Personality testing for flexible work: useful tool or total ‘tosh’?

What part should personality play in the implementation of agile working? Heather Greig-Smith finds opinion divided on the use of personality tests to inform flexible work practices. Are we in danger of typecasting employees or should managers study the interaction of personality with practice?

8650101800_b1ba07739e_oBusinesses across the globe are introducing agile and flexible working programmes, transforming real estate and leveraging technological advances to connect people wherever they are. Likewise, HR departments are writing new policies, tearing up rule books and rolling out change. But, in doing so, are they neglecting the impact personality can have on these programmes?

The Employers’ Network for Equality and Inclusion (enei) recently set out to understand how individual personalities can affect agile work and its success. “What we wanted to understand was: is agile working for everybody? Is it one size fits all? People have different expectations and you have to manage them in different ways,” says enei chief executive Denise Keating.

The idea that different preferences affect the workplace and the facilities employers should provide has been explored in the design context. For example, 2013 research published by Nigel Oseland on personality and preferences for interaction, says employers should understand the psychological make up of their organisations and provide the settings to support workers. He suggests different areas for activity-based working, where settings are based not only on roles and activities but the mix of personality types.

DISC analysis

The enei engaged consultancy JEC Professional Services to survey 363 employees, plus 221 of their managers, and assess how personality interacts with non-standard work approaches. Using behaviour assessment tool DISC, they analysed individuals using four traits: dominance, influence, steadfastness, and conscientiousness. Some scored highly in more than one group and fell under a combination.

JEC director John Eary says DISC was chosen because it is straightforward for managers and employees to understand and is focused on the workplace. This includes insight into how individuals may behave differently, and even counter to their natural personality, in a work environment. DISC also provides the individual with their own profile report – something Eary says is often “unnervingly accurate”.

In the survey agile workers and their managers both said agility made a positive contribution to performance across all personality types. However, the results showed that the influencer group struggled more than their counterparts and were less positive about the contribution agile working played in the areas of efficiency, productivity and quality of work.

For example, when it came to productivity, 100% of the dominant workers said agile working contributed positively as did 86% of steadfast and 91% of conscientious workers. However, this was true of only 44% of influencers.

The report suggested managers should tailor their approach to individual employees when transitioning to a flexible working style. The “maverick” dominant personalities may need boundary setting, influencers will need strong management and plenty of interaction, steadfast employees will generally thrive but may be reluctant to admit to problems they are having, and conscientious workers need to be monitored carefully in case their perfectionist tendencies lead them to burnout.

glass balls

Blunt measure of personality?

However, critics feel this is a blunt measure of personality. Flexibility expert Andy Lake is extremely sceptical about the value of personality profiling in determining aptitude for flexible working and is concerned that employers may use it to determine working patterns.

In his book Smart Flexibility, he says: “Flexible work is not about doing some radically different kind of work. It’s about doing pretty much the same work, only with new tools and at varying times and in a range of different places. So if you have a mix of ENTJ types and INTJ types [under personality assessment the Myers Briggs Type Indicator] working as a team in the office, what’s the objective justification for enabling some of them to work at home two days per week and some of them not, on the basis of asking a series of questions that have nothing to do with their daily tasks or preferences?”

He allows that looking at how different Myers Briggs (MBTI) types tend to choose different working patterns could be interesting. But adds: “I have seen no evidence whatsoever to suggest that it could be an accurate predictor of their ability to do their work on a flexible basis.”

Lake goes further and says that funnelling ideas about flexible work through old assumptions means they are essentially “coming up with a series of personality stereotypes to match against equally artificial stereotypes of flexible work as being remote, or requiring exceptional degrees of autonomy, and so on. The result is bound to be tosh. Couched in plausible language, perhaps, but still tosh”.

Ultimately, he asserts that there is no watertight way of defining personality traits and there is no watertight way of matching traits to types of flexible work. “One can have a bit of fun with the MBTIs and other less subtle stereotypes, but in the end it’s best to stick to an analysis of the work when planning for new ways of working.”


Eary says there are ‘pluses and minuses’ when it comes to using personality tests for recruitment but believes they are a useful tool in helping managers understand their existing teams and increase their empathy. “The sense that everyone who does the same job will have the same needs and requirements is old-fashioned. We are talking about people and changing cultures.”

He would, however, absolutely caution against categorising people and making decisions based on the outcome of a test. “You should use it to try and understand people. Middle managers have a tough job in managing people they don’t see every day and setting measurable outputs – this can give them greater understanding of how their team members may feel.” That doesn’t mean deciding that certain ‘types’ can work from home more than others.

Eary says ignoring personality means employers are more likely to impose flexibility on individuals and “stream roller individuality” than appreciate their differences and have an open dialogue about what works and what doesn’t.

Changing work culture

We are changing the way the world of work operates – and in this shift from traditional hierarchies to output-measured flexibility, it is inevitable some of us will struggle more than others – and that is true of organisations as much as managers and individuals. Could a more nuanced analysis of traits and skills useful for working in new ways be helpful to employers, line managers and individuals in understanding the challenges that face them?

Canadian consultancy Work Evohlution believes that to be the case. It aims to take a robust scientific approach to psychological variables and translate them into valuable and practical feedback. Co-founded by Dr Laura Hambley and Dr Tom O’Neill (pictured below, centre and left, with their team) in February 2014, it is based on research they have conducted over the past 12 years on distributed teams, workers and leaders.

Hambley feels that using existing personality assessments for this purpose is not appropriate. “Tools like the MBTI, DISC, Insights etc. were not developed using distributed or flexible workers and are not scientifically valid for these purposes,” she says. “There is very little academic research on this topic.”

While her work identifies personalities and traits that work better in distributed environments than others, its philosophy is in enabling all to work flexibly, rather than defining certain groups that should and should not.

“We believe most people can work remotely at least some of the time,” says Hambley. “Some people can work remotely all of the time and really thrive and then there are some people – and luckily it’s the minority – who really struggle with working remotely when away from structure and supervision. They can do it but will require a lot of support and they are not going to be as engaged.”


Given the time and money employers spend on other dimensions of workplace change, Hambley says personality needs some attention. “Employers spend a lot of time looking at facilities, IT and legal issues when moving to an agile workplace, but very little assessing a person’s fit for working in an agile way. We think that’s sending people in blindfolded.”

O’Neill, who leads the company’s research design, statistical analysis and algorithm development, teaches full-time the University of Calgary. He is director of the University’s individual and team performance lab and the virtual team performance, innovation and collaboration lab. He and Hambley have been working together since 2003.

He believes the research can also help employers select the correct team for their business when recruiting. “If you rely heavily on a distributed workplace, it might serve you well to select people who have a strong fit for that.”

Workers, teams and leaders

The company focuses its work on three different target groups: employees, leaders and teams. For the distributed worker profile, they used a North American sample of 750 to identify traits that could be significant. They measured individuals’ feelings about their job performance, work engagement and work-life balance. This resulted in eleven key areas: agreeableness, desire for novelty, diligence, emotional control, impulse control, locus of control, need for autonomy, optimism, task confidence, quick starting and introversion.

For example, impulse control relates to the likelihood of distributed workers being exposed to different kinds of distraction, while quick starting becomes relevant when you don’t have the process of getting up and going to work to begin your working day and so need to impose your own structures.

“In the past couple of years we have collected data quite intensively,” says O’Neill. “We can come up with strategies to accommodate your personality in an environment if that individual fit isn’t quite what you want it to be.”

This is likely to happen naturally in the long-term with some individuals, he adds. As they identify what works for them and what they are finding hard they will experiment with different ways of working at home, for example. However, for an employer transitioning an entire workforce to an agile way of working, to have multiple staff struggling risks lack of engagement and productivity, plus makes the risk of turnover higher than it needs to be.

Beyond the individual, the company assesses entire teams for fit with remote working – offering diagnosis for high compatibility, moderate compatibility or caution – giving employers an idea of how a transition to agile working may go and strategies to increase the likelihood of success.

Manager challenge

Work Evohlution is now turning its attention to leaders with a ‘distributed leader profile’ to be launched at the start of November. “The greatest resistors and barriers to success are the managers,” says Hambley. The company has interviewed thirty-four leaders working with remote teams from 12 different organisations and identified 680 unique elements of importance. These have been coded and organised into four areas: relationships, flexibility, productivity and culture. In addition, 200 leaders completed a distributed leader profiler pilot and 140 direct reports provided ratings of their leaders.

While some of the areas identified are similar to normal leadership, O’Neill says the stakes are far higher in a distributed team. “You have to be way better and way more on top of things than in a traditional environment where you can stop miscommunication very quickly. A lot of managers are resisting this because they don’t have the skills.”

For example, a key skill for leaders that has been reinforced repeatedly by the data is the ability to adapt to an employee’s preferred communication style. Knowing your individual team members’ preferences can help in choosing how to communicate with them: by email, phone or video call.

A manager could do this by a process of trial and error but having an analysis of their team’s make-up, strengths and preferences enables them to achieve this more quickly, says Hambley.

6228420376_a422b6d591_oKeating agrees managers need help in making the transition to a flexible workplace smooth and successful. Enei will be running workshops on the subject as a result of its research. “People don’t know how to manage the different types of people. It’s a big challenge because the gatekeepers of the past are at the top of these organisations,” she says.

The terminology around agile working is evolving. “The language of the future hasn’t yet been created. Cars used to be called horseless carriages and that’s the stage we’re in now with agile working,” says Keating.

Likewise, our understanding of how personality interacts with flexible working will inevitably develop as agility becomes standard in organisations. Ignoring personality could be a grave error.

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  1. Is personality testing for flexible work: useful tool or total ‘tosh’? | Global Workplace Analytics

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