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How Leaders Can Use Personality Tests

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Taking a personality test can be exciting and a little scary. But the insights can be powerful. Learn how leaders can use personality test results to deepen self-insight and become more effective.

image of Meagan Aaron, DDI leadership expert, with a woman in the background, pencil/pencil eraser propped up on her chin, looking at a notepad, pondering how leaders can use personality tests as this is the topic of this leadership 480 podcast episode

A 480 PODCAST

How Leaders Can Use Personality Tests

37 minutes | March 8, 2022

00:00:00 00:00

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In this episode of the Leadership 480 podcast, Meagan Aaron, DDI leadership expert, discusses how leaders can use personality tests to improve in their roles. She shares information about the different types of personality tests, tips for taking them, and how to interpret the results to help accelerate your success as a leader.

Beth Almes:                        

Hi, leaders and welcome back to the Leadership 480 podcast. I'm your host, Beth Almes. And today we're talking about the one kind of test that's irresistible to us all and also a little bit scary, which is a personality test. Lots of us leaders have either been asked by our employers at some point to take a personality test or maybe we're just really curious and a little egocentric and want to learn more about ourselves, but more than just hearing more about ourselves, we're going to talk about what you actually do with the information that you get from these tests, how that can help you become a better leader. 

So today I have DDI leadership expert, Meagan Aaron here with us. Meagan has counseled hundreds, maybe more, of leaders about interpreting the results of their personality tests to improve their job performance. Meagan, welcome to the show.

Meagan Aaron:                

Thank you, Beth. Really glad to be here with you.

Beth Almes:                        

So I want to start by asking about some of the different types of personality tests. There's about a million out there and I think recently you even shared with me one where you can decide on your personality based on the lengths of your different fingers ... There's everything out there, from putting you in a category to the different types of personality you are by measuring your finger lengths. How do you start to figure out what type to take and how to interpret the results?

Meagan Aaron:                

Sure. I can talk about some of the differences, where they stem from. You see even some names of some that are familiar to my leaders on the line. So oftentimes personality tests or assessments come from what's referred to as the big five, those big five personality traits are things like openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. That last one was a question mark for me. 

The other categories were self-explanatory. That last one is really about are you sensitive or nervous or are you more in a free-flowing space, if you will? Others that come from different bodies of research, some that you might be familiar with are Myers-Briggs, or what oftentimes gets truncated to MBTI or DISC or Hogan.

Birkman is another one that comes to mind as well too. And that one, oftentimes, because the other question you have for me, Beth, is kind of where are they used, that one's used oftentimes for team effectiveness. Hogan is another example. 

So there are many different names and types that you can see. Or even online, you can even do strength finders for a free assessment. There's a long list. Each of them has different ways in which they can measure either personality or indicators of how you show up. So personality or type indicators are the ways in which I would describe what they're measuring.

Beth Almes:                        

So these different tests and the outcomes of them are a little bit different. So some leaders may have taken Myers-Briggs, so they might have gotten something like, "Oh I'm into a certain category. I'm an INFJ," or something like that. 

Or you may have taken, you mentioned the big five, so you might get some measurement along those five factors, but ultimately what's a personality test trying to do? What am I supposed to get out of this? Whether I'm getting put into one of these categories or I'm getting all these different measures.

Meagan Aaron:                

Yes.

Beth Almes:                        

What am I supposed to learn from this?

Meagan Aaron:                

Yeah, I think the piece that you even said in your opening of your first question is that trying to label employees in a pre-defined bucket is a nice goal, but it's really not all that practical. People behave differently in different scenarios and can live across these categories, which can sometimes even make it more confusing for us as we're looking to interpret it. 

As I think about the purpose of a personality assessment and especially in the context of leading others, leading is hard and it's hard to know where to go and what to do when you don't know who you really are. So the purpose of a personality assessment and the best way that you can use it is to increase your awareness of how you can show up, what are the traits or tendencies that you may lean towards, and how that informs your behavior.

So as I think about their use, a first step is helping to do some reflection, seeing where you have alignment into your own self-perception of these traits and then really consider where you are currently in your leadership role and where do you want to go next, really having that reflective space to then inform where you are. 

But really maybe it helps you make decisions about where you want to go next. So self-awareness is a really important thing that can support you by looking at your personality results. It can also help you to be thoughtful about your career-pathing, your career trajectory as well.

Beth Almes:                        

I love that, Meagan. I think one of the things that so many of us find when they get into leadership is that it is so hard and it's not what you thought and so many of us react differently. You're like, "I don't want to be annoyed by this, but I am. Why am I reacting this way?" 

I love that point about this is going to help you get to know yourself as a leader, make sure you really do want to do this, and take on this role, and then manage yourself moving forward, because not all of us show our best every single day. We try, but how do we start to manage what we do well and what we don't? 

I wanted to ask: it's a little scary and vulnerable when an employer or a prospective employer asks you to take a personality test. It feels like this is a lot of information about me. What if I answer the test wrong? How do I go about answering questions on a personality test when I'm feeling like, "Oh, my employer's going to see this."

Meagan Aaron:                

Yep. I think that piece comes out of gaining new insight, because that's what these personality tests are all about. If I were to summarize another purpose component, it's a piece of data. It's a single piece of data by the way. And so when you can take a look at a single piece of data and enable it to inform again, building awareness, sometimes it also helps us. 

We know a lot of our strengths, it can be validating to have a personality test really showcase them. But oftentimes we don't know our own weaknesses, making us even more vulnerable. And so we want to make sure that we can feel that vulnerability in a space of recognizing how might we need to adapt or change how we behave. 

So the scary part of seeing a weakness really should be flipped on its head and instead perceived as a benefit, right? If I'm not aware previously, but now I can, and sometimes we know they're weaknesses, but maybe we don't even know the label or the name or the description.

And this really helps to now give me something tangible that I can work on and work towards. So I want people to know that there's power in having that vulnerability because that's what can accelerate you to, as I mentioned previously, where you want to go next or what you're working on in your current role as a leader. So ignore the fear factor and embrace it instead to have knowledge that you may not have had before. 

Because if we think about the other ways in which we're informed about our weaknesses, it's maybe our peers or our employees, but they might not want to call out your weaknesses. They may like you a lot and they don't want to hurt your feelings, but nervous about the possibility to open the door for you to tell them what you think are their flaws. That test is not going to hold back. It's going to tell you exactly what it thinks are your strengths and weaknesses. And that can be really valuable information for you as a leader to have.

Beth Almes:                        

I think that's so powerful because you try to imagine, telling your boss about their personality flaws does not sound attractive. If you want to continue working here, does that sound like an attractive proposition? Not really, but I think your point too, about getting that clarity and getting clarity about your own motivations for a role as well. I mean, can you use these results to say, "Hey, I don't know if I want this next role," or, "I don't know if I'm really right for this job?"

Meagan Aaron:                

I can think back to my own experience where I had quite a shift in expectations. Most of my time was spent, as you can imagine, hearing needs, helping to shape and design that into a solution, helping to execute that often. So there were some really important examples of how I operated. The ask was to take that set of skills, but add into it a new set of skills that really lived under that head of sales. 

So there was prospecting, there was forecasting, there was contracting, you can hear some differences in even the verb use that I'm using around current or previous role to now this build of both worlds coming together. And in that responsibility, I was reflecting upon my own assessments and thinking back to what I really valued, what I was motivated by. And one example that comes to mind and the prompt in your question was one piece around that role, right?

Prospecting, forecasting, expanding new sales, just all those things really require a spirit of thinking about the financial component, and when I looked at one of these assessments again, and was taking a look at what motivates me on a scale from one to a hundred, and there was one where I was the lowest. It was registering a two in that kind of overarching theme of financials. 

And my question mark was, "Oh gosh, can I do this? Can I fulfill this role, knowing I know this part about my wiring, that it's not high on what motivates me?" But what I also know is another secret. So as your leaders, as you're listening in, and you're thinking about application, jot this part down, which is that behavior can always override your wiring or your personality. And because I know that, and I coached others to do the same thing, I had optimism that I could still be successful in the role because there was the skill piece of this I could acquire.

The hard part of it was that the will never matched the skill. And so, as you're taking a look at the data that you're getting from the personality assessments, remember it's a single piece of data, but nonetheless, it can be a powerful one for you to make some good decisions about fit, about matching your motivation, about what you value. And my example, there was a complete disconnect. And although I knew the science behind skill versus will, I never gained the will to then be able to execute on the skill.

Beth Almes:                        

I love that story and using it to you really find what you want and what you're good at because there is a portion of this here that personality is so much about how you're going to react. Whether you like it or not, there are things that you're going to do, and yes, you can choose to override them with your behavior, but at the same time, this is a part of who you are. And there are some things that will never maybe make you happy, no matter how much that is. 

And I think as it comes to leaders, there's probably a lot of that you see play out, like certain leadership traits that people have to think about, "Does it make me happy to make my team succeed or for me to personally succeed? How do those things interplay?" 

How have you seen that as you've coached leaders? How have you seen that play out of the things that come out in their personality that really either accelerate their success as leaders, or if you see this in your personality, think twice about how that might hold you back?

Meagan Aaron:                

Yes. And it also goes back to the comment that you made around there's a fear factor of answering it wrong. The best thing you can do, as you are most likely in your leadership career going to face new or more of these personalities to assessments, is to answer authentically. 

"Well, how do I answer authentically?" You answer in the way that your immediate reaction or intuition is telling you and don't spend time overthinking. Speed can really help you answer accurately in personality assessments. And what that prompted for me is the component of authentic and accurate, because there is no such thing as a perfect personality. 

Let me just confirm that again, as another piece of notes that you're taking today, team, there is no perfect personality. There are personality traits and characteristics, as Beth just highlighted, that are either going to accelerate your success and role or may prohibit you from being successful. And that's where you have to have that internal or even external conversation with your leader about the energy that it would take to get to a motivational level to acquire those skills.

If you think back to my story, there was a significant gap. That significant gap, reminded me that, and what I learned out of that, is I should have spoken up sooner, recognizing that there was going to be energy required to gain a new skill, but I also had to find energy to get the will at the same time. So these are some of those formulas you can be thoughtful about to help you make those good decisions around, "Can I gain some traction because there's a piece of this process where I really love to think big picture and I'm visionary and I really welcome the opportunity for change? And this new role and responsibility has never been done before." 

Okay, great. Let that be the energy to propel you into being successful in that piece of it. And have those other parts where you may have some skill or knowledge gaps, get the energy there where you don't have to put it because it's never been done before because you already thrive in that kind of environment.

Beth Almes:                        

Can you change your personality? So as you get these scores back and depending on the test you take, it might look a little bit different. And I think some folks have had experiences of, "Oh, I took a test one time and it said this. And I took the same test and it said something different later." 

Can you change aspects of your personality? Is it common for that to evolve over time? So if I'm saying, "I'm the super introvert right now and maybe sales isn't for me because that's scary," can that change?

Meagan Aaron:                

I would say think of a dial and you can turn a few notches. Think about a volume dial, right? So I can go from maybe a one to a three in some places like introvert versus extrovert, but going from a one to a 10 is most likely not going to occur. Because that goes back to your wiring components that are really again shaped by age five. 

There's again, lots of great research team and leaders on the line, you can be thoughtful about to just navigate and investigate more around, "Well, how was my personality formed?" And it starts really early. I literally had this coaching conversation yesterday with an executive and her team had done, again very similar to what we're talking about today, some personality assessments and there was a group visual that showed where everyone had landed, names were removed she said.

But it's so easy to see who is where, Estelle, you know how we behave. And there were colors attached to it. And she said, "Oh my gosh, everyone was so focused on mine. And that I was one singular color, except for one." I think there was five and different blocks. Four of the five were one color. The fifth one was different and everyone was just gravitated towards her profile and asking all these questions and concerned. 

And she was like, "I wasn't concerned about my own profile. I knew I answered the way that I act and how I behave, compared to maybe some of my peers who I think answered the questions as to how they wanted to be perceived." And so we were having just a dialogue around what does this mean for her because she is on that trajectory of next. And I reminded her that this is who you are.

It may not always be how you show up. So this is who you are. It may not be how you show up. Based upon my secret I gave you on the call today leaders, which is the behavior can override personality, really going from one end of the spectrum to the other is not realistic, but there are places and spaces, back to Beth's question to us which was thinking about, "Should I take something? How does it inform and how successful I'll be to accelerate in that role?" A few notches of adjusting our personality through how we behave is a feasible thing to change. 

Going from one end of the spectrum to the other is also just not a place that you want to go, that loses the essence of who you are and what you bring to the table. It just may be that now we've got to look at a different path or a different role that has a better alignment to what we're currently working with.

Beth Almes:                        

Meagan, it reminds me of a question just around how each of us is a little bit unique and how our personality traits interact with one another. When you're talking about how you are isn't always necessarily how you appear to others, I think as leaders look at taking these tests and maybe getting some scores back on certain aspects or certain traits that they may have, they might score really high in one area and low in another and how those interact with one another may be what's different. 

So as you look at personality tests and how these different traits interact, how do you kind of coach leaders to think about it's not just, "Hey, I'm extremely high on this one. I'm extremely extroverted," or, "I'm extremely neurotic," which never sounds great, right? But there are ways that it might interact with other aspects of their personality that help to say, "Well, that's how this might show up for you at work to others."

Meagan Aaron:                

So Beth, your question was really thinking about how the different traits and types can interact with one another. And sometimes in different scenarios, you can even pinpoint which parts of your personality are showing up and how you're interacting with others or you're making decisions. One that comes to mind for me is I'm very much a rule-follower. And in having conversations and coming to decisions, it's the combination of my rule-following and also I like patterns and systems and ambiguity is not my favorite. 

Or I might be dealing with somebody within my team who really thrives on ambiguity and rules are not going to be the first thing. They're going to create them as they go. And so what that means in the combination is I have to recognize where I may be more rigid and how I approach problem-solving may also prohibit me from finding new ideas.

I can recall a time where I received coaching and the individual shared with me, "If you continue down this path of perfectionistic, you're always going to hold back and you're not going to be able to move forward." And that was so important because reading between the lines of what that coach said to me, it wasn't just project work that was holding me back. 

It was just what I was going to be doing from a development perspective or how I was leading teams or how I was leading individuals. That was the part that was really going to hold me back. And I had to change my behavior to, "Done was better than perfect." So this is a prime example of where we've been leading to leaders on the line today in listening in, is that yes, I recognize that I still really adore rules.

Cross walks are my friend, but it doesn't mean that I have to be thoughtful about stretching that or doing something outside of what my norm is to get to a better result. So that's how they can interact with one another. You can see two of my examples, how I react to change and how I like to follow the rules can lead to me trying to get it perfect before I get it done. 

But my behavior has had to change to something very different and that's what has enabled me to be successful, to get more opportunities for more complex, challenging projects, to lead more individuals with different needs and different expectations. So that's what comes to mind as I think about the interconnection between the two and how they can work together.

Beth Almes:                        

That's such a great story. And kind of reminds me of I had taken a personality test at one time that one of the traits they measured was volatility. And I scored sky-high on it. And when I got the results back, I was so fixated on it. 

I was like, "I don't think I'm like that. I don't think I'm this extremely emotional reactive person." And I couldn't understand why it didn't sound like me. And when I had talked to a coach about it, they said, "Well, recognize that you probably are reacting really highly emotionally to a lot of things, but you're very prudent."

Meagan Aaron:                

Yes.

Beth Almes:                        

"And so that's probably never coming through, but recognize that your first reaction is probably an emotional one."

Meagan Aaron:                

Yeah.

Beth Almes:                        

"And you end up moderating that." And it really helped me understand how I was processing different situations and things like that. But it was really not flattering to get that initial result back. I wasn't excited about it. 

So if you're a leader who gets some results back on a test that maybe isn't how you perceive yourself, you think, "I don't think I am like that," how do you recommend that you start to work through that? I mean, do you just kind of accept like, "Oh God, I'm kind of terrible. Nobody's perfect. But..." Or how do you start to work through that information that maybe doesn't match your self-image?

Meagan Aaron:                

Yes. I think that piece is really good. It makes me think about an example of when I was coaching an individual who was in a role that required a level of arrogance because that role was actually a life-saving role. And I want somebody who was in that role who knows what they're doing, who has some arrogance.

Beth Almes:                        

Yeah.

Meagan Aaron:                

But even that term has several dimensions. That's why you'll recall, leaders, that I said the label itself is not what I attached to. It's thinking about how it shows up. And in this example, for that individual, arrogance showed up as not asking for help. Now, I don't believe that maybe again, our first definition of arrogance would be something like that. Even maybe visuals that come to mind of what arrogance looks like. I don't believe that's the first thing on the list.

So my takeaway always when coaching leaders is that your personality is as unique as your fingertips. And so just because there is something that has been connected, and that connection is either a definition, a color, a type, or a label, et cetera, you still have to do the work of figuring out what that means for you, because it's going to be very unique. 

So know that, just as I said, that personality is a single data point. So also are the results that you get, unless you do the work to figure out what insights you can gain from it. Insights can also come in the form of really narrowing in on what that looks like for you. That's what comes to mind for me, Beth, when you ask that question around a label or the yuck factor of connecting to something that's not flattering.

Beth Almes:                        

So we've talked a little bit about how personality tests can give us some self-awareness, but what about sharing it with others? This feels intensely vulnerable, to share some of that, especially when there may be things that don't feel super flattering, right? 

You want to approach others and they think that you're just the greatest, you've got no flaws. Of course, that's not true, but it's really vulnerable to share that information with others. Do you recommend that leaders share with their teams or share with others they are working with? What do you do with this information?

Meagan Aaron:                

Yeah, I think, just as I said, one of the benefits of having personality data is that I want to have all the intel I possibly can have when leading a team. If I better understand how I think and if I know my team well, then I'm going to understand more how we mesh or don't, and then I can be more receptive to their needs and I can maybe reassure them when times are tough. 

Something I have done previously is taken that personality data and getting first the commitment. There's got to be some agreements in what is shared, how it's shared, and what it'd we be used for. So if you're sharing just because we all came back and we had a shared experience of going through the personality assessment, that's okay. Let's instead use it for something that has context and purpose. Again, this week, it's one of those wild things, it happens, right?

So I always say that the computer listened to me, hence why we found that the assessment around the fingertip, height, and then now all my meetings this week have been about the same topic. I digress. I was asked by a peer of mine to translate personality data for a new hire. 

And so I got on the call with that new hire and said, "Have you seen your results?" And her answer was, "No." The next thing I asked was, "Well, tell me about your performance goals and what behaviors that you have identified that you're going to be responsible for in your role going forward?" And she said, "I haven't had that conversation yet."

So I said, "Okay, let me go ahead and press pause." Went to that leader and said, "Wanted to have that conversation. We'll still have that conversation. Tell me about these things." First and foremost, there was just a disconnect around who had access to what. That was a quick, easy resolve. The purpose in sharing that part of the story is I wanted that individual to have that first reaction. 

Leaders, I know you've had that same first reaction when you look at that list, you're calling through the data to see the highs and the lows, however, the tool is measured. And we're looking for all those highs and then we ignore them all. And we just focus on those lows or what we perceive as those lows. So I wanted that to be the first thing, that that individual had that time to go through the emotional rollercoaster of seeing the results.

And then in having that conversation with the leader, we uncovered that there is a profile for success for this, not just the individual, but the whole function and that's new. It's just getting finalized literally this week. And so my question was, "Great. Let's pull that profile of what's going to be required for success for this function." And after you've had that conversation of setting clear expectations, then I'll come back in because I need a backdrop from which then to connect the personality data to. 

Without it, it just kind of hangs out there, but imagine the power in connecting, "Here's what we've learned about self, here's what you're expected to do. Now, let's weave that together to talk about those same terms that we started our conversation with, what can accelerate your success and what might get in the way based upon what we know about your wiring." So that's one piece of it, which is an individual and setting the context.

The other part is then sharing that with our teams to say, "Okay, so here's what I know about myself. What can I learn about you?" But having that purpose and the connection is always key. So permission, purpose, these are things that you'll need to have. What you gain from when you share it with other people after you've confirmed purpose is then things like... I can recall an example of passing hours around a table and you can do this virtually as well. 

You can still build trust and collaboration through a virtual conversation, but at this time it was over dinner and talked about just what gets in the way. "I get impatient with brainstorming. So here's what it's going to show up as. I'm going to probably disengage from the conversation, because that's how it shows up for me. Here's how you can reengage me." 

So what that did was we didn't have time to have discord in the team because we were accountable for a very important deadline for a very important client in need, the routine team. Everything's urgent, everything is important.

Beth Almes:                        

Right.

Meagan Aaron:                

Everything requires lots of energy and focus. So that was how we wanted to resolve accelerating our ability to be successful. And it built trust amongst us as well, because then there was no... Remember we talked to you about the fear factor of calling someone out by saying, "Here's what you did." 

Or, "I don't even want to tell you that. I'm going to pretend like it didn't happen," but it doesn't enable us to show up and be our whole, true selves.

Beth Almes:                       

I really love that in how it can kind of bring the team dynamic to life as everyone kind of knows where they might lean on others for strengths or where they might look for, "Hey, I know this is going to bug them if we do it this way, here's how I can pull them back in and how we might engage them." 

I think that's such a powerful thing. I'll note it can work with spouses too. I've told my husband at this point that, "Know my first reaction might be very emotional. Five minutes later, I'm ready to talk about this practically."

Meagan Aaron:                

Yes.

Beth Almes:                        

Always good to then be able to kind of acknowledge your own ways of processing things and how that can affect others. Meagan, this was such a useful way of looking at how some of these tests can really help us build our leadership strengths and skills and go into these roles with our eyes open about where we need to work on ourselves and what we can be stronger about. 

The last question I have for you is one that I ask all of our guests on this show, which is about sharing a moment of leadership that really affected and changed your life, either for good or for bad, either way, you'd like to share. 

Some people say, "Here's what inspired me," and others say, "Here's where I knew I'll never do that again."

Meagan Aaron:                

What's so interesting is it comes full circle with my original story about not being so great from a motivation perspective of on that financial side. What it enabled me to do moving forward was when I was able to separate the two, I was no longer responsible for all those other action verbs that I told you, forecasting, expanding, selling, et cetera, and was still able to go back to my strengths of being able to hear and connect and strategize and shape and design, et cetera, and deliver. What I now get as feedback from my sales partner is, "You have such a commercial mindset."

And isn't that ironic. What I learned from that is by releasing the power of that label and embracing instead that I bring other things to the table, and I know how to still put that lens on when needed, there's a perception that it's something of value and it is a value. 

It's just not the highest one on my list. My highest one on my list is if it's not fun, I'm not going to do it. So I think that that was a really good lesson for me around, "Yes, I know myself. Lean on the insights, not the label, and allow that to be a handrail versus a handcuff." And then really driving where do you want to go next from a career perspective?

Beth Almes:                        

I love that insight, focusing on the insight, not the label. Such a great message to take away from all this talk about personality testing. 

Thank you for being here today. Obviously, if it wasn't fun, you wouldn't have done it.

Meagan Aaron:               

I'm glad.

Beth Almes:                        

Thank you for joining us. And I hope for our leaders, this was a fun listen as they take time out of their 480 minutes today to be with us. And remember to make every moment of leadership count.