Personality Testing – All Hype or the Answer?

By Chris Carlson, President of Sales Talent Inc.  (

In his previous blog on hiring the right sales reps, recruitment expert Chris Carlson encouraged managers to use personality tests as a tool in the candidate vetting process. In today’s blog, Chris details why personality tests are such a valuable part of the hiring process.

 Personality tests are useful in hiring but they have limitations
Personality tests are useful in hiring but they have limitations

In my previous blog on how to hire the right sales reps, I steered my readers towards the usage of personality testing as a tool to help identify those sales reps that have a higher likelihood of using your CRM system.  Done right, you can use these tools to screen for a long list of other skills or behaviors. I believe in using personality tests to identify the right people for a company but it’s important to understand the limitations of these tests.  

Simply put, a successful sales rep is more than the sum of a list of “personality traits.”  Perhaps more than any other function, consistently selecting sales professionals that will excel in your company, in a specific role, in a specific territory is one of the harder problems in business to solve.  So, in addition to using personality tests correctly, you need to have the right expectations of what they can and can’t do for you.  Blindly using a test’s up or down scores to decide who you’re moving forward with can set you up for a BIG (and negative) surprise.  So what’s a realistic expectation of what these tools can and can’t do for you?

I’ll begin my answer to that question by sharing some of what the critics of personality profiles have to say.  Brad Smart, the creator and author of Topgrading, flatly does not believe in using personality tests as a predictive measure.  What he told me over a long lunch is that the premise they are built on is completely wrong.  The more sophisticated providers measure your current team (assuming your team is big enough to have statistical significance) to see which personality traits correlate with success and which correlate with failure.  I’ve been through this process with my own company and with long-term clients.  You will find some traits that correlate with success and failure. According to Brad however, it is problematic to use these traits as a predictive measure of success.   

 Having certain personality traits will not guarantee success, but can be a predictor of job performance if used correctly
Having certain personality traits will not guarantee success, but can be a predictor of job performance if used correctly

Go hire 100 sales reps and give them the test a few years later.  The % of top and bottom performers and turnover figures won’t be much different.  In his experience, your results with using a personality test as a broad selection measure isn’t any better than random chance.  But how could this be, given the correlations we found in testing our top reps?   The answer is that there’s a huge difference between possessing a specific personality trait(s) or skill(s) and being successful in a role.  If you’d like to take a deeper dive into the naysayers’ views on personality testing, HR Chally (a personality testing company themselves) has an interesting paper “The Trouble With Personality Tests.”  

My experience with using tests for our own hiring and when hiring for our clients has convinced me that neither the pro, nor the con groups are correct.  They do provide incredible value and insights if you use them properly. It’s important to note that no one is arguing whether or not these tests accurately measure a personality trait.  The key question is to whether or not you can use results from a long list of personality traits to predict job performance.  If you understand their limitations and strengths, I believe you can.

So what are personality tests good for?

Personality Test Dos:

 Personality tests are great for identifying specific, non-negotiable qualities from your candidates.
Personality tests are great for identifying specific, non-negotiable qualities from your candidates.
  1. Managing your reps.  Do use them to get more insight into your reps hard-wiring.  This can help you guide and coach them to better results.  I find that they help me identify a reps strengths and weaknesses sooner and give me insight into how to mitigate or maximize these tendencies.

  2. Selection.  Do use them when you have a specific, non-negotiable quality required for your job.  In my world, recruiting, a sense of urgency is imperative.  Most of my team scores an 80 or above.  I do have a top performing outlier who scored a 44.  What’s important to realize is context.  Professionally, he is responsive and appropriately urgent.  Once off work, he kicks back.  During the interview process his energy level and drive was palpable and he followed-up within 24 hours after every interview.  I have another example of a rep that I hired with a similar score (now that I thought that I had established 44 as good enough) and we had lots of problems with his sense of urgency.  What I should have vetted more is that he really needed a job which made him appear urgent.  Once the pressure was off it became clear that his urgency was mediocre.  It even came up as a mild concern in the background checks but I was already sold him at that point and didn’t put 2 and 2 together.

  3. Red Flags.  Do use personality tests to point out potential pitfalls with a candidate.  Use your interviews to vet these concerns.

  4. Behaviors.  Do use personality tests if you need insight into predicting a specific behavior.  For example, a sales professional’s innate desire to push back when they hear no.  You simply must find someone with enough of that drive.  However, finding a rep with a high score can be a negative when you consider how easy it is for a sales rep to become obnoxious with it.  That drive needs to be tempered with intelligence and tact.  There isn’t a test I’ve found that can measure the appropriateness with which a sales rep will push back.  I’d definitely set that candidate up for some role playing or put them into a situation where I told them I had some concerns (unrelated to my refusal to accept no concern, by the way) that I was having a hard time getting over.  Finally, go back to #2 above, Selection, knowing that your sales rep has a strong desire to push back is a great starting point for developing a training plan to help them use that strength appropriately.

  5. Improve Your Own Performance.  Sun Tzu, in The Art of War said,

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Do use your own results to help you understand your strengths and limitations.  For example, my own results reveal that I have a very high appetite for and comfort level with risk.  Unfortunately, my desire to think through the risks I’m taking is nowhere near as pronounced.  With this knowledge (and after making some avoidable mistakes) I made it a personal rule to never make important decisions quickly when there is ample time to think things through.  The bigger the decision, the more time I give myself.  My personal mantra is “measure twice, cut once.”

Personality Test Don’ts:

 Don't follow test results blindly. Make sure that personality tests are one of a series of items you use when hiring.
Don’t follow test results blindly. Make sure that personality tests are one of a series of items you use when hiring.
  1. Timing.  Don’t give the test at the end of the interview process as a last hurdle.  There are several problems with this approach.  For one, you might have to start your recruiting all over after you have knocked everyone else out and the chosen candidate fails “The Test”.

  2. Blindly follow the recommendations of a test.  Don’t fall in love with a candidate just because their profile is a perfect match.  Yes, positive matches are important but I have far too many examples of perfectly matched sales reps that failed.  At best, a positive match indicates a higher probability for success and as such I never give more than a 20% weighting to the results.

  3. Throw out poor testers with stellar track records.  If a candidate has a stellar track record selling in a similar sales environment I still interview them. Use the interview process to address any concerns identified by the test results.  ALWAYS place more weighting on actual sales results than test results.   

  4. Ignore red flags.  Don’t dismiss the concerns that the testing brings up.  Vet the concerns and vet them again.  Sometimes I will add a question to my reference check to get another viewpoint.

One final Do as it relates to using Personality Tests.  Consider them to be a tool.  Nothing more and nothing less.  Most tools require the right job to make them truly useful.  Don’t try to use them to avoid the painful and meticulous process of properly vetting talent.

Chris Carlson is the founder and President of Sales Talent Inc, a Seattle based National B2B sales recruiting firm. You can click through to sign up for and follow his Blog or view Sales Talent’s current Sales Openings.