personality tests for leaders are a huge source of fascination because people are always looking to learn about themselves. 

They might wonder if they have what it takes to be a great leader, or how their personality might be similar to famously successful leaders. In truth, personality is incredibly complex, and our unique combination of characteristics can manifest itself in innumerable ways. That’s why it’s important that HR uses personality tests carefully and correctly for leaders.

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What Is a Personality Test? 

A personality test is designed to identify a person's natural characteristics, motivations, and tendencies. You might think of it as trying to uncover why they are the way they are. These factors tend to stay fixed over time, although major life events can sometimes change a person.

Typically, a personality test involves the leader responding to a series of statements related to their style and preferences. The tests are usually delivered online or as a questionnaire. 

For example, a personality test might make a statement like, “I enjoy large parties where I can meet new people.” The leader would then select their level of agreement with the statement, ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.” 

Other tests might make several statements and leaders need to choose which statement best describes them.  

The goal is for participants to quickly answer based on their immediate reaction to the question to get an accurate picture of their natural preferences. 

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What Does a Personality Test Measure? 

Personality is one of the big causes for behavior, along with environment, learning, values, motivations, etc. Everyone has a personality and no two are the same.  

But because we can’t measure personality physically, like height and weight, personality tests help us use common language and science to describe and understand the unique characteristics that cause people to do what they do. 

That science, which is vast, has lead to a global conclusion that there are five common factors of personality, or what’s known as the “Big Five,” often known by the OCEAN acronym, which are: 

  • Openness to Experience  
  • Conscientiousness  
  • Extroversion 
  • Agreeableness 
  • Neuroticism 

That’s not to say that there are only five overall factors. Underneath each personality trait are several subsets of characteristics that influence these broader five areas. That’s why you may see some providers like Hogan introduce a wider range of personality factors, such as ambition and inquisitiveness, among others.

Regardless of the framework used to interpret results, what’s important is that personality tests are consistent in measurement. They should accurately measure characteristic patterns related to how a person behaves at work, how they interact with others, and which parts of a job bring them satisfaction. This data can help to create a well-rounded view of a person and how they may react to situations on the job. 

When Should I Use a Personality Test for Leaders? 

There are a range of circumstances when you might consider using a personality assessment for your leaders. For example: 

Leadership Selection 

Personality tests can be useful when you are considering someone for a new role. The test could help raise any red flags that may prevent their success as a leader. In addition, the test may help you spot strengths where someone is highly inclined toward leadership. 

However, a word of caution: we do not recommend using a personality test on its own in leadership selection. It should be paired with behavioral data. That data might come in the form of an assessment center or a behavioral interview. What’s important is that you get an accurate picture of what the person chooses to do, beyond just what they may be inclined to do based on their personality type. 

Using a personality type measure without a behavioral measure can lead to inaccurate conclusions about a leader. 

Leadership Development 

Personality tests can be particularly powerful in fueling leadership development. They can help leaders uncover deep insights about themselves and understand how they can leverage natural strengths. 

Personality data can also help leaders recognize when their natural instincts and reactions might be holding them back. They may recognize when their natural reaction, such as a tendency toward arrogance, might prevent them from trusting and listening to their teams. Once they are aware of a problematic personality trait, they can work to change their behavior. 

Leadership Succession 

Personality testing becomes increasingly important for leaders as they get promoted into higher positions. That’s because personal impact increases in each level of leadership. For that reason, companies looking to build a strong succession pipeline should consider helping leaders gain personal insight through personality testing to increase their effectiveness for future roles. 

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What Are the Benefits of Using Personality Tests for Leaders? 

After taking a personality test, leaders should gain a better understanding of how they’re wired as a person. This deeper understanding can help them understand why certain leadership responsibilities and challenges are easier or harder for them.  

For example, an introverted person may find that they struggle to build their network. That doesn’t mean that they can’t do it. However, they may need to apply more conscious effort to networking. Meanwhile, an extroverted person may find themselves building networks nearly effortlessly. 

By having a better understanding of how their personality can enable or derail their performance, leaders are better equipped to manage their personality. They can leverage aspects of their personality that enable them to thrive. And they can recognize situations where they may need to modify their behavior. 

What Are the Dangers of Using Personality Tests for Leaders? 

Like any tool, personality tests for leaders can be used for good or poor purposes. It’s up to HR to ensure that personality tools are used properly. 

At DDI, one of our biggest cautions to our clients is against using personality assessments as a standalone tool to make leadership decisions. We strongly recommend pairing personality data with behavioral data. 

Why? Because when personality data are used in isolation, it’s too easy to misinterpret the data and insights. 

This can play out in several ways, but one of the most common is in “typecasting” people. Many companies will reach broad conclusions about their talent based on personality data. For example, they may assume that people who are introverts can’t build relationships across the organization. But that may not be correct. Many introverts are excellent at building relationships and can broaden their networks with conscious actions. 

This is especially important given the focus on inclusion and diversity. One of the biggest payoffs of diversity comes from having people with different perspectives and ways of thinking contribute to solving a problem. So it may be a mistake to limit the types of personalities accepted into leadership roles. 

Where we see personality data come to life is when it’s coupled with behavioral data. Together, you get a more holistic view of a person. You can see why they might do things, and how they get satisfaction from their job. That can help you choose and develop deeply self-aware and effective leaders. 

graphic representing how personality tests for leaders are combined with behavioral data to deliver holistic insights. Represented as an equation with a left brain with gears representing behavior, plus the right side of the brain with a heart icon, representing personality, which equals a complete brain with both sides and holistic insights.

What Type of Personality Assessment Should I Use for Leaders? 

There are a range of personality tests for leaders. At DDI, we incorporate personality directly into some of our tests and assessments, such as Leadership SnapshotTM and Leader3 Ready®. At our executive levels, we use a custom version of Hogan’s personality tests, which we couple with behavioral data.

Often, we get requests from clients about using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) or the DiSC assessment, based on the popularity of both tests. We rarely use these tests for our client contexts, especially not for selection. However, they can be used for engaging self-discovery or to spark conversations about team interactions.  

We also work with clients who use several other types of personality tests, which they may choose to pair with our behavioral assessments or behavioral interviewing approach.  

Before using any test, we advise clients to request and evaluate the test technical manual that should include information about the test’s reliability, validity (preferably relationship to job performance), and fairness.

How the Personality Test Process and Timing Works 

Typically, personality tests for leaders are extremely scalable and easy to roll out. Usually done online, HR can send a link to leaders and they can quickly respond. Depending on the test, it may take 10 minutes to an hour to complete. 

The real question is what companies choose to do with the data after the personality test is delivered. In many cases, leaders may get a report back and are left on their own to interpret the personality test results. 

In our experience, a personality test is more powerful when a trained coach is able to talk through the results with the participant. The coach can help the leader bring in their personal context and understand how their personality type may be playing out in work situations. This can help leaders shift their interpretation of the data from a simple score or label and instead apply the insight to their real-life situations. 

Should I Pair a Personality Assessment with Other Assessments? 

As noted elsewhere, we strongly encourage any company using a personality assessment to pair it with behavioral data. Using a personality assessment as a standalone tool results in the real risk that leaders and organizations make talent decisions based on faulty assumptions of what the data actually means. 

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