Should I Personality Profile My Team? (Part 3/4)

After publishing two other Medium stories on Ray Dalio’s book Principles — the first summarising the book’s contents and aim, and the second delving into its most salient contemplations — it’s now time to get a little more critical.

In particular, I’d like to challenge Dalio’s reliance on and recommendation of personality profiling.

Dalio is such a strong believer in the power of personality profiling that he implemented de facto baseball cards for every individual at Bridgewater.

The underlying premise is simple and valid: no one is good at everything. Therefore, any reasonably complex project can be better executed when combining the strengths of more than one person. If you doubt this, try completing a crossword on your own, faster than two of your friends working together. We all have our own specific breadth of knowledge and skill, developed over the course of our lives. To maximise expertise and knowledge within a group, it’s wise to start with a good understanding of individual strengths and weaknesses. This is all obvious.

Where is gets more subtle is in using people’s personalities to create better teams and optimise worker-task fit; and it is the act of personality profiling that Dalio feels can accomplish this far more nuanced aim. Personality profiling, so Dalio attests, is what allowed Bridgewater to leverage individual strengths and achieve exceptional performance over several decades.

Maybe so. But is personality profiling really so great? Is it without risk? Is it a distraction?

The vast majority of personality profiling tests don’t accurately capture the character or interests of an individual any better than simply asking the question “so, how would you describe yourself and what are your key interests?”. What is the hesitation for managers to have this conversation? To my knowledge, there is no rigorous science (e.g. double-blind controlled trials of the type that we use at MI to test our digital therapeutics) that demonstrates personality tests have any usefulness. Moreover, because they cannot be 100% accurate, we already know that personality tests get things wrong.

Therefore, using a test that misses the mark is bound to incorrectly inform an individual about their “personality.” I happen to feel that this is one of the most psychologically damaging things you can do to someone — it must be at least as damaging as believing a lie you tell yourself about what your personality is.

Specifically, believing something incorrect about yourself can lead to two types of conflict. First, it can hamper your personal growth, either because you think you’re already naturally talented (when you aren’t), or because you’ve been told you’re no good. Either way, you’re demotivated right out of the gate. Second, you’ll have conflict between what you and others think of your actions and accomplishments.

This is precisely why I rejected the personality profiling that our investors SOSV attempted to force on our company. I don’t know if their system still exists or if it’s improved since, but SOSV at that time was using a single personality profiling system. While I know they meant well, the results of this single assessment were designed to be communicated to each individual in a single meeting, with little context and caveat discussion to ensure people didn’t walk away believing a new lie about themselves. From how I see it, SOSV was probably doing more harm than good to themselves and their portfolio companies. Thus, I politely refused.

But what about other tests, you ask? Or how about combining multiple tests? Yes, it could be argued that when combining the results from many personality profiling tests, we arrive at a more accurate picture of who an individual is. To Dalio’s credit, this is actually what he recommends we do. Yet even if we assume perfect accuracy (which of course does not exist), the risk of psychological damage persists because people change throughout their lives — we call it personal growth. This growth can happen gradually or abruptly. It always has more to do with salient experiences and key decisions, than it does with the passing of time. Even a battery of personality tests doesn’t have a prayer to predict, with absolute accuracy, how any single individual’s personality will evolve.

So, while the combination of tests might be good at helping assess who an individual is at a given moment of time — and to be absolutely clear, I do not believe this is the case — the results may have only fleeting usefulness for building teams or optimising worker-task fit.

Still, there is something even more fundamental to why I feel personality profiling is bad practice: it takes our focus off the ball.

Consider the popular dichotomy of introvert vs. extrovert. People love to use these labels to excuse their behaviour, as if we don’t have choice over our actions. When you take the time to really think about it, you may discover that nearly everyone you know has both introvert and extrovert tendencies, depending on the circumstances.

This is my key argument: the primary determinant for our behaviour is not who we are, but where we are. Bridgewater became a tremendous success not because it put people into little boxes and configured those boxes together into magnificent higher-order machines. Bridgewater’s success — more than anything else — is due to the circumstances, the environment, that Dalio built around these people.

We are intimately interwoven into the fabric of our surroundings, and this fabric has more influence over us that we may want to accept.

As a neuroscientist, I understand a little bit about the brain. I understand the brain is made up of 80 billion neurons, all of which developed from the same single progenitor cell. These 80 billion neurons in the brain (and a few more elsewhere in the body) communicate through a series of synaptic contacts that create more complexity than the arrangement of galaxies in the entire observable universe. I understand that this makes each and everyone one of us a totally unique individual because, well, math.

I would never subject my team to a series of tests that attempt to simplify and influence/mislead both me and them as to who they really are. I would never expect them to behave according to the results of a battery of personality questionnaires, simply so that my “well structured teams” perform optimally. No, I refuse. And instead, I focus on the environment within which my team works.

For all I care, Mr. Organised one day can be Mr. Scatterbrain the next. And if Ms. Risky becomes Ms. Risk-Averse over the course of an afternoon, I’m fine with that too. What I want is for everyone in my team to feel free to act and behave and perform however they think is best, so long as they keep the interests of the team in mind.

I don’t want any of them to get caught up in self-fulfilling prophecies about who they are. I don’t want any of them to behave a certain way because other people have labeled them as such. I want them to be themselves, and I understand that who they are changes continuously.

I could go on and on about how I think personality profiling is damaging to society (even if it is good for a company, though I’m not convinced it is), but instead let me just say that I think it’s about as helpful as astrology — an unscientific, arbitrary profiling system that still persists even in today’s modern world due to rampant confirmation bias and self-fulfilment. Can’t we grow up?

So instead of rambling on about the societal impact of believing in false dichotomies, let me instead give Dalio some credit on the topic. He does at least acknowledge that there are some people who do not easily fit into his personality archetypes. What he wilfully fails to realise is that it’s not just some people. It’s all people. He calls these individuals “Flexors.” I call them regular folk.

We need to get over ourselves, embrace our innate fickleness and be better-off for it.

At MI, my focus will remain on creating the best environment for my team to thrive. That’s what’s going to make the greatest impact.

And when it comes to understanding my team — or anyone on Earth — I truly believe that in our versatility, we are all the same.

Credits: The photo used in this story is of the public domain. Copy and line editing completed by Prof. Judith Scholes of Cascadia Editors Collective.

Neuroscientist & CEO @ Mobio Interactive. I support my team in the pursuit of effective and accessible healthcare for every human.

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