Marilyn T. Smith, 64, hadn’t taken a personality test in decades. But she used them to learn more about herself when she sought career counseling from the Boston-based New Directions five years ago. A longtime employee of Hanover Insurance Group, she was tapped to help sell off the firm’s life insurance division. At the end of her two-year contract, she’d be out of a job, so she negotiated for help plotting out her future. She knew she’d be changing careers eventually; she hoped taking a pulse on her strengths and interests would help her land a new job that capitalized on both.
“There weren’t any real ‘aha’ surprises, but the tests gave me a new level of self-awareness and helped me gain confidence in myself,” she says now. “It was a really good reminder that I’m a people person, and I should be in a leadership role.”
What the Tests Reveal
Personality assessments cover a lot of ground, but all aim to identify your strengths, weaknesses, temperament, and your style of leadership. Some of the most popular tests, including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI, convey an “I'm okay, you're okay, we're just different” take. Others, such as the Hogan Personality Inventory, can deliver messages test takers may not want to hear. Geared for workers already in a job, these tests note strengths as well as shortcomings and classify test-takers as a “high,” “moderate,” or “low” fit for specific jobs.
But no test defines your destiny. For one thing, they aren’t always dependable indicators of performance or attitude according to Mary Lee Gannon, executive coach and author of Starting Over. She has hired people who fit the qualities of a superior sales team member but struggled to juggle multiple projects.
“For people who aren't already sure of their strengths or purpose, these are useful tools for improving self-understanding,” Gannon says. Most highlight core themes—learning and leadership style, emotional intelligence, attitudes, behavior, values and strengths. (You can read a list of commonly used workplace psychological tests, as well as descriptions of the fields in which they’re most relevant here.)
How You Can Use Them
Can personality tests make your employees more productive, make you happier at work, or identify your next career move? It depends. By identifying your natural tendencies, you can focus on what you’re inclined to excel in—and target areas you may be able to work on.
For job seekers, knowing your strengths can help you improve (or avoid your weaknesses) and help you present your abilities to employers. Self-awareness can help you connect with others while you network and tell your story in interviews. It’s like being able to speak the HR team’s language.
Understanding the patterns and unconscious decisions you make every day is illuminating for longer-term planning, too. For career changers—and anyone who wants to re-examine their direction and refocus their working goals—this self-information can help you plot out what’s next.
That’s just what Smith did with hers. Career coaches reviewed the tests she took on her own time and recorded their results review session on CD, so she could listen to it in her car and internalize it.
“I’m a teacher, a nurturer and I have driver abilities,” she says. “And even though I wanted to be a leader, they told me I should run a department of no more 500 people. That made sense to me. I like to know the people I’m working with as best I can.” When the time came to leave Hanover, she felt comfortable stepping out and into academia: She now heads up information services and technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Should You Work With a Coach?
Luckily, you don’t need to land outplacement support or take out a small loan to find out more about yourself. You can take some personality tests online for a fee ranging from $30 to $150 at www.capt.org. The Klein Group Instrument (KGI) focuses on leadership and participation in teams, for $30. At the higher end of the range is MBTI, a psychological assessment restricted to use by “certified professionals.” The $150 cost includes the online test plus a one-hour phone session with an MBTI professional and materials to learn more about your type. Others, including the Hogan test, require a professional psychologist to administer them, so consult a coach for help.
To start, Gannon says job seekers may benefit even more from evaluating their core values first. She suggests several free resources and exercises on her website. Those listed under “Begin with Strengths, Vision Values, Purpose” identify the core gut checks she runs all clients through. It’s time well spent.
“Once you understand your strengths, you know your transferable skills and what you’re good at (in case you’ve forgotten),” Gannon says. “And your purpose will remind you of what you most love to do.”
That can be a helpful reminder, especially for people who have been out of work for a while. Gannon says they are hungry to do something to land their dream job. They also have lots of energy; they just don’t know what to do with it.
She says many smart self-starters will find value in a professional baseline test as long as they dedicate time to additional research about what their results mean. But Smith, for one, believes it’s worth the investment to hire a pro to not only help you decipher your results—but to put them into the context of your own career.
“Between the self-testing, the feedback I got from peers, the interviews I did with a psychologist and a review with coaches, I felt like I got a really holistic view of myself,” Smith says. “It helps to have somebody to talk to, someone who has seen patterns and knows how others have used their skills. Besides, the older I get, the more I realize how important it is to always be learning—whether you’re learning about yourself or you’re learning about a new job.”