Why You Should Stretch Beyond Personality Type and Style Assessments

For their ability to create understanding about ourselves and others, I’m a fan of assessment inventories such as DiSC, Strengths Finders, the Killman Conflict Inventory, Interpersonal Leadership Styles, Hogan, and Belbin Team Roles. The issues they raise connect with a host of communication and leadership practices, from dealing with conflicts to how teams function in meetings.

I still need some convincing that the Enneagram is well supported and think that the Myers-Briggs should be flushed down the toilet for good (the test has a shocking and sordid history of labeling, sorting, and dividing people covered by Merve Emre that you can read more about here, here, or here).

But I’ve used almost all of these types of assessments in teachings and trainings as a starting point for getting people to think about their own and others’ go to tendencies or “default settings” in their personal and professional lives.

What Type and Style Assessments Show

As it’s the assessment tool I know best, I’ll use DiSC (short for one’s tendencies to toward Dominance, Influence, Supportiveness, or Conscientiousness in different situations) as my primary example. While quite simplistic, the DiSC assessment brings out, for instance, one person’s “C” level attention to detail that can act as both a workplace superpower and source of annoyance for those less driven by their prefrontal cortex.

When seeing the results of a good DiSC analysis, students or participants often react with an “Oh, yeahhh…” of recognition that makes sense of many experiences. The Big Five Inventory covering the core personality variables of agreeableness, neuroticism, conscientiousness, openness, and extraversion provides a similar route to such knowledge.  

Photo by Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu on Unsplash

I’ve found assessments like these help people when, first, it’s made clear that types and styles are situational and have trade-offs. Analyses of DiSC alone make clear that “Supportives” are not supportive all situations. In fact, variables such as stress or feeling a lack of control can turn one’s behaviors toward an opposite type or style. There’s also no hierarchy of types or styles, with, for example, “Influentials” being better than the more “Conscientious.”

What one person sees as compelling in one situation could present problems in another, as when a person exhibiting a “Dominant” style kickstarts a nonprofit or business by raising funding and charging forward, but then forgets to allow room for other important voices or perspectives to develop as the organization grows. These are simply differences to understand, work with, and change up when they’re not serving people or a situation well.

Second, these assessments are at their best when they highlight not only the types or styles of individuals but get us to deal with findings that about half the people in our working lives have directly opposite tendencies to our own. I’ve spoken with many people over the years who have left one workplace because of purported “style” conflicts with someone else, only to find that a few months into a new job they’re presented with the same issue (qualification: toxic workplaces are real and worth exiting; what I’m getting at here has more to do with a common challenge that often crosses good and bad workplaces alike).

If anything, understanding types and styles get those taking them to confront a question too often avoided: what should I do now that I know these stark differences in type and style are likely to show up in just about any job? That may be one of the most important questions anyone could ever ask themselves at work.

See Yourself as an Elastic Band

With all that in mind, I think there’s a final step worth taking with assessments that’s utterly central to leadership and communication development. You’ll seldom hear the creators of type or style assessments talk about this way of using their products, but if I was to come up with one I’d make this the top takeaway:

Whatever results you received, work on stretching beyond them.

If you took the DiSC assessment and it shows that you tend toward high “Influence” in a certain situation, start working on the other styles so that you flex more easily and work with others who may be more responsive to other styles. Yes, own and continue to build on the assets identified (Strengths Finders is especially good at highlighting these), but don’t settle for the descriptors. If you’re never “Supportive,” you could put a reminder in your calendar to practice saying one uplifting or kind comment to someone else at least once a day.

Many people take type and style assessments and think they’re being presented with immutable, unchangeable personality test results that confine them to some “true self” or fixed way of being or behaving. Yet for any kind of growth or personal development to occur, every one of us must stretch. We did it when learning to ride a bike or speak a language as toddlers by constantly performing behaviors, as Vygotsky noted, “a head taller” than ourselves.

Unleashing your adaptive capacities, “broadening your bandwidth,” and using multiple identities and intelligences also provide newfound freedoms and joys to work beyond the scripts and constraints we’re handed in life.

So when you receive the results of any assessment, think of an elastic band. The one opportunity that’s always available to each of us is to stretch a little further.