Why a career personality test may not help your career

Illustration by Ashley Siebels

In theory, career personality tests reveal the hidden potential within you that you may not have realized was there. The goal: discover the best career for you. 

But, life is much more organic than that, and sometimes, those career personality tests wind up proving what you already knew or, worse, leading you down a road that you probably shouldn’t be taking. And, sometimes it’s not easy to tell! 

Like most things in life, the value of these types of personality tests will vary greatly from person to person. Some may find them to be valuable. Others won’t. 

Here is the key: don’t automatically assume that your test results are set in stone or stand as some divine calling that must be achieved. The fact is for many of us, these tests don’t truly prove much of anything, and there are two primary reasons why. 

Two Problems of that Career Personality Test

There are two big problems with these tests, and if you’re like most people, you probably don’t realize that these problems are happening. I certainly didn’t.   

First, these tests aren’t equipped with artificial intelligence. They have no capacity to read you. For example, if you’re having a bad day or dealing with stress, those emotions influence your answers. Of course, the test can’t possibly account for those stresses in your life. 

And, stress has a widely profound effect on your decision-making. Stress hurts our ability to think, learn and process information rationally. Bad days will influence your answers, and worse than that – many of us don’t realize that we’re having a bad day until it becomes painfully obvious. 

And second, it’s basic psychology and confirmation bias. In other words, we have an idea of what we want to be doing in our careers, and those ideas taint our answers. We begin selecting those choices that we want to be correct rather than more naturally answering each question. 

For example, if we want to be the boss, most of us will subconsciously choose those answers that match that predetermined conclusion. We are not making our choices objectively. Rather, our answers are tainted by our desired outcome. And, these outcomes provide little value. 

The problems don’t stop there. Others include:

  • Repeatedly taking the test and getting different results every time
  • Results are too high-level and fail to provide actionable advice or insight
  • Results tell you what you already know to be true (or think you know)

Sometimes, Answers Just Don’t Make Sense And You Might Not Know it Yet 

I took several career personality tests over the course of my career and most of them suggested that I should be a high-level manager or director. Something with power and influence, not a lower-level engineer meticulously churning out computer code. 

When I took those tests, by the way, I was churning out computer code, so I wanted to see those answers. I wanted confirmation that a managerial position was right for me. 

As I took those tests, I subconsciously chose answers that would lead to that result. 

Eventually, I got the opportunity to direct an entire information technology department, and that was one of the worst decisions of my life. It turns out I’m not a manager despite what those career personality tests had supposedly told me. 

I can’t babysit professionals. The petty problems that you deal with as a staff engineer? Nothing really changes. The problems are different, but fundamentally, petty problems infiltrate organizations. It’s tough to escape. 

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the confirmation I received from those personality tests set me up to move my career in the wrong direction. The truth is I wanted particular results from those tests, and through confirmation bias, that’s exactly what happened. 

I just wasn’t being objective. 

How To Gain Value from Career Personality Tests

Don’t misunderstand: career personality tests are not necessarily a waste of time. In fact, many of us gain value from taking those tests. But, that value doesn’t just come automatically. 

Here are the keys to making your next personality test valuable. 

Don’t take the test when you’re stressed. As we’ve talked about before, stress affects decision-making and will skew your results. Whenever possible, don’t take your career personality test during high-stress periods. 

Be as objective as possible. Naturally, personality tests are highly influenced by your answers. The test only knows the information that you provide to it. It doesn’t have insight into your history or personal life, biases, wants or desires. To get the best answers, resist letting your assumptions or wants to control your answers. Answer each question independently of your goals. 

Assess test results with a grain of salt. There is value in the results, but only if we don’t blindly accept them as the gospel truth. Instead, take a critical look at what it’s telling you and deeply consider what those results would mean for your life. For example, do the results suggest a big career change? Stepping into a more high-stress role? Going back to school? 

Try several different types of personality tests. Each test processes your answers very differently, which means your results are only as accurate or insightful as the behind-the-scenes algorithm. Instead of taking just one test, take several. Then, record the result of each test to identify similar patterns or discrepancies. For example, if five different tests think that you should step into a specific role, then a change might be worth pursuing. There’s truth in numbers. 

And, different tests analyze very different areas of your personality profile. 

For example, the Hogan Personality Inventory test is more situational-based and evaluates your reaction to circumstances and interview styles, while the SHL Occupational Personality test focuses more on strengths and weaknesses and provides a graphical report summary. Use these different test results to build a more thorough picture of your career assessment. 

Validate the result with a trusted friend or family member. Ask a friend or family member if the results sound right based on what they know of you. For example, “Hey Sally, I took this career personality test the other day and it said that I should be in a much more creative career field. Does that sound right?” Use that friend or family member to further validate the result to get an even better feel for whether or not you’re ready for a change. 

Is a Career Personality Test Right For You?

A career personality test isn’t a full-proof assessment of your work life. After all, the test can only work with what you give it, and your answers are greatly influenced by your objectivity. 

To gain value from these tests, use them as a data point as you assess yourself, your current career and your future aspirations. Whenever possible, take multiple tests to build a more well-rounded result and bounce those results off a trusted friend or family member if you can. 

Resist the temptation to get frustrated or make significant career changes right away based on your test results. Remember, tests can only do so much. But when we approach personality tests intelligently and objectively, they can give us insightful information that we can use to improve our happiness, earn more money or step into career roles that fit us better. 

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