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How to make the most of a personality questionnaire for development, coaching and performance management.

Aside from employee selection, the second biggest market for personality questionnaires is their use in employee development, performance coaching and team building.

Undoubtedly, personality questionnaires are an invaluable resource when designing personal development plans, but several pervasive misconceptions about personality questionnaires exist in this sphere.

Where people get it wrong

Personality traits, values, strengths, behavioural styles, these terms are used interchangeably by HR practitioners and the test publishers which provide them assessments. Although often marketed as though these constructs are fundamentally different, in reality they are effectively synonyms, and assessments purporting to measure them are all measuring the same things.

Publishers, HR practitioners and consultants may claim they are different, but invariably the research shows high levels of concurrent validity with known personality traits. Effectively, they are just attempts to repackage personality traits into something seemingly new, interesting and current.

Because personality theory is by far the most robust and thoroughly explained, the research in this area tells us everything we need to know about the other supposed constructs mentioned. Most importantly, it tells us that these traits are immutable, and cannot be improved.

Several poorly designed personal development programs however, assume these traits can be “improved”, i.e. if a person is introverted, a development programme can make them more extroverted.

All available evidence suggests this does not work.

This is simply not the case, personality traits cannot be directly influenced or manipulated, not through personal development programmes or other forms of intervention.

But if this is the case, why use personality questionnaires in development?

How personality works

Although “improving” a persons personality is not feasible, desirable or even ethical, simply knowing your own personality provides myriad information for personal development.

For example, knowing that you have low levels of the personality trait “emotional stability” (or high levels of neuroticism), as per the Big 5 model of personality, tells you a great deal. You are likely to be emotionally reactive, prone to mood swings, and experience several emotional highs and lows, so plan accordingly. Avoid unnecessarily stressful situations, take more time to relax, spend more time reflecting on how your mood influences your decision making.

Also, because personality traits are effectively immutable, your scores on specific traits are likely to be fairly stable, making the information they present useful for a long period of time.

Knowing these key factors about yourself allows you play to your strengths, and be more aware of any limitations. Although you cannot change who you are, you can incorporate that information into future decision making processes.

Developing a personal development plan using a personality questionnaire

In most circumstances, there are advantages and disadvantages to almost all personality traits. Similarly, these factors are highly context dependant, with certain traits being advantageous in some roles, and disadvantageous in other roles.

Managers, coaches and L&D consultants must consider the relative advantages and disadvantages of scoring low, medium and highly on each specific trait, and what that means in practice.

Once these advantages and disadvantages have been identified, the employees must complete their personality questionnaires. Often, conducting a 360 degree feedback process is undertaken concurrently the personality questionnaires, increasing the depth of data.

A thorough feedback session should then be conducted, ensuring that the key findings are explained to the employee, and any questions / objections can be addressed. Typically, employees will agree with around 80%+ of the results, immediately recognising these scores as their own. Around 0-20% however, may be a shock to the employee, which represents some of the most useful information to present.

Which personality questionnaire should be used for development?

Because the legal implications of personal development is much less severe than in employee selection, the standard of quality differ significantly.

As a result, several tools such as MBTI and DISC based questionnaires, which fail to meet the requirements for employee selection, are often used in personal development.

Beware, this does not mean these tools are more effective in development than in selection, merely that you are less likely to get sued when using them. Similarly, it doesn’t mean these questionnaires are more useful than questionnaires also used in selection, just that they are relegated solely to development.

It is highly advisable to invest in personality questionnaires using well supported models of personality, such as the Big 5 model, or the 16PF model. Personality “Type” based questionnaires, such as the Myers-Briggs however, have a very poor record academically, with little supporting evidence.

Although compared to selection, the stakes are not a high, it is still imperative to use well validated, strongly supported personality questionnaires, otherwise the information the provide may not yield any relevant information.

Without relevant, informative, and accurate results, the subsequent development programme will be a waste of time, money, and resources. Only well designed personality questionnaires can provide high quality data, resulting in actionable information in the field of coaching, personal development and performance management.


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