In my last post I described our customer service test and the kinds of personality traits that it measures. People who have high levels of cooperativeness, patience, and personal diplomacy tend to be well suited for customer service roles. The use of personality tests is even more widespread, however, in helping select salespeople, because there's a lot of research that shows that people with certain personality traits tend to be successful in sales roles across a wide range of industries. Most personality tests that are designed to help select salespeople look for outgoing, fairly aggressive people that tend to be competitve and highly motivated. This general profile of a stereotypical sales professional is probably not all that surprising. But what kinds of research underlies this type of "sales profiling?"
As a kid, it was fairly well ingrained in me that when taking a test, the goal was to try to achieve the highest possible score. If I received low scores on a test, then it meant I didn't sufficiently understand some concept in algebra or properly comprehend the significance of a novel like Catch-22. In other words, tests served to point out deficiencies, so the higher the test score, the better. However, with pre-employment testing, and personality tests in particular, this is not necessarily true.
Just Who Lives in Alaska Anyhow?
The Wall Street Journal last week ran an interesting article that summarizes a study that aggregates personality data on a state by state basis. The research is based on a Five Factor approach to studying personality (Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Neuroticism/Stability, and Openness). Criteria's pre-employment testing solution features a personality inventory, the CPI, that is built on the same theoretical principles – and other employment personality tests that we offer also focus on a subset of these traits. Armed with over 600,000 internet surveys, the researchers showed that on average, respondents from North Dakota were the most agreeable in the country, and those in Alaska – by a huge margin – were the least agreeable. Alaska also ranked near the bottom on the other four personality dimensions too — but we'll have more on that in another blog post. But before we jump to any conclusions, let's stop to consider why small states seem to pop up a lot near the top and bottom of these lists.
Criteria's employment test portfolio includes three personality tests: the Criteria Personality Inventory (CPI), the Customer Service Aptitude Profile (CSAP), and the Sales Achievement Predictor (SalesAP). The CSAP and SalesAP are actually the same test instrument and measure the same personality traits, but they produce different score reports and recommendations because customer service and sales positions require different personalities. For example, personality traits such as Assertiveness and Competitiveness are traditionally associated with sales roles, while traits like Cooperativeness and Patience are associated with customer service roles.
We found this article on introversion and extraversion to be interesting. (Another article on the same topic by the same author is found here.) We agree that certain personality dimensions tend to be valued with a one-way function, (e.g. the author points out there are even self-help courses aimed at "curing" introversion and helping people discover their inner extrovert). The article is a good reminder that there are merits at both ends of the introvert-extravert spectrum. The discussion focuses largely on the subjective experience of an individual in accepting (and being accepted for) their orientation when it comes to crowds and interactions. The pictures, however, remind us of people who have achieved great public distinction despite a preference for plenty of alone time.
To finish off our discussion about personality tests, I wanted to discuss ways in which test developers are moving beyond the Big Five. The Big Five is sometimes too broad to predict work behaviors for specific jobs, where more fine-grained personality measures may be useful. For example, it has been shown that certain jobs such as sales positions are best performed by people with a set of personality characteristics that correspond to the work activities involved in sales jobs. Sales jobs often require cold-calling, initiating social interactions, prospecting, and building relationships. It won't be surprising to most people that qualities like assertiveness, extraversion, competitiveness, and self-confidence might be qualities that could help an individual perform well in such roles. For work in the field of customer service, on the other hand, qualities such as patience, cooperativeness, and personal diplomacy would be most important given the job activities of most customer service positions.
Following up on the discussion I started last time about the Big Five personality traits, I want to provide a little more context on the Big Five and how they relate to the field of personality testing as a whole. The Big Five are personality dimensions that describe the ways in which an individual reacts to other people and to the world around them. For example, the Extraversion/Introversion dimension describes the extent to which an individual is more or less outgoing, gregarious and in need of social stimulation. If a personality test determines that an individual is in the 65th percentile for "Extraversion," this means that the individual is more extraverted than 65 percent of the individuals in the norm group.
A recent report summarized here suggests that personality testing is the fastest growing segment of the pre-employment testing market. The survey of HR professionals revealed that the percentage of respondents whose firms used personality tests has grown from 21% to 59% in the last five years alone. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of misconceptions about what personality tests are, and how they should be used. Since we get so many questions about how personality tests work, from both HR professionals and job candidates, I thought I'd try to explain some of the basics.