Leadership and personality testing

January 19, 2014 | By | Add a Comment

Personality tests have long been used to assess the suitability of candidates for leadership roles. But as practitioners, I often wonder whether we put too much faith in them. Recently I discovered that personality accounts for little more than gender, and far less than education level, when used to predict leadership effectiveness. I also confirmed that the influence of personality on perceptions of leadership effectiveness can be highly biased.

In a recent study1, involving 175 leaders from five Australian companies, I found that a leader’s tendency to be self-disciplined, anxious or angry accounts for just 7 percent of their effectiveness, when rated by their manager or followers, but increases almost fourfold to 27 percent when self-rated. Findings of between 10 to 15 percent are in line with most research2, 3. But surprisingly, I also found that their educational level and gender accounts for 12 and 6 percent of manager and follower rated effectiveness, respectively.

These findings highlight two longstanding issues with personality testing4. First, other characteristics often provide an equal or better account of leadership than personality (7 percent), for example, gender (6 percent) and education level (12 percent). Second, personality can account for a sizable amount of leadership effectiveness, up to 27 percent, but it depends who you ask. Perhaps not surprisingly, in this study self-ratings are higher for ‘socially desirable’ personality attributes such as self-discipline while lower for undesirable ones such as anxiety and anger. Self-ratings are also higher for effective leadership behaviors such as being supportive and giving recognition. These self-ratings reflect a well studied4 tendency to overinflate (‘fake good’) one’s responses and might explain why personality accounts for almost four times self-rated versus manager and follower rated leadership effectiveness (27 versus 7 percent).

So is personality testing for leadership selection or promotion worth the time and money? After all, why not just hire or promote someone based on their education level as it’s readily available, free and explains nearly twice the leadership effectiveness of personality? On the one hand, personality testing is useful in situations where candidates are closely matched on role-related knowledge (including education level), skill or experience. In these situations personality, even at 7 percent, may provide a critical point of differentiation between candidates. However, the accuracy of a candidate’s personality test, particularly in a competitive situation, is likely to be questionable. Recruitment and selection situations are known to contribute to faking good4, 5, and as my study clearly demonstrates, a candidate’s ratings may be distorted so as to significantly overinflate their level of leadership effectiveness.  This can often lead to poor leadership selection decisions.

Fortunately, there is a solution and it involves testing and incorporating evidence of working memory capacity as leaders are involved in solving difficult, challenging or stressful cognitive tasks (see Our Thinking).


  1. M. D. Collins, 74th Academy of Management Conference, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1 – 5 August (2014), Submitted
  2. D. Ones, S. Dilchert, C. Viswesvaran and T. Judge, Personnel Psychology 60, 995–1027 (2007).
  3. M. R. Barrick and M. K. Mount, Human Performance 18 (4), 359-372 (2005).
  4. F. P. Morgeson, M. A. Campion, R. L. Dipboye, J. R. Hollenbeck, K. Murphy and N. Schmitt, Personnel Psychology (60), 683-729 (2007).
  5. R. P. Tett and D. V. Simonet, Human Performance 24 (4), 302-321 (2011).



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