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Know Thyself - Part II: How You Can Use Profiling to Your Benefit

(In a previous article, “Know Thyself”, I set the context for profiling in respect to knowing a whole person outside of pencil and paper assessments, and the dangers of relying on pencil and paper assessments.)

My first personal experience with standardised profiling assessments was taking career assessments in a day and age that is best left out of this discussion. These career assessments took several hours to complete and did not have the tremendous reliability of other tools. Interestingly though, they did have some measure of truth, as some of the work I currently do was indicated in those early days.

After several years of studying and working, I funded my way to the US where I undertook my first degree. As part of the leadership development programme at that University, and as part of general student services, I first encountered the Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator and the Strong-Campbell Interest Inventory, as well as numerous other personality and aptitude tests. We critically examined the MBTI in my psychology classes, as well as studying the underlying theories of personality, etc. that underpinned them.

One thing is abundantly clear when taking a well-constructed and validated personality or aptitude assessment: it can be startlingly accurate.

Something else is also evident: badly constructed assessments can be terribly inaccurate or useless for the intended purposes. As I noted in a previous article, personality tests can be used to easily box people. Friends and I got so good with the MBTI that we could determine someone’s personality type within 5 minutes of meeting them – with around 80-85% accuracy.

But what is the utility of such assessments? These tools still provide a great deal of information and insight into people’s functioning. They also have the advantage of helping people to understand others. (Please Understand Me was a popular 90s text explaining the application of the MBTI).

There are several key principles to bear in mind with any paper and pencil assessment:

1. It should provide information that assists you. Never undertake assessments so you can just tick the boxes of completion. If all the assessment does is paint you a specific colour, but not indicate how you may use that information to perform or function better, then question whether you really should use it.

This is a mistake people make, for example, with IQ tests: “Look, I have a 130 IQ!” So what? Did the IQ test identify your more effective areas of functioning? Did it identify your areas of ignorance in a crucial professional area? Did it help improve your motivation? (And, by the way, how was that IQ test normed and when was it last normed?) If you can’t answer these questions, then, for one thing you’re not as smart as the IQ test indicated.

2. Ensure it is relevant to the task for which the assessment is being used. MBTI is a great tool and reveals tremendously useful information, but it will not be a shred useful in determining your capability for performing a job. Nor does being one personality preclude you from undertaking tasks with which you are not naturally comfortable.

This is one of the reasons we use Harrison Assessments for work environment suitability and development profiling. It was specifically designed, from the ground up, as a work-preferences assessment. If, however, you are assessing someone for latent potential ability, an appropriate IQ or skills test may be more appropriate.

3. If you are putting faith in the tool’s results, ensure it is appropriately researched and validated. There are thousands of “assessments” out there. We sometimes encounter people who say to us, “Have you encountered ‘such-and-such’ assessment? It’s the greatest one ever.” And they react in shock that we haven’t heard of the latest fad assessment that has very little scientific research behind it, sold to them by a guy who also had holdings in the Golden Gate bridge.

Assessment tools usually take many years to develop and adequately validate. That is not to say that a new one could not be outstanding – just understand how solid the research base is and treat the results accordingly.

Having said that, the proof is in the pudding. The fact that MBTI has had such a long-standing and powerful presence worldwide for so many decades is partial proof of its value. We have the same reaction to Harrison Assessments when clients note how uncanny it has been in predicting specific workplace behaviour.

4. Understand the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings. If the theoretical underpinnings are merely that everyone is different, then that is not enough. There should be a logical exploration of the theory. One that makes sense AND that works.

5. Ensure the specific results are reliable. Can people easily cheat on or manipulate the results? Superior assessments may have inbuilt lie detection and consistency checking or can be validated by other means. Is time, pressure or environment such a factor that the results are degraded or skewed? If you have three hours worth of multiple choice testing, do not assume that the results are reliable, unless you’re measuring how tired or how energetic someone is after three hours straight of multiple choice question and answer.

6. Ensure people can understand the results. Ensure that the results are presented in a ‘digestible’ manner for the recipients and those who need to use it. Educate yourself or the people taking/using the assessment if necessary, but don’t assume that someone will automatically understand.

7. Never let the assessment do the thinking for you. Alan Leschied is a professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario, with whom I studied and worked in the early 2000s. He is a recipient of the lifetime achievement award of the Criminal Justice Section of the Canadian Psychology Association. His mantra was always that “Assessment should always be undertaken to provide you with information” and should never be done for its own sake, nor should the assessment replace your own thinking.

8. Use the information! There is nothing worse than taking a “test”, getting the score and it ending there (just ask millions of school students around the world). Use the information you have uncovered to gain further insight, work to strengths, modify behaviour, manage and lead people effectively, work with your people better or undertake an endeavour that will fulfil you both personally and professionally.

9. Don’t assume you know it all because you took “the test”. Without being fully trained in a well-made assessment, you can tread dangerous waters in assuming that you know “how at all works”, particularly when interpreting for yourself or others. This is how people become pigeon-holed or interpretations of assessments are ill-considered and may cause significant harm to individuals. For example, there are a number of assessments that purport to determine your MBTI type. People can find online “quick” tests that are not reliable and then take the results as gospel. Take these with a grain of salt, unless validated by a trained individual.

Through paper and pencil testing, there are numerous ways to uncover:

  • Your intellectual strengths
  • Your aptitudes
  • Your attitudes
  • Your responses to stress
  • Your interpersonal strengths
  • Your leadership strengths and weaknesses
  • Your communication strengths and weaknesses
  • Your team behaviours and responses to leadership
  • Your motivations and key sources of energy
  • And more . . .


Remember, the quality and relevance of the personal assessment instruments you use is crucial. And don’t forget the context: no matter how useful (and some are incredibly powerful) paper and pencil assessments are only one element of learning and growing as an individual, team and organisation. But used appropriately, paper and pencil tests can add a world of understanding and help you and your people achieve extraordinary performance and results.

Peter J. McLean
Managing Director

(Phone us at +61 0435 127 320 or Contact Us for a confidential discussion regarding your performance needs.)

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