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What Tests Tell You About Yourself and Others – and What They Don’t

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Tests are seductive: you may look to them to uncover hidden information about yourself and others; you might rely on them to back up your judgment about job applicants or team members; you might consider them a definitive measure of your well-being, the likelihood for success, and self-worth. They aren’t any of those.

And yet, when used properly, they provide a snapshot of the present that might motivate you to reach for a healthier, happier, less stressful, and more satisfying future.

JB Partners offers tests that allow you to assess your levels and symptoms of stress, your knowledge about such topics as difficult conversations, and your communication skills, as well as worksheets to guide your progress. These tests are not diagnostic tools. They are guides that alert you to your current physical, emotional, and intellectual state and to potential you have overlooked as you strive to maintain your well-being and become the type of leader and person you want to be. Once you know where you are now, in the present, you can better utilize the SMaRT resources, support, and strategies that JB Partners.

TIP: You should not rely on a single test to make major decisions about your career, relationships, and future and certainly should avoid using tests as the sole reason to accept or reject someone else.

Definition of a Good Test

The following criteria help analysts decide whether a test is worthwhile:

  • Consistency. A test that measures your skills should come out approximately the same each time you take it—unless you have honed those skills in the meantime. A test that measures your stress, on the other hand, may vary depending on events in your life, but that variation should be consistent with the situation.
  • Clear and well-worded questions. Some tests revel in double negatives, for example, as in this true/false question: “You never feel you aren’t stressed.” By the time you figure out what exactly “false” means, you are guaranteed to be stressed!
  • Accuracy. The test measures what it claims to measure. IQ and SAT tests are notorious for the biases and assumptions introduced by the people who created the tests. 
  • Control over bias. Too often, test creators assumed that the test takers would all share the same culture, language, and educational experiences and have the same definition of “good” answers. They also assume that everyone has the same definition of right answers and socially desirable qualities.
  • Placement on a continuum. Instead of identifying you as a type like extrovert versus introvert, it tells you how far you lean toward extroversion or introversion. Most people are a mix of traits.
  • Some (but not inevitable) predictability. Even the best tests may stumble when predicting future behavior, success, or attitudes. Indeed, researchers are constantly discovering the drawbacks of even such basic assumptions as “extroverts make better salespeople.” It turns out that extreme extroverts are as poor at sales as extreme introverts.
  • Some inconsistency in results. A very high level of consistency indicates that questions in the test are redundant and that it might be riddled with biases that lead test-takers in a certain direction. 

Tests That Measure Personality

Surprisingly, one of the best-known personality tests, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, is also one of the most reviled by experts and researchers in part because it is an “either/or” test: you are either this type of person or the other. Most people are a combination of types.  Moreover, your true personality should be consistent from test to test; yet 50% of the time, just five weeks after taking their first Myers-Briggs test, people receive completely different results from a second test. Personality doesn’t change that fast.

The Saville & Holdsworth Occupational Personality Test, also widely used, is similarly regarded with skepticism. In fact, the way of determining validity for personality test A is to measure it against personality test B; but the only way to test the validity of B is to measure it against personality test C—creating the potential for an endless cycle of self-perpetuating error.

The Big 5 (or Five-Factor) Personality test addresses the traits of extroversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, and openness to experience. It uses a scale and currently has a good reputation for reliability and accuracy. However, as with any personality test, a potential employer might misuse it; for example, to reject any job candidate who leans toward neuroticism. 

TIP: Some tests—and some test takers—assume conflicts in traits where none exist: you can be creative and still good at following orders; you can be a risk-taker and still be honest; and you can be an introvert and still enjoy teamwork.

Tests That Measure Well-Being

Tests that measure well-being have many of the same drawbacks as personality tests: results vary depending on circumstances, the questions may be difficult to understand and interpret, the biases of the test creators influence the results, correlations with future behavior are suspect, and reliability is greater across groups than for any one individual.

According to one study by the National Institutes of Health, “feeling depressed appears to be a more trait-like descriptor, while feeling tense/stressed or impatient…are highly situational.” In other words, a test to measure depression should be fairly consistent over time, whereas a test to measure stress might give different results depending on the events of the day or week.

The following well-being tests have been accepted as being robust and reliable tests:

  • Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-Being Scale (WEMWBS) measures the mental well-being of a population (for example, students) rather than of individuals.
  • WHO-5 Scale consists of 5 short questions that measure well-being and has been used worldwide to screen for depression and indicate quality of life.
  • Work and Well-Being Inventory for employees has demonstrated some correlation with job strain and depression which might lead to absenteeism and accidents. It also works for self-employed entrepreneurs (who, in one study, scored higher in job satisfaction, diligence, and mental health than employees).
  • Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) is considered valid as a self-assessment tool but not as a diagnostic tool. That is, MBI will measure your degree of burnout, but psychiatrists will depend on other methods before treating you for burnout.

Other Tests

  • Polygraphs: Employers are generally prohibited by the Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 from using or asking for pre-employment polygraphs. Polygraphs also have a dodgy reputation, requiring considerable skill in interpretation.
  • Drug and alcohol tests. Drug tests are allowed before hiring someone but alcohol testing is considered a medical test and violates the Americans with Disabilities Act when used to eliminate job candidates. However, alcohol testing can be used to monitor employees if sobriety is essential to the job.
  • Skills tests. These tests measure a specific skill—but first, you have to be sure that the skills you are measuring relate to the job. Companies use skills test to evaluate job candidates and to evaluate training needs and potential in employees. You may take a skills test to evaluate your team or to satisfy your own concerns about your potential for leadership, career advancement, or a career change.
  • Job knowledge tests. These test might include skills tests and personality tests, as well as attitudes that show whether or not you fit the company culture. They might measure, for example, attitudes toward sexual harassment and misuse of company equipment.

TIP: Be careful about timing tests. Variations in speed may not indicate variations in ability; technical issues, badly worded questions, noise, or other factors may influence speed.

Key Takeaways

Tests may provide you with insight into your current level of stress, skill, and fitness. However, you must be wary of misusing them as predictors of behavior, success, and relationships in yourself or others. A growth mindset, motivation, mindfulness, and resilience are a stronger basis for believing in change than any test.

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