The Distorted Mirror of Personality Tests
Cheerleader or Challenger
I first took the Enneagram test over 20 years ago. For those of you who aren’t familiar, it’s a personality test that sorts you into one of nine personality types. When I first took the test, it told me I was a Number 7, sometimes called the Enthusiast or the Cheerleader, known to be busy, fun-loving, spontaneous.
Many years later, I took the test again. This time I came back as a Number 8, known as The Challenger. I was, according to the test, marked as willful, confrontational, dominating, and powerful. So, which was I really? One or the other or both? What do these vastly different results say about me and what do they say about the test?
The answer lies in recognizing who I was then versus who I am today. Twenty years ago, I had just transitioned from Attorney Recruiting to Law Firm Administration, building an office in Palo Alto—it was a job that required a great deal of motivation, organization, and energy. My Enthusiast profile made perfect sense at the time. Later, I was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Northern California offices of a global law-firm, I had to be a Challenger to manage my responsibilities. Today, I’m running Leverage to Lead, helping women and people of color build dynamic careers while confronting bias and prejudice in a white normative culture. If I were to take the test again, I am sure I would be, at minimum, a mix of Enthusiast and Challenger.
It follows pretty clearly that the test was telling me more about my circumstances than about the core of my personality. The same is true for tests like the Myers-Briggs indicator and most other kinds of career or personality assessments that try to boil down and neatly label your “type.”
A Narrow Snapshot
We take these “tests” in the first place for a variety of reasons: simple curiosity, hope for a new direction, questions about our real purpose, confirmation of something we already suspect about ourselves. And yes, the tests are a little fun too. But the bigger point is, we seek external feedback in the form of so-called data to tell us who we are. We submit our aptitude, interests, and strengths to a series of multiple-choice questions, and then let ourselves be defined by the results.
What any career or personality test really gives you is a snapshot of who you are at the moment you take the test. It’s a narrow picture of you, shaped by your current conditions, demands, and feelings—all of which can change over time. The results reduce your dynamic and evolving self to something fixed and two-dimensional.
Here’s the real danger of buying into these results: you are more likely to take these kinds of tests when you are vulnerable. When you are transitioning into new or growing responsibilities and trying to gauge your management style. When you’ve been laid off and are looking for work. When you’re exploring your options because you’ve been denied a promotion or are generally unhappy at your current job. When you’re about to re-enter the workforce after a leave. When a family member gets sick and you need to transition to part-time.
We don’t go looking for answers about our true direction and desires when we’re content.
Why would we rely on such a limited and temporary snapshot to make crucial life and career decisions?
The Test Doesn’t See You
I’ll just say it plainly: these tests and assessments keep us stuck operating in white supremacist culture, the characteristics of which often embody “professionalism.”
First, consider the terms of the tests. Whose definition of introvert, extrovert, professional, challenging, successful, emotional, confrontational, or agreeable, are we letting ourselves be defined by? I haven’t yet found a test that isn’t using the vocabulary of white male normative culture to tell women and people of color who they are, what they’re good or bad at, and what they should be doing.
Second, these tests usually dole out easy prescriptions like “the 5 skills you need to develop” or “the top 3 professional behaviors you must refine.” Again, these directives are born out of the white normative system we have been adapting to all our lives, giving us little room to show up as ourselves.
And third, test results reinforce the belief that professional women need to earn more credibility. Now, I work with women who already have multiple degrees. They even have degrees in multiple fields. They are experts in their industry and masters of their disciplines. However, our culture says to women and people of color that you can’t be seen until you prove your worth in a white male cultural dynamic. So, women don’t believe they can change direction, enter a new field, or expand their scope of expertise without first earning the right to do so.
It’s comforting to have a clear game-plan. Believe me, I get that. But the truth is, more outside information will not lead us to our true selves.
What really requires our mastery now more than ever is our authenticity.
Let Yourself Be Really Seen
In your gut, you have a real sense of knowing. Your value, desires, capabilities, interests, and potential are all within you. But they’re hard to see when you’re trying to hold up a distorted mirror that demands adapting to the dominant culture.
It’s not uncommon for women to resist leaving behind methodologies, prescriptions, and data in order to embrace their intuitive sense of what they want and need. We hold onto these small snapshots of ourselves because we don’t believe what we want is possible. The truth is that what we need exists outside the box of white normative culture.
Our sense of self is endlessly bombarded with cultural messages that tell us we got here because we were lucky, that we don’t deserve to ask for more, that we can’t stop paying our dues, that we can’t let them see us sweat and have to make it look effortless, that working harder will fix everything. It’s almost impossible to see past all this by yourself, especially when you’re the only one who looks like you in your organization or industry.
The shift from external to internal mastery requires that we stop trying to see ourselves in a bad mirror and start allowing others to see us instead. I find that when my clients find and work with others who value and understand their experiences, they begin to reveal their authentic selves.
Moreover, having the fellowship of other supportive women can help you see, especially in times of vulnerability and uncertainty, what you are capable of and who you can become. We need others to see our agency, to see our bigger picture and potential when we cannot see it for ourselves. I say to so many of my clients: I see you and will believe in you enough for both of us until you can believe in yourself.
In my next article, I will dig deeper into how building community with other women like you can give you truer insight about yourself. Truer than any snapshot in time. Check back to learn more about how to connect, who to connect with, and how to build a team to help you accomplish your goals.
Jennifer McClanahan-Flint is an Executive Career Strategist and the founder and CEO of Leverage to Lead. She helps women and people of color build careers with audacity and authenticity.