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Psychology At Work

Psychology At Work

Gallup-ing Along With Personality Tests

December 9, 2011
Related Topics: Strategy and Management
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In my last few columns I have addressed psychological testing in the workplace. This seems appropriate given the title of this blog, "Psychology at Work," and the “assessment” theme of the December issue of Talent Management.  Last week I analyzed the Myers-Brigg Inventory Type, criticizing its dated theoretical underpinning while acknowledging its popularity in the corporate world. Today I look at another hugely popular personality test, the Gallup Organization’s StrengthsFinder.

Walk in any bookstore today and you will see evidence of the Gallup strengths empire, including Tom Rath’s Strengths 2.0 (conflict alert: I have many friends within Gallup - or did before I wrote this - and Tom is a fellow graduate of UPenn’s MAPP program). The Gallup approach to strengths is based upon the work of psychologist Donald Clifton who, through his association with Gallup, analyzed the mountain of data they have collected over decades to determine there are distinct and identifiable strengths that show themselves in business settings. These findings exploded upon the popular scene with the 2001 publication of the best-seller Now, Discover Your Strengths by Clifton and Marcus Buckingham. Although he describes his work as an exploration of strengths, it might more accurately be described as a description of talents. This is because it studies not which personality traits (strengths) are most commonly exhibited across the board by a person, but what they do really well in a business setting.

The theory behind Clifton’s work is based upon what personality psychologists call “situational themes.” Situational themes are described in Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman’s 2004 Character Strengths and Virtues as “specific habits that lead people to manifest given character strengths in given situations.” Clifton identified hundreds of themes that exist in high-performing workplaces, such as empathy, inclusiveness and positivity. From these, he worked with others at Gallup to condense them down to a more manageable 34, assigned catchy names to them like Woo or Relator and built a tool to measure their presence in individuals.

So I took it. Like the MBTI, possibly even more so, the Gallup approach quickly assigns the respondent a certain type.  For example, I found I am something called a maximizer. Not recognizing the word from any class I took in English literature, I turned to page 137 of StrengthsFinder 2.0 to find out just what that means and by goodness it really nailed me! According to the definition, I am a person who seeks out strengths in oneself and others. OK, this explains why I am an Alabama football fan and a Duke basketball fan (fortunately, there is no category for shameless front-runner). It also categorizes me under the terms “strategic” and “intellection” (the grammar of the taxonomy is not consistent) which I suppose is consistent with most of the personal feedback I have received before. But it missed horribly on a couple, mostly those related to being of any value to the human race whatsoever, which raises questions about the reliability of the measure (unfortunately, given the proprietary nature of the Gallup methodology, there has been little independent review of the validity of its psychometrics).

The strained attempt at categorization is an issue with typology in general, and the Gallup approach specifically. Trying very hard to come up with situationally thematic examples of the identified types it becomes quite glib, even a little trite. It also provides little wiggle room for how people react differently in different situations. While a typical “Arranger” might react to the hypothetical presented in StrengthsFinder in a predictable way, if we change the facts - as life does - does one’s inner Arranger react the same way? I doubt it. The Gallup measurement, like most typologies, ignores Gordon Allport’s dictum in 1937’s Personality: A Psychological Interpretation: “The basic principle of behavior is its continuous flow.”

In application, it also presents the same ethical issues as does the MBTI (I outlined these last week). I can think of few organizations that can resist the temptation to quickly decide which of the 34 types the right ones are. Heaven help you, Ms. Introvert, if the boss decides that “Woo” is the most important of all business skills.

I also have a very real problem with the language used. Terms like “Ideator” and “Intellection” sound like an Onion parody of a b-school trained consultant.  I suppose the gobbledygook is a useful code for the proprietary purposes of the Gallup organization, but it weakens its credibility with thoughtful people. It suggests that a prudent person take from the results that which makes sense, do with it what one will and ignore the rest.

Now that I have all that off of my chest, let me conclude by saying that the Gallup approach, which is based upon individual strengths and has provided much of the research backbone for positive psychology, is in my opinion directionally correct. Humans respond best to positive reinforcement and a recognition of their strengths. To the extent that Gallup can reinforce that message in the American workplace, MORE POWER TO THEM - for goodness' sake, we need it - and you cannot go very far off track if you decide to utilize StrengthsFinder in your talent management portfolio (I use it myself, on occasion). Just check with the resident office “Ideator” first.

Next week, I conclude my adventures through the maze of personality testing with measuring my character strengths and virtues using the VIA. If I don’t post anything, that is because the test came up blank.

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