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To Promote Inclusivity, Stay Away from Personality Assessments

My first experience taking the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (M.B.T.I.) was at a job where it was mandatory. The company’s chief executive announced that all employees would take the test as part of a quarterly staff retreat.

The assessment concluded that I was an I.N.T.J. (Introversion, Intuition, Thinking, Judgment.) At the retreat, we were all encouraged to share our results with one another as we participated in various team-building activities. I reluctantly revealed mine, as I wondered how this detailed profile of my personality traits and communication style would translate to my colleagues. Not only was I the sole black woman in the organization, a demographic notoriously misunderstood in the workplace, I now had the additional strike of being outed as an introvert, in the company of extroverts.

Introverts have long been marginalized in professional environments. In American office culture, where break room small talk, brainstorming meetings and open office layouts are all commonplace, there seems to be little tolerance for the solitary nature of the typical introvert.

Female introverts in the workplace seem to be at an even greater disadvantage. The percentage of female chief executives at S&P 500 companies is only 5 percent, according to Catalyst, a research firm that studies women in the workplace. On top of this, the image most people have — including hiring managers— of a successful leader is that of a charasmatic extrovert. Add in the fact that there are only three black C.E.O.s at Fortune 500 companies, and if you are an introverted black woman like myself, you face a laborious climb up the corporate ladder.

In my case, I wanted to believe the mantra from senior leadership that there was no “wrong” personality and the assessment was simply being used as a team-building tool. Still, thoughts of the results lingered in my mind. I was the only I.N.T.J. among my co-workers and I began to question if I was a good fit for the organization.

Before the Myers-Briggs team-building event, a few minor office conflicts had revealed that my reserved and independent work style didn’t mesh well with my manager’s, who preferred frequent updates and over-communication about projects. As the months passed, it became clear that I wouldn’t progress in a way that fit my career goals — or personality. Whether it was a self-fulfilling prophecy or a true ripple effect of the M.B.T.I., I left the job shortly after.

The whole experience got me wondering: What is the significance of a personality assessment such as the M.B.T.I. in the workplace? Are such assessments helpful or harmful to organizations that want to promote a truly inclusive workplace culture? Do they fulfill their intended purpose of helping managers get to know their team’s working styles, or simply reinforce stereotypes that encourage managers to seek out people like themselves?

Culture “fit” matters more than it should

My departure from the organization was an all-too-common scenario that seems to occur with underrepresented individuals who do not “fit” in company culture. As diversity in the workplace becomes an increasingly urgent priority for employers, personality assessments may be one of many practices that unintentionally isolate or penalize those who prefer to work in isolation or silence, for example, outside of popular office cultures that encourage open floor plans and lots of collaboration.

My manager’s insistence that I over-communicate often left me with the sense that it was the only acceptable way of communicating at work. While I had previously expressed my tendency to simply get work done without frequent check-ins, I felt pressured to tailor my working style in a way more befitting of an extrovert.

In a separate encounter, after my manager quite literally dumped work at my desk without telling me what to do with it, I directly and sternly requested — in true I.N.T.J. style — that he refrain from doing this in the future. I was promptly told that my approach was “unprofessional” and that it would be noted in an upcoming performance review.

Of course, too many negative remarks on performance reviews certainly wouldn’t lead to advancement, and if deemed serious enough, could have resulted in further disciplinary action. While the M.B.T.I., and the organizations that use the assessment, promote the idea that there’s no “wrong” personality, real-life workplace conflicts do not always play out so objectively.

When asked about diverse personality types and how they fit into company culture, Tamara Rasberry, a human resources manager in Washington, D.C., explains that a specific set of desired traits often lead to hiring and promotion biases.

“I wouldn’t say wrong personality, but more so one that is less desired,” Ms. Rasberry said. “For example, a hiring manager may believe they should hire someone who is outgoing and assertive for a sales position. While it’s not a given that someone who isn’t outgoing or assertive would be unsuccessful in the role, the hiring manager may believe that to be the case and decline to hire anyone without those traits.”

There are personality traits that can negatively impact a person in the workplace, Ms. Rasberry added, such as the way our culture socializes women to not speak up or to avoid being assertive. This socialization can cost women growth opportunities, particularly in male-dominated workplaces.

Similarly, Kristin Wong, an author and journalist, has discussed the challenges immigrants face in the workplace when their culturally influenced behaviors make them vulnerable on the job. While it’s looked upon favorably in some cultures to be polite, quiet and nonconfrontational, those same traits can often be exploited in American culture, where assertiveness and competitiveness are more frequently rewarded. With this in mind, it’s likely that an immigrant, woman or another minority employee can easily be passed up for a promotion or raise in the typical American work environment.

Personality assessments are too broad to judge people by

These dynamics, along with experiences similar to the one at my previous job, are all things that broad personality assessments like the M.B.T.I. don’t take into account. Most of us are aware that specific personality traits do not directly correlate with work capabilities. A person who is extroverted is not guaranteed to be a great salesperson, nor does it mean they will be an asset to the organization. That being said, it makes little sense that personality assessments are still used in the name of team-building. When trying to gauge an employee’s work style and how they will fit in and work with others, a personality assessment offers little more insight than a “Which Game of Thrones Character Are You?” Facebook quiz.

Several experts have questioned the validity of assessments like the M.B.T.I. in the workplace, including Sarah Gaither, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. Dr. Gaither maintains there is little evidence a personality assessment actually predicts job-related performance.

“When thinking about different assessments, race/ethnicity, gender, region, socioeconomic status and disability can all impact not only how someone interprets a question when taking a given assessment, but it can also color how someone interprets a score,” Dr. Gaither said.

“It is also highly possible for personality scores to be weaponized within an organization and used to justify either progress or lack of progress at a company level,” Dr. Gaither explained. “This is problematic as it sends the message that employees are static and unchangeable, going against messages of improvement and growth that other research highlights are necessary to encourage productive, positive and inclusive work spaces.”

What then, should be the alternative to methods like the Myers-Briggs? While not intentionally discriminatory, these assessments tend to box individuals into a narrow stereotype, which can have a negative professional impact on those with less desired personality traits. And we live in a world where it’s obvious that an introvert is just as capable of professional success as an extrovert. (For proof, look no further than famous I.N.T.J.s such as Michelle Obama, Susan B. Anthony and Ayn Rand.)

The first step is to recognize inclusivity in the workplace as more than an “initiative,” according to Ms. Rasberry. Many employers use this terminology, not realizing it insinuates that diversity in staff is merely a passing trend.

“Diversity and inclusion should be ongoing and integrated into overall business and culture, versus a short-term priority,” Ms. Rasberry said.

Ms. Rasberry recommends practices such as giving all staff members opportunities to speak during meetings and developing employee resource groups. These are employer-recognized groups of employees who share a common characteristic such as race, gender or sexual orientation. The groups already exist in dozens of Fortune 500 companies, like American Express and Ford Motor Company, and they can be vital for employers looking to welcome and learn to engage diverse employees.

These practices are just a few ways to allow the voices of all employees to be heard, and address cultural issues too complex to fit into the generic model of a personality assessment.

“Inclusion is demonstrated by behaviors,” Ms. Rasberry said. “Implementing these behaviors across the board is the best way to build a truly inclusive workplace.”

Quinisha Jackson-Wright is a freelance journalist who covers finance and the dynamics of workplace culture. She has been featured in The Muse and The Financial Diet, and you can follow her work on Twitter and on her website.

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