Personality Profiling – Creating Stereotypes?

 

Did you know that our concept of the word stereotype only really dates from 1922? The American writer Walter Lippmann – no slouch on the word front as he would later coin ‘cold war’ – borrowed the term from the world of printing, where it is a metal cast used to make repeated, identical images of a character. For Lippmann, a stereotype was a picture in our heads, a uniform (and distorted) image to simplify our view of the world that can be used in reaching common agreement on events. Nowadays, at least in the world of psychology, the term has lost its connotations of irrationality and prejudice to be considered a stable set of beliefs which the members of a group share about the characteristics of other groups. In essence then, it’s a short-cut, a cognitive process in which people construct schema to categorise people and entities in order to avoid information overload. Yet, as Guirdham writes,

“Stereotypes distort intergroup communication because they lead people to base their messages, their ways of transmitting them and their reception of them on false assumptions.”

The greatest false assumption is that, obviously, we overlook individuality. We forget that there is usually more variation within groups than between. We generalise and categorise, typically storing favourable information about our in-group and less favourable about the out-group. And even when someone’s behaviour runs contrary to the expectations we have created, we tend to ignore it as a temporary blip in our thinking. But perhaps worst of all, individuals often feel strangely pressured to conform to these expectations, in turn making these beliefs self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating. And if these expectations are low, research has consistently shown that people will underperform.

When we talk about intercultural communication and business, it’s clear that in developing our cultural intelligence it is important to look beyond stereotypes and superficial descriptions of other cultures, even if, as we mentioned above, this stereotyping can be a normal cognitive process to help us cope with the complexity of a different culture. But what has stereotyping got to do with personality profiling?

A few years ago, the HR team I was working in had an awayday. It was during the weekend, but no eyebrows were raised too high – we worked in a very diffuse culture and organisational roles did not start and stop at the company door. If the highlight of the day was the kiting in the afternoon with the families, the morning was just as interesting. A consultancy ran the HBDI exercise with us, which divides people’s thinking styles into quadrants with associated colours. In brief, blues were logical, analytical thinkers; yellows were creative, intuitive types; greens were detail-conscious and conservative; and reds were the emotional, feeling-based ones among us. We had done an online pre-assessment and now the results were shared with us. We were invited to get into our respective groups, and even given coloured stickers to wear. The exercise was set up to demonstrate that teams need varied membership for success, but instead everyone spent the remainder of the session looking round at each other, little light bulbs going off in their eyes. Back in the company, these stickers appeared on some office doors like badges of honour, while meetings echoed with comments like ‘You would say that – you’re just being your red self’, etc. Within days, these perceptions became ingrained and stereotypes were created with the associated expectations.

I had experienced something similar with a previous team – in another well-intentioned teambuilding event – when we had examined ourselves in Belbin’s team roles (i.e. plant, resource investigator, coordinator, shaper, etc). Roles were set in stone on that day for ever after, in effect stifling thinking and ‘cross-role’ contribution.

Looking back, how useful was either exercise? On an individual level, the labels we were allocated in both cases did not recognise the malleability and fluidity of our identities, the many hats we wear in different contexts. On a broader level, the categorisation led to the accommodation of quite disparate characters (and borderline cases) in the same classification, with the same stereotyped expectations attributed to all.

These might be simple examples, but I have seen the same light bulb look in managers’ eyes as they look through their reports’ personality profiles. I often wonder how their relationships then progress. For in addition to the above, the static snapshot of a personality profile does not account for the development that new experiences and learning give us, while the stereotype persists long after we have changed – if we were ever the person the profile painted.

This last point is significant. Profiles are used in so many talent decisions – selection, promotion, development, succession planning, etc – and often in the belief that they are gospel. Yet with such assessments there is always the question of validity – are the evaluation mechanisms truly evaluating what they purport to do? This can be compounded by the polarising either/or nature of most profiling questions (even when they claim not to be) and the consequent, forced categorisation. Moreover, anyone with some experience of such instruments can often tell which element or characteristic the question is looking to assess and can judge their response accordingly. Let us also not forget the frequent cultural bias of assessment design and content.

If there is a value for personality profiles, perhaps they should be for the eyes only of the one assessed as a conversation starter to explore their self-awareness – so often cited as the key to leadership performance and development. Even the straightforward question over how true the reflection is can be illuminating for the assessee as to potential perceptions of their behaviour and attitudes. Beyond this, their value and use become more questionable.

In the meantime, I’m a yellow squiggle; ENFP; an activist / pragmatist learner; visually dominant; a resource investigator; oriented towards achievement, internal control, sequential time, collectivistic, particularistic, diffuse, and affective; and my five strengths are developer, learner, ideation, input and arranger. What are you…?

REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING

  • P.C. Earley, S. Ang, and J-S Tan. (2006) CQ: Developing Cultural Intelligence At Work
  • M. Guirdham. (1999). Communicating Across Cultures
  • Y. T. Lee and G. Duenas, G. (1995). Stereotype accuracy in multicultural business. In Y.T. Lee, L. J. Jussim, and C. R. McCauley (eds.), Stereotype accuracy: towards appreciating group differences

About Julian King

Julian King is an international HR consultant and certified executive coach with a keen interest in intercultural matters.