You’ve probably taken one of those outrageous personality quizzes that tell you what kind of sandwich or font or Star Wars character you are. Admit it, there’s some satisfaction—however minuscule—in knowing you’re more of a Solo than a Skywalker.
Some of these tests might be silly, but the reason we’re drawn to them isn’t. Personality assessments are intriguing because we want to know what makes us us. Why am I special? What is my place in the world? Who am I?
"If we can fathom what’s going on in our own personalities, we can make better choices," says John D. Mayer, University of New Hampshire psychologist in an interview with Fast Company. "Personal intelligence is a sort of guidance system that can say, ‘How is my system functioning and who am I? How is that person’s system functioning and who are they?’"
That knowledge can help you know how to work better with your teammates—something crucial for building and working on successful, productive teams. Here's how personality tests work, as well as how that knowledge can improve your teamwork and empathy with others.
What Personality Is—and How to Measure It
Our fascination with personality is nothing new. In fact, we’ve been at it for at least a few thousand years.
For example, Greek physician Hippocrates suggested personality was influenced by a lack or excess of certain bodily fluids and that there were four main personality temperaments:
Sanguine (optimistic and social)
Choleric (short-tempered or irritable)
Melancholic (analytical and quiet)
Phlegmatic (relaxed, peaceful or apathetic)
Thanks to modern science and medicine, we know that apathetic behavior isn’t caused by excess phlegm (ew).
We're still not quite sure exactly what personality is, though. Despite the dozens of more plausible theories that try to explain personality, psychologists don’t agree on one unifying theory.
Personality psychology boils down to this: We each have certain personality traits, and we try to identify and measure those traits and predict how they affect our behavior and attitudes. This is really complicated to do because so many different factors affect our personality, including biology, culture, environment, emotion, memory, and so much more.
It’s still worth pursuing, for our own self-knowledge and our productivity. When teams work together, each individual brings a unique set of knowledge, skills, and traits to the group. Research has shown that different combinations of traits affect how teams interact and how productive they are.
Today, companies use a wide selection tools and assessments for individuals and groups for help with hiring and team-building. Here are a few of the most common options:
One of the most popular instruments used, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is based on psychologist Carl G. Jung’s theory of psychological types. MBTI places a person into one of 16 personality types.
MBTI measures people’s preferences for where they get their energy (extraversion vs. introversion), how they handle information (sensing vs. intuition), how they make decisions (thinking vs. feeling), and how they structure the outside world (judging vs. perceiving). Someone’s type, a combination of four letters (such as IMFJ or ENTP), is a shorthand way of understanding how that person tends to take in information and make decisions.
If you’d like to find out what your MBTI type is, 16Personalities offers a free test and breakdown of each personality type (including workplace habits), using labels like "advocate," "virtuoso," and "logician."
The Big Five
The Big Five focuses on five major dimensions of personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. It looks at traits that tend to occur together within these broad categories of personality traits.
"The Big Five are, collectively, a taxonomy of personality traits: a coordinate system that maps which traits go together in people's descriptions or ratings of one another," writes Sanjay Srivastava. "For example, talkativeness and assertiveness are both traits associated with extraversion."
The Big Five model is helpful for describing personality differences. People who have high agreeableness, for example, are more likely to cooperate and go along with group decisions, whereas those low in this trait would be more competitive and go against the grain. If you’re high in conscientiousness, you’re likely organized and have good impulse control, as opposed to those who fly by the seat of their pants. Some research suggests that having high openness--interest in learning, creativity, and willingness to try new things--correlates with high individual productivity but low team efficiency.
Keeping in mind these are broad categories and describe your personality on a range between extremes, you can take a Big Five personality test at Truity.com. You’ll answer questions such as "I cut others to pieces" and "I make plans and keep them."
DiSC is a tool based on psychologist William Moulton Marston’s work on emotions and behavior. DiSC focuses on four different traits: dominance, influence, steadiness, and conscientiousness. Generally, individuals will have one trait that is dominant over the other three.
Assessments not only help you understand your own style, they also help you understand how you react to other styles. For example, someone with D style (dominant) will tend to be more direct and results-driven because they really value action, but someone with an S style (steadiness) could interpret their directness as being too blunt or demanding. When working with a D style, the S style would want to consider getting right to the point of the discussion and focusing on benefits and outcomes.
Keirsey Temperament Sorter
The Keirsey Temperament Sorter is based on Keirsey Temperament Theory, which suggests there are four basic temperament groups: Artisans, Guardians, Rationals, and Idealists, with four subgroups in each. The report includes information on how people with each temperament tend to communicate, how they rebel, what makes them proud, and the leadership style they tend to prefer. Team reports include information on the team’s overall style as well as individuals’ styles.
For example, Zapier’s Melanie Pinola took the Keirsey Temperament Sorter and was told her personality type is Guardian:
Guardians can have a lot of fun with their friends, but they are quite serious about their duties and responsibilities. Guardians take pride in being dependable and trustworthy; if there's a job to be done, they can be counted on to put their shoulder to the wheel. [...]
Practical and down-to-earth, Guardians believe in following the rules and cooperating with others. They are not very comfortable winging it or blazing new trails; working steadily within the system is the Guardian way, for in the long run loyalty, discipline, and teamwork get the job done right.
A pretty accurate assessment, Pinola says, adding, however, that other aspects of her personality are missing from the brief description.
The 70-question free personality assessment at Keirsey.com can help you understand what motivates you and how you tend to act. The questions can be tough, though, asking you decide between two opposite traits--if you are "ruled more by your thoughts or your feelings," for example--with no middle ground. After answering the questions, you’ll get a free mini report, but more in-depth reports cost $7.95 to $19.95.
Personality Opportunities & Caveats
There is a healthy dose of both enthusiasm and pessimism with personality assessments. They can offer great insight, but only if you use the data the right way.
"They’re not a magic genie lamp," says Jeremy A. Stewart, brand manager for Everything DiSC. "You don’t just hand them out and they give you all the answers. It’s about creating an environment where you’re building knowledge."
Here are some of both the opportunities personality tests can bring—along with some caveats you should be aware of:
When people understand one another better, they collaborate better. Personality assessments can help remind your team that people view and interact with the world differently. That understanding alone could make the tests worthwhile. Not only do individuals get a better understanding of their own style, "they learn how their own personality and behavior can influence the way they interpret the actions of others," Stewart says.
Better role fit
Having a better idea of someone’s styles and aptitudes can also make it easier to pair them with the right responsibilities. Personality assessment data is a good place to start if you’re interested in experimenting with who best fits which roles or tasks in a project.. Edmunds, Buffer and The New Zealand Army are a few of the organizations that use personality profiling to build and optimize teams.
A balanced team
Imagine a team full of people who are highly analytical with no one who thrives on action. Or imagine a team full of people who want to act immediately with no one to dig deeper into details. Teams need a balance of personalities to be successful, especially with tasks like determining requirements.
"Try to make sure your team is robust," Stewart says. "You need different approaches and perspectives and people will fill in the gaps that exist." If you pair people together, "pair people who fill in each other’s plusses and minuses," he says.
Humans, of course, are more complex than a personality assessment printout, so it’s important to remember that personality assessment isn’t the full picture. Rather, it’s one piece of a much larger puzzle.
"Even a very comprehensive profile of somebody's personality traits can only be considered a partial description of their personality," writes Sanjay Srivastava, psychologist at the University of Oregon.
One of the biggest mistakes leaders can make is pigeonholing team members according to their assessment data. Just because someone has an aptitude for one task or role doesn’t mean they can’t succeed with others.
Maarten Lens-Fitzgerald, co-founder of from Teamily, a personality-driven project tool, says it’s like wearing different hats. "Your identity and what you do are two different things," says Lens-Fitzgerald. "You can put on those different hats. Some hats fit more tightly than other hats."
How to use personality data for more successful teams
Here are a few ways you can use personality assessments to improve your teams and optimize for more successful projects:
1. Make Personality Assessments Part of Onboarding
Experts warn against using personality assessments to make hiring decisions, but they can great tool once you’ve brought someone on board. "At that point, you’ve vetted the person as someone who is qualified to do the job," Stewart says. "Now you can use the data to focus their energy toward things they’re passionate about and excel at. Or use it to help build up areas they’re not as confident in and challenge them in creative ways."
2. Use Tools to Find Personality Types
More tools are now incorporating personality data, taking away some of the guesswork to improve communication and collaboration. One example is Crystal Knows, which helps you understand the personalities of the people you interact and communicate with. Another is the already mentioned Teamily, a project management tool that helps project managers identify who is best suited to lead each stage of a project.
3. Strive for Diversity
One of the most important conclusions drawn from all of this is that teams should have a diverse set of personalities, which helps set a team up for success during all the stages of a project’s life cycle.
Researchers looked at the personalities of software development teams and found that including variations of personalities had a balancing effect during team projects. For example, during stressful situations when negative feelings are festering, team members with more social and agreeable attitudes were able to help mitigate conflict and maintain team optimism, boost morale and encourage involvement. Aggressiveness and conscientious behaviors helped keep the team on track and hit deadlines.
If you’re assembling a team, no matter what tool or assessment you use, make sure you have balance, with varying strengths and aptitudes represented.
4. Rotate Roles Based on Project Stages
Big, complex projects contain many phases or stages, including initiation, planning, execution, control and closing. One person on the team might have more of an aptitude for kicking off a project and getting buy-in. Another team member might be stronger when it comes to planning and details.
"With DiSC, ‘D’ style people tend to seek out more management and leadership roles," Stewart says. "Someone with conscientiousness (C) might be more focused on accounting or details than others. Somebody who is more of an ‘I’ style, a social chameleon, might be better in sales. Certain types of traits are more attracted to certain types of roles."
Try experimenting with who leads what phases and to best use their personality traits to benefit the project and its needs.
5. Know your own style.
Digging deeper into personality data doesn’t have to be a team activity. Having a good sense of your own styles and aptitudes can lead to better collaboration and communication in work and beyond. Sites like 16Personalities and Truity offer free tests for individuals.
Personality assessments aren’t a magic bullet, but they can be a great help in building understanding about how individuals think and communicate, which can help team leaders balance their teams, foster empathy, and fit the right individuals with the right roles. If you use the data properly, it can help you experiment with team dynamics and create more opportunities to optimize the way you work.
Learn more about how to manage projects with a diverse team in Zapier's new eBook, The Ultimate Guide to Project Management.
People photo by Samuel Zeller via Unsplash; Hippocrates personality types image via Wikimedia. Myers-Briggs image via Wikimedia. Big Five screenshot via Truity.com. DiSC image via Everything DiSC. Keirsey Temperament Sorter image via Keirsey.com. Project Driver image by Teamily.