What personality tests tell us – and what they don’t

Early in my career, while I was working for a rapidly growing healthcare system, my team and I attended one of those half-day sessions designed to get as working as effectively as possible together. The session was hosted on one of the top floors of a Chicago high rise and the windows looked out over the glimmering waters of Lake Michigan. It was perhaps the perfect place to be told I was a Dove. 

There were also Eagles, Peacocks, and Owls among us, and, once assigned, we were told to flutter over to the group of our own kind. Our bird identities had been determined by a series of questions we had answered on an online test a few weeks before, and now we would have the chance to get to know our strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of our colleagues. 

I hadn’t known when I was answering the questions that I’d end up as a Dove, which was probably all the better so as not to influence my answers. But something about being surprised by my avian personality type didn’t sit well with me. 

I looked around at my fellow Doves. It seemed that none of us were particularly excited by our label, and I was curious about why we all felt like second rate birds. I scanned the room. The Owls were already deep into the assignment the facilitator had given our groups, and the Peacocks were cracking each other up across the room. When I glanced over to the table by the window where the Eagles were perched, I realized that all of our company leaders were there. They certainly didn’t seem disappointed by their type; instead they looked like they were wearing it with honor. 

The facilitator went on to tell us all the things that good personality typology facilitators do. That there are no good or bad types. That a good team needs a mix of all of the types. That it’s just about learning to work optimally with one another’s type. It all sounded sort of true, but in that way that we’re told that everyone is treated equally regardless of their skin color or gender – nice in theory, but not what happens in practice. 

The Eagles were proud of their status at the top of our internal hierarchy, and they seemed to embrace the idea that their hard-earned positions were a function of these innate qualities that they possessed. 

Meanwhile, I thought more about my own role as a Dove. I suppose I did a lot of peace-keeping, but I was also a middle manager. So maybe that was the reason I was always putting out fires and trying to keep everyone happy? Yes, I liked having a safe, quiet space to work, but that sounded so great because of so often being the one in the center of managing patient crises on our unit. And I did focus a lot on team success, but that was basically the description of my job as “team manager.” 

I wondered whether this really described who I was, and what that meant for too my future. If I was Dove, would that mean my current role was where I was best suited? Or was I Dove because I was in my current role? I was feeling caged. 

Someone somewhat humorous once said that there are two types of people in the world: ones that put people in two types, and those who don’t. 

I’ve more often been the former, which perhaps is what drew me in part to a career in psychology. Psychology put at my disposal a whole host of assessments to categorize people and even an entire book of ways to label behavior, called the DSM. One of the first required classes in undergraduate psychology for decades was Abnormal Psychology, suggesting of course that there then is a Normal (I haven’t met any of those people yet).

Psychology’s adoration for categorization was everything a curious and anxiety-prone girl could wish for. Discovering the field was like finding the key to putting all of this chaotic clutter into nice, orderly boxes. The boxes could make sense, be made organized and predictable. So much cleaner. 

Personality has always been one of psychology’s favorite things to categorize. We all have a personality, after all, and so it’s widely applicable and so interesting! Who doesn’t love to learn more about themselves? People with bad personalities, I suppose, but otherwise everyone! 

The last century saw a rush of theorizing and research on personality. Because our brains love to create structure, what resulted were various systems of typology, each emphasizing different aspects of how the developers saw humans behaving. Today there are over 2500 of them on the market, and about 80% of Fortune 500 companies use them in some capacity. 

We clearly as a society see value in the concept of personality. Some companies even use these measures of personality for things like hiring and promotion decisions, which obviously have hefty implications. Others use them for team optimization, cultivating emotional intelligence, and building culture. 

But in all of the theorizing and perfecting of systems of personality, we sometimes miss a fundamental question – is personality a real thing? 

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The answer to that question depends on how we define personality, of course, so let’s take the generally recognized definition. The American Psychological Association seems like a solid source, and they describe personality as an enduring set of characteristics that make up a person’s adjustment to life, including their traits, drives, and patterns. If we consider personality like this, the answer to whether it’s “real” seems to be… mostly. 

The key here is the idea of “enduring.” The most enduring traits we have are often based in what is called our temperament, which can be thought of as the untouched part of personality – the genetic predispositions that we arrive into the world carrying. Consider that babies at just a few days old who are given sugar water respond very differently to it, depending ostensibly on how their nervous systems are organized. Some become highly reactive, while others are more calm and neutral. Scientists correlated these infantile reactions to these same individuals’ reactions to stimuli several years later and found striking similarities. Babies that were more sensitive to stimuli continued to be so into the future. The ones who reacted strongly to sugar water were also the ones who would react more strongly to things like crowded classrooms, loud noises, and unexpected events. 

The study of temperament tells us that some things do seem hard-wired in us. As we age from babyhood to childhood and beyond, though, we start to pick up some additional labels for our traits, beyond just our natural reactivity. The people in our worlds start to notice how agreeable we seem, how adventurous we are, how organized and efficient we are, and they begin to tell us as much. Over time, we start to notice those traits ourselves, though it gets fuzzy as to how much we continue to “naturally” demonstrate them versus embody the narrative we have been handed. 

We do find that many people demonstrate stability in how they engage with the world, but perhaps not as much as many of us might think. Just last year, researchers Amanda Wright and Joshua Jackson found that some people are more stable in their personality profile than others, so much so that this stability could be considered its own characteristic of personality. We all know (or are) someone who seems to be exactly the same as they’ve ever been, and someone else whose “eras” seem endless. 

These shifts in personality profiles don’t tend to happen quickly or all at once, but they happen. Researchers tend to see the largest shifts happen in early adulthood and later adulthood, with the middle being – generally speaking – more consistent. But even this is variable. The areas of personality where psychologists have observed the biggest changes over time for people are in emotional stability, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. These changes tend to be in the direction of increasing, meaning we get nicer, less reactive, and more careful as we get older. We might think of these changes as moving us in the direction of being easier to get along with. Maybe we don’t want to get kicked out of the nursing home? 

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It can be nice to know that our personalities are moving in new directions over the course of our lives, but what do we do when there is a mismatch between what seems to be our personality and the thing that we want or need to do now? Are we fated to only engage in the activities that temperamentally fit? What happens when it’s important we do them anyway? Like parent the kids we have? 

I wrote back on my Facebook page shortly after the birth of my third son a quip about how I’d ask the universe for a life of peaceful reflection to read, think, and write and the universe had laughed. It helped when other introverted moms shared that they could relate to this struggle, but it didn’t do much to turn down the literal volume in my home. It was loud, smelly, chaotic, cluttered, and totally dysregulating to my own reactive nervous system (I definitely would have been a wild baby with the sugar water). 

Friends would laughingly welcome me to the ranks of “boy mom,” but I shuddered at this. It wasn’t that I didn’t like boys – I did, and especially my own. But I wasn’t quite ready to adopt a whole identity around the concept and I still didn’t know how the me I’d always known to manage this role. I felt like a round peg in a square hole. 

What I needed at the time – besides some noise canceling headphones and a really good nanny – was a framework for thinking about this experience. If I’d known earlier in my parenting journey about Brian Little, I think it could have helped. 

I’ve talked here before about Dr. Little, the developer of the personal projects concept I love. His ideas that the personal projects we engage in – whether those involve raising kids, doing our taxes, crocheting, or reading Plato – shape who we are just as importantly as our genes and our early nurture, have been eye-opening for me. And a fundamental part of how these projects can shape us is that they often require us to adopt what Dr. Little calls free traits. 

Free traits are the characteristics that might not feel as natural to us, but that we can access when we need to. I’m exercising a free trait when I get on stage in front of a large group to give a talk, or when I force myself to shout out an answer during a brainstorming session. I’m exercising free traits when I get on the floor to play with the daughter who busted my boy mom streak, something that comes far from naturally but lets me act on a value I have. 

Free traits are a powerful concept to consider because we can think about them as the place where our destiny meets our decision-making. It’s where personality stops being something that locks us into a particular set of behaviors or outcomes and allows us instead to venture out into new experiences. 

Some of us will find that with enough practice of our free traits, we stop feeling that we’re acting out of character and instead acting from our character. They start to feel more natural and less effortful. Or maybe they still feel effortful, but we can slip into that effort more seamlessly or require less recovery time. 

Now that I’m many years into parenting my brood, the messes and energy don’t rock my nervous system like they used to. I can go with their chaotic flow more easily and without paddling so hard against it. That said, I don’t think I’ll ever stop relishing the quiet that comes after the last one’s head hits the pillow. 

With how malleable personality can potentially be, one might wonder how valuable it really is to spend time and resources on figuring out our own and learning about those of our colleagues. In fact, I find it incredibly worthwhile. With a few caveats. 

Organizations rolling out personality testing and exploration, even very well-resourced and  well-intentioned ones, tend to do it without a deep understanding of what’s being discussed. The risk of that is that team members feel othered or pigeon-holed (I had to), much like I did as a Dove. That kind of boxing in can be limiting in how people see themselves, and the roles and opportunities we see for them. It can also be divisive. 

But when an organization engages in thoughtful personality work, the opportunity for deeper self-knowledge and culture building is actually tremendous. Personality work that results in growth is the kind that treats personality as something like an anchor – a set of tendencies that grounds us, but that also allows us as the boat to move and flow with the currents. It will never hold us to one spot. 

The best entry point for that work that I’ve found is the Enneagram, which has gained some popular attention in the last several years. In its purest form, the Enneagram as a tool does an excellent job of helping us understand our temperaments and styles without being prescriptive in how we behave. In fact, it explicitly reminds us that we have access to all of the types and that two people with very similar personality structures can behave in very different ways depending on the context. It also helps us see why and how we might demonstrate healthier or less healthy aspects of ourselves, and gives us focal points to work on. It’s not a diagnosis; it’s an invitation. 

I’ve never asked my current team to guess what bird I am, but I doubt they’d describe me as a Dove. Being in a different environment, role, and life stage, I personally see other parts of who I am more at the forefront. Does that mean I’ve turned into an Eagle or an Owl or a Peacock? I don’t think so. I think, rather, that I am all of these birds and more. 

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