Avoiding the labeling trap
I enjoy doing personality tests in my spare time. Yes, the science behind many of them is dubious. I’m not in the least surprised that Meyres-Briggs has been widely discredited, given that it keeps insisting I’m gifted at DIY - I am not. Despite this, when answered with the best knowledge of ourselves, these assessments can be an interesting tool for enhancing our self-awareness. The results shouldn’t be taken as gospel but rather as potential signs. Positives listed may point to areas to further lean into. More negative attributes when laid out in front of us can help make us aware of potential weaknesses that are holding us bad. Given their pseudoscientific nature, the results may of course just be total bullsh*t. It’s not so much the results that matter, but rather the insights gained from them.
While I do enjoy the odd enneagram and free online Big 5, I have a complete aversion to any form of personality tests being used in the workplace. I once even tried to get a company-specific one created by the People team de-implemented. There were many reasons why I was against this assessment. My lengthy and no doubt Pulitzer worthy essay lost to the Slack archives 😄. My core objection was these types of tests seek to label people which is another way to limit them. To place ourselves or others into pre-defined boxes, especially in a work environment, is the opposite of promoting growth. Choosing to define people through a narrow lens of attributes ignores the fact that humans have a significant capacity for change. How we act in a certain environment or role is not fixed. It is often derived from the context of the situation as much as it is from the person’s traits or skills. Different parts of us are accentuated in different circumstances. For example, a new manager joining can completely transform a team's performance (for better or worse). It's not that the team's personalities or capabilities drastically changed overnight, but rather the culture they were operating in.
Each of us have our own unique personalities and preferences, embedded in us through a combination of nature and nurture. I think there is value in sharing these and am a huge fan of teams creating ‘Working with Me’ documents to better understand each other. Unlike a personality test label, these docs are contextual. They are ever evolving, like the people who wrote them. If you have ever left a job, you may have noticed you are a different person than when you first started there. Our experiences shape us. Our jobs shape us. This is captured wonderfully in this essay by The School of Life:
Being in a particular psychological environment every day for years has a pretty big impact on our habits of mind. It influences what we assume other people are like, it forms our view of life and gradually shapes who we are. The psychology inculcated by the work we do doesn’t stay at work. We carry it with us into the rest of our lives.
Knowing that we as people constantly change and have the capacity to adapt and learn, it seems foolish, and a disservice to ourselves to accept labels given by personality tests, job titles (especially those we have failed to achieve), feedback etc as permanent definitions. They are at best a snapshot of a part of you at a specific moment in time. There may be some labels that you enjoy or are proud of. Great. There is value in embracing those but beware the trap of over-valuing an identity that exists outside of your self. Job titles, performance and salaries can fluctuate due to factors beyond our control. The same goes for defining yourself as a marathon-runner, vegan or podcaster. While it’s trite to say, these things don’t define your worth as a person. Choose the labels you want to embrace carefully.
This practice applies to other people too. We can sometimes outsource our entire opinion of people to first impressions, conclusions we’ve made based on past conversations or events that are no longer relevant, or hastily applied labels based on assumptions or former versions of a person who has grown. Unless we actively update our mental models we can hold on to views of our partners, friends and colleagues as someone who they were, not who they now are. This is particularly important when we hold positions of power and influence (managers, teachers, mentors etc). In these circumstances the labels we assign people, especially when spoken, can have an outsized impact on how they view themselves and their abilities, and also impact how they are treated by those around them.
Labels can be beneficial at times. James Clear recommends adopting the identity of the habit you want to form e.g. if you want to become a writer become a person who writes 1000 words every day. It can also be helpful to market yourself with specific labels to help you find opportunities - there’s a reason those cheesy LinkedIn taglines are so prolific. They can work. Where labels become harmful is when we use them to limit ourselves (“I’m bad with finances”) and others (“they’re quiet so wouldn’t be interested in public speaking”), or to create personas that aren’t true to ourselves. Labels can become the stories we tell about ourselves which impacts how we choose to live our lives. It is worth challenging those every now and then.