New brain research pushes back against traditional personality assessments
Today’s video games often let players design their own characters—what they look like, the hair colour, gender, height, etc. Some also allow players to add personality by selecting attributes from a list of descriptions like “academic”, “sneaky”, “bossy” or “helpful”. Then the game is played with a character with an assigned personality.
Oops, don’t like the personality of the character? Just go back and change the attributes (or delete the person). Too bad life isn’t this simple.
Our personalities come from a complex neural construct. Who we are is shaped by genetics and early developmental experiences that influence the structure and function of our brains at different stages. How that development happens is equality complex. Although researchers and psychologists don’t completely agree on the stages of development (i.e. Freud versus Erikson), most do agree that development takes place during foundational years. Until recently, this was deemed to be adulthood, 20 or 30 at most.
Regardless of the time frame, by the time we have “grown up”, our personalities are not necessarily what we think they are. Starting from a young age, we become a smorgasbord of who we think we are, how we want to be perceived, what others expect us to be, and positive reinforcement of what others notice and commend. As a result, many of us do not have a good picture of who we really are, and we don’t know how to describe ourselves to a future employer.
Who am I?
Like kids searching for birth parents, at some stage many of us want answers. Perhaps we are struggling as leaders to figure out why we love our job but are constantly frustrated dealing with people; perhaps we are recognized experts in our field but are plagued with self-doubt; maybe we are considering a career change and this time, we want to get it right.
Most of us have tried various self-rating assessments: simple survey tools that promise to uncover our strengths, the “shade” of our personality, and our most likely career options. The assessments tell us what we already know: “I’m a natural leader,” or “I like to work with teams.” Then we return to the same old job, and continue to find that leading often exhausts us, and collaboration causes us to lose patience.
Then we ask again, “Who am I?”
The shortfall of most self-rating assessments
Strength-finding tools are great for uncovering what we think we are, what we’d like to be perceived as, and therefore, what we might likely become, or have already worked to become. But such self-rating surveys don’t uncover how we see the world compared to how others see the world. This means they have little validity in the context of other relationships. They don’t answer questions such as: What does this person need to thrive? How do we work best with others? What are our core motivations? How do we get from where we are now to where we want to be—that is, making lasting behavioural change?
For these reasons, self-rating tools are not particularly reliable when it comes to hiring or job assessment. They may give an indication of what a person believes his or her strengths are coming into a job, but they are not helpful for raising concerns as to how successful that person is going to be in a specific organization’s culture. They certainly don’t indicate whether or not that individual is going to get along with others (even though “teambuilding” was identified as a strength!)
Please don’t label me!
Another danger with self-rating tools is the risk of “labeling”. We’ve all experienced some kind of label during our lives. Labels such as: smart, athletic, musical, clumsy, or worse—an insensitive male or an emotional female.
Researchers began to study the cognitive effects of labeling in the 1930s, and their findings support the hypothesis that the words we use to describe what we see in others will determine what we see. Whether the label is positive or negative, our tendency to label others is an attempt to simplify the complex world of human behaviours.
By assigning labels that set in stone what we do well and what we struggle with, we send the message that these traits (positive or negative) are out of our control and so are our choices. Labeling reinforces the idea that we are stuck with a certain personality, that things are not going to change, and the best thing we can do is “learn to live with it”.
A way to move forward
NEWSFLASH: You don’t have to learn to live with it.
The majority of previous research on personality development relied on self-assessment tools and the subjective observations of others. With growing research in brain development and personality assessment, we now know that none of us are hopelessly locked into a certain way of being. Recent brain science tells us that most people’s personalities evolve throughout their lives.
These recent findings give hope for those feeling trapped with a certain personality or set of strengths and weaknesses.
The challenge now becomes, how do we find an assessment tool that truly uncovers who you are?
The Value of Birkman
This is the true value of The Birkman Method®. Birkman does not label. It provides a more comprehensive look at human beings by honouring the complexity and uniqueness of every individual.
The Birkman and its extended tools, The Birkman Signature Report and The Birkman Perspective Report, identify the perceptions and behavioural framework of individuals in a relational context. A Birkman coach understands the reality of where individuals started in order to gain insights into the perspectives that collectively make up who we are, our view of ourselves, our unique view of the world, as well as how others see us.
Statistically 87-90% accurate, The Birkman utilizes the perceptions of millions of people to identify the way the individual understands himself in the context of others. By doing so, it is able to identify patterns in how we learn, what motivates us, and what causes us to react with stress behaviours—all of which are deeply rooted in our personality.
The process is fairly simple and the resulting MAP of the individual provides deep insight into our personality dynamic. By uncovering our perspective, we are then able to know how to make change. It leads to an increased understanding of self and those around us, to more productive choices, and to more effective behaviour in difficult situations.
So can we change our personalities? YES. By laying down new neural pathways, we can create new habits and lasting behaviour change.
Use comprehensive assessments for complex humans
It is easy to understand why some have described The Birkman results as complex and even complicated. A better description is “comprehensive”, because when applied to human beings, “simple” doesn’t work. We are not simply labels; our personalities cannot be summed up by a simple list of strengths, or categories. Our personalities are complex; the way we gain true self-awareness should be equally comprehensive.
The Birkman is designed because of these factors, not in spite of them.
Individuals gain a broader assessment that gives a more accurate picture of who they are and how to live their life motivated by what they truly need rather than what the world dictates to them through social pressure and performance norms. Hiring managers and HR professionals get more than a video-game list of personality traits. You get an accurate picture of whether a prospective employee is likely to thrive or struggle in their new position.
The Birkman delivers a welcome note of optimism: our personalities are not static, regardless of our age. It gives each of us hope that we can move forward toward greater inner happiness and fulfillment. We can do so not because we’re told it’s the right thing, but because it is now proven possible to do.
 Carroll, J. B. (ed.) (1997) . Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge, Mass.: Technology Press of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.