Untangling One Irrefutable Truth About Personality Tests

Let's talk about personality tests.

Well-designed personality tests attempt to get at a person’s “hard wiring,” those deeply ingrained traits and proclivities that really don’t change much over the course of our lives.

A strongly introverted person, for example, was almost certainly born with a genetic predisposition to introversion. We know this from twin studies, and that trait is pretty unlikely to change radically.

Sure, that person might become more social. They might shift toward spending more time engaging with other people, but even though their behavior might change, they will still be fundamentally an introvert.

We believe it is really important to understand one’s own hard-wiring, and thus we find personality tests to be useful and important tools. We sell them, after all!

The Opposing View

Not everyone agrees that personality tests are a good thing, however, and that is understandable.

Like all technology we humans create, people find ways to misuse these tools.

  • They use personality tests to label and pigeonhole others.
  • They use them to decide what jobs people can and can’t do.
  • They use them to explain everything about a person, when in fact any given personality test tells you only one very narrow thing about a complex, multidimensional human.

People even use personality tests to justify their own bad behavior: “I can’t help it if I’m direct. It’s just the way I am.” (And by “direct,” they mean rude, and yes, you can help it).

Do They Even Work?

People are also critical of the validity and reliability of personality tests, or lack thereof. In this regard, some are better than others.

We use Wiley’s DiSC® assessment partly because it is well-researched and tested. It has a median test-retest reliability of 86 percent (meaning people taking the test multiple times get the same result 86 percent of the time), and it has strong correlations to other “gold standard” assessments like the NEO PI-R™ test of the “Big Five” personality traits.

Still, 86 percent is not perfect, nor is DiSC’s correlation to other tests. There is no single answer to “how good is good enough?” or “which model of personality is ‘best’?”

Missing the Point

This ongoing debate, while not without merit, misses what we believe is the most important learning made available to us by personality tests like DiSC.

Regardless of your individual result, and regardless of your views on the pros and cons of assessments like DiSC, one irrefutable fact remains:

Seventy-five percent of people read those SAME questions, but answered them very DIFFERENTLY.

The same applies to any reputable personality assessment. Enneagram or Myers-Briggs types are not evenly distributed like DiSC, which is normed such that approximately twenty-five percent of people fall into each quadrant, but the key point stands:

Whatever your result, regardless of which test you took, the vast majority of people saw those very same questions, and answered them differently than you did.

What We Can Hopefully Agree On

Personality tests should awaken us to the reality that most other people experience the world quite differently than we do.

Our experience is not "right," and theirs is not "wrong."

I have been working with these tools for over twenty years, and yet every time I review assessment results with a group, I am still a little surprised by this insight.

Knowing It Is Not the Same as Experiencing It

It is easy to intellectualize the fact that other people have different personalities, tend to like and dislike different experiences, have different priorities, etc. But when I review the results of someone who does not share my DiSC style, in that moment, it really hits home.

I am confronted with the fact that I actually cannot imagine reading the statement "I am often seen as a 'people person.'” and responding “Strongly Agree.” Yet, I must acknowledge that many people do, and it makes me wonder, what is that like?

There is only one answer: I don’t know!

I must recognize that despite my intellectual knowing, I cannot know what it is like to feel that way, to experience the world as they do. I cannot see the world the way they do, but I must honor their experience as equally valid.

My way is not the only way. It is not the "right" way or the "normal" way.

Stating the Obvious

People are different. And this is a good thing, because it takes a diversity of styles and perspectives to get big things done, IF we can let go of our natural tendency to forget that our lens is not the only lens.

But to do that, one must wake up to the fact that the lens exists in the first place. That’s what personality tests can do.

A Personal Example

In the DiSC model, I have a strongly inclined C style. That’s my lens. “Strongly inclined” simply means I identify strongly with almost all the classic traits of Conscientiousness. In other words, I am the poster-child for the C style.

As a quick recap, the four quadrants of DiSC are:

  • Dominance: direct, strong-willed, and forceful ("Get it DONE!")
  • Influence: sociable, talkative, and lively ("Get TOGETHER!")
  • Steadiness: gentle, accommodating, and soft-hearted ("Get ALONG!")
  • Conscientiousness: private, analytical, and logical ("Get it RIGHT!")

How does the world look through my C style lens? Well, as an example, it seems obvious (and very necessary) to me to consult the Chicago Manual of Style to make sure “seventy-five” should be written out at the start of a sentence, and that in non-scientific contexts it is always "percent" and never "%."

Likewise, when I use a quote, I am frequently dumbfounded at the fact that really smart people misattribute very common quotes all the time. No! Viktor Frankl did not say that!

Do they not feel the nagging, visceral discomfort I feel at the very thought of misattributing a quote? Do they not experience mistakes as shameful, nearly sinful transgressions?

Not Obvious, Obvious to Me

The answer is no, they don’t, nor should they. Most people don’t know and don’t care that much, and they are not wrong to be that way. I know this, because I know that 75% (forgive me!) of people do not share my C style, yet experiencing the world through their lenses remains as foreign to me as writing with my left hand.

Like all personality types, my strongly inclined C style is a superpower in some contexts, but vulnerable to the ever-present Kryptonite of others.

Ask me to move forward quickly with little information, and tell me not to worry about making mistakes, because getting it done on time is imperative? That’s gonna be a stress-inducing stretch for me, whereas it would be natural for a strongly inclined D style.

The D style's Kryptonite, on the other hand, is driving over a cliff for fear of not getting to their destination in time (a cliff that my C style would have seen coming a mile away).

We need each other.

Many Paths Up the Same Mountain

Personality tests make visible the reality that different people make sense of the same situation differently. We have much in common. We share all the same basic needs, but we navigate the world via different routes using different instruments.

If you’d like to learn about your own DiSC style, we can, of course, help you out with an assessment. And if you’d like to find ways for you or your team to work better with other different (but equally valid!) styles, we can do that, too. Contact us to learn more.

Until next time,



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