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Testing, 1,2,3...

Matt Pais

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Thorough psychological testing ensures the defining character traits of employees, clients and successors come in loud and clear.
Photo: Lisa Predko

Bryson Milley, CFP, CIM, was certain that he had found a great candidate to join his team: She was personable, interviewed well and her resume was solid.

Then he received a call from a psychological testing consultant he hired to assess the potential hire’s fit for the role.

“I’m not even going to bother writing the report,” the expert said. The evaluation showed that she would make mistakes when faced with numerous details. “Run away from this candidate,” he recommended.

Given the expert’s strong opinion, the 20-year MDRT member from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, ended the hiring process for the candidate. He has seen the impact of hiring candidates when the expert recommended otherwise, and almost always the candidates end up leaving the firm for one reason or another within a short period of time. A psychological test report helps offset the immediate desire to hire by offering insights into longer-term fit with the team, and for the role, where a mismatch can result in losing the huge investment of onboarding a new employee.

By using profiling tests, I understand that everyone is different, and I don’t need to only trust everything from their words.
— Shalyn Xiaoqi Lee, BSc

Psychological testing is hardly new; you’ve surely heard of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a popular test for personality characteristics. For Milley’s firm, the use of testing has been essential since before he joined in 2003. In fact, the firm trusts industrial psychologist Larry Stefan, Ph.D., so thoroughly that he has become a noun, verb and adjective. “Have you been Larried?” said Milley, who handles holistic financial planning for lawyers, doctors and small-business owners. “Have you had the Full Larry or the Larry Lite?”

The Larry Lite is four hours of questioning, while the Full Larry consists of an additional two hours of testing, plus an hour-long interview with Stefan or his business partner. Milley took the full test himself when he joined the firm, and he was struck that someone who did not know him personally could describe him as if they were close family.

“All I did was answer a bunch of questions,” he said. “And the report was as if they’ve known me for decades.”

Understanding potential employees

The system, Stefan says, is not unique so much as it is comprehensive. Rather than employing just one of the instruments used to deliver psychological testing, his company synthesizes a variety of tests (some of which are only available to psychologists and doctorate-level experts), continually adapting their approach to maximize accuracy. It leads to more than 1,000 data points about a candidate’s work style, interpersonal skills and more, drastically increasing the likelihood that the hiring decision will be the right one.

“Intellect can be measured relatively easily and fairly accurately; personality is complex,” Stefan said. “If we assess 100 people, four or five might do the exact opposite of what we think they’ll do. I’ve never seen two people alike, and I’ve done this over 20,000 times for managers.”

The point is finding the difficult-to-identify characteristics (often involving emotional intelligence and interpersonal dynamics) that might verify a candidate’s positive qualities — or show that a seemingly great hire is less than ideal.

Milley saves the testing until after candidates with promising resumes have gone through an introductory aptitude test, an initial interview, a second aptitude test and a follow-up interview. If Milley is feeling confident about a potential hire, he’ll tap Stefan to evaluate the candidate, resulting in a three-page report containing pros, cons and a 1-10 ranking.

Shalyn Xiaoqi Lee, BSc, also recognizes the efficiency of testing before hiring — rather than struggle with a hire who wasn’t fully vetted. In 2008, the first year that the four-year MDRT member from Singapore worked in management, she hired eight people with minimal evaluation. Six of them left within the year.

Lee oversees 30 advisors and manages hiring and training for a practice that handles financial planning, life insurance and investments for 500 clients. Her evaluation begins with candidates completing a 10-minute DISC personality questionnaire before their first interview. The survey — which evaluates where the person lands on scales of dominance, influence, sociability and compliance — helps inform the questions Lee will ask candidates.

Should a candidate advance to the second interview, they’re asked to complete a 180-question Enneagram test, for which Lee pays $10 to $20 per test and spent five days becoming certified to evaluate results. The test provides a deeper look at a person across nine personality types, which include achiever, investigator, enthusiast and challenger. The results also suggest the strengths and weaknesses that may come with each personality type. With a reformer personality, for example, Lee knows that perfectionistic instincts mean that the person is very sensitive to mistakes and may have trouble making decisions. Those identified as a helper personality type will be great at assisting others but may have difficulty managing their own work and time.

“If I can help the person polish their strengths and work on their weaknesses to make them a better version of themselves, they will be a more balanced person and able to perform better,” Lee said.

Darrell Wade, a 16-year MDRT member from Peterborough, Ontario, Canada — who specializes in helping family businesses with succession, continuity and transition — uses the Predictive Index, a survey that takes less than 10 minutes to analyze individuals on levels of dominance, extroversion, patience and formality.

If we can take time to understand ourselves and the others we work with, we’ll make better decisions.
— Darrell Wade

When Wade needed to hire a detailed-oriented paraplanner and a candidate spent two phone interviews telling Wade exactly what he’d hoped to hear, the Predictive Index suggested the candidate was too good to be true. Wade went back to the candidate and told them that details and analysis are an important part of the role, but that the survey indicated they lose interest quickly in detail. He asked if that was an accurate statement and received only silence.

To test the survey’s findings, Wade sent a sample task along and learned a lot from how many times it was opened and unfinished, and then completed several days later.

Understanding colleagues

The Predictive Index — which Wade used to hire a specialist with 25 years of experience in 2019 — adds value for existing team members as well. He completes the survey every few years himself and shares the team’s results with new hires to help them understand how best to work with everyone.

The index showed that Wade is the least dominant and least extroverted among his three business partners, but he is very formal and patient. With this analysis, the partners better understand that if they want him to make a big decision, it’s best to give him the information on a Thursday and not expect the decision until Monday.

That advanced interpersonal understanding is also why Lee has her staff retake the Enneagram test on an annual basis. She then meets with each person to look at current and past results and discuss what has improved and what areas can still be worked on. 

“By using profiling tests, I understand that everyone is different, and I don’t need to only trust everything from their words,” Lee said. “Everyone is motivated by different things and wants different things from a leader. I get a clearer sense of behavior and can improve the way that I coach them.”

A similar, growth-oriented mission comes into play with another tool that Milley uses. Working with a consulting firm whose testing resembles the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Milley periodically has all four members of the team take the test to identify strengths and weaknesses and things they do and don’t like to do. The consultant, Fraser Engel, then leads a team-building exercise that provides insight on the day-to-day and long-term operation of the practice, while deepening the relationships between staff.

“We all have our own psychological makeups and things we do well and things we don’t,” Milley said. “There’s no point in doing something you’re not suited for because, at some point, you will find yourself unhappy, unsuccessful or both.”

Milley also recognizes the potential use of psychological testing to develop a successor — although at age 49, he’s in no rush to retire.

“Everything starts with the initial intention: You need a good employee with the capability to develop and work to their strengths and provide the firm its longevity,” he said. “We’ve been around for almost 50 years; that doesn’t happen by accident.”

Understanding clients

There’s even opportunity to use psychological testing on the client side. The information Wade learns from the Predictive Index can be critical in resolving different perspectives within families. For example, one of Wade’s clients was hesitant about an opportunity to buy another farm, which was frustrating his son. The Predictive Index revealed that the father was risk-averse, the result of two previous experiences in which he almost lost his own farm.

This situation led Wade to begin using the Predictive Index at the start of working with the client, rather than only after problems occur. After the survey, Wade schedules a group session to discuss the report and plan next steps.

“I explain to families that it’s a tool to strengthen relationships, unlock potential and avoid surprises,” Wade said. “If we can take time to understand ourselves and others we work with, we’ll make better decisions.”

8 hazards of hiring

Stefan identifies the following traps that psychological testing can help you avoid:

1. Bending the data. Avoid using positive information to mask negative information, or vice versa. A comprehensive picture is needed to assess any candidate.

2. Trusting your gut over your brain. Don’t let bias supersede concrete evidence to the contrary.

3. Putting the entire decision in a professional’s opinion. Outside advice can be very helpful, but no expert gets it right every time.

4. Hiring the best of mediocre candidates. Hold out for a great hire, not just the top of an unimpressive group. You’ll be happy you held out for the right person.

5. Competencies and personality. A candidate may fulfill all competencies and struggle because of personality-related issues. The opposite can be true as well. A comprehensive assessment will generate the strongest hire.

6. The limits of an interview. Is it too short? Too long? Too narrow? Too broad? Make sure the interview is part of a variety of information used to make a hiring decision.

7. Hiring superstars. Success can be situation-dependent; just because someone has thrived in another organization does not necessarily guarantee future success. Take the time to get to know each candidate.

8. Failing to recognize your own weaknesses. It is possible that your ability to evaluate others is actually a weakness. Acknowledge what you do and don’t do well, and utilize others’ input as appropriate to ensure the strongest decision.

A closer look at testing

In the new documentary “Persona: The Dark Truth Behind Personality Tests,” available in some markets on HBO Max, director Tim Travers Hawkins explores the shortcomings of psychological testing as a system of understanding people, selecting candidates and refining communication. Hawkins recognizes that tests are created by people, which can result in inherent bias such as sexism, racism, ableism and classism.

For example, the film finds troubling, prejudiced material in the writings of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator co-creator Isabel Myers. It also features interviews with Kyle Behm, a young man diagnosed with bipolar disorder and struggling with depression who finds it difficult to get hired because of the way personality tests such as the Big Five suggest he isn’t capable of doing things that he actually is. For example, he has experience in customer service, but a test taken while applying to work in customer service for Kroger claimed he would fail when working with people. Behm consequently wonders what is wrong with him and tragically takes his own life.

“One biased human manager can only impact maybe 100 resumes at a time,” Ifeoma Ajunwa, J.D., Ph.D., said in the film. Ajunwa is an associate professor of labor and employment law at Cornell University and author of “The Qualified Worker.” “But one biased automated hiring system that is deployed throughout a corporation can actually impact hundreds of thousands of resumes.”

There’s also the possibility that candidates may simply give the answers they think employers want. “Savvy applicants start to figure out what the answer key might be,” said Nathan Mondragon, the chief industrial psychologist for the video interview platform HireVue.

While some personality tests can provide useful information, the tests themselves should also receive critical evaluations.


Shalyn Lee

Bryson Milley

Darrell Wade



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