Psychometrics – a Necessary Tool for Talent Development



Whenever I talk to HR managers in Japan, whether Japanese companies or foreign capital companies, I am often surprised at how little is known about psychometric tools and their uses. Most managers will have heard of SPI, which was developed by Recruit, and they probably use one of the variations in their recruitment process (I have heard it said that 80% of new graduate recruits will take the assessment, hence the multitude of ‘how to increase your SPI score’ books on sale). Some HR mangers are familiar with Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), possibly with DiSC, and a few HR managers, usually in large foreign multinationals, will be using some other assessment which has specified by headquarters in the US or Europe.

But what kind of psychometric assessments are there and how do you know which one or ones to use?

The key to answering those questions is to first understand how these assessments work.


Different Kinds of Psychometric Tools

Psychometric assessments initially divide into two main groups.

Aptitude tests are the first kind, and work as a kind of proxy for IQ or they test for a specific ability. Often they are used for screening, particularly in first level volume screening. The key about these tests – and they are tests, with right and wrong answers – is reliability. Do I get the same score when I take the test again? These tests will have a comparison ‘norm’ group, which the testee can be measured against. So a large norm group is a must, but good aptitude test providers should be able to provide segmented norm groups for more accurate results.

The other kind, then, are psychometric assessments, where although a series of final numerical results or ‘scores’ may be produced, we are not dealing with right or wrong answers but with a range or continuum. Of course, those scores can be mapped against a desired template to use as a screen, for example in selection and recruitment, but psychometric assessments have far wider uses, such as self-awareness and development programs.

However, there are in fact two different kinds of psychometric assessments and there is a big difference in both the underlying models and in their uses. Assessments can be classified as either ‘Personality Type’ or ‘Personality Trait’.

The easiest way to understand the difference between them is that Personality Type-based assessments answer the question “How?” (as in “How does this person do something? How do they usually react?”) whereas Personality Trait-based assessments answer the question “How well?” (as in “How well will this person be able to do something?).

Personality Type assessments are based on Jungian psychology, and try to place someone on a continuum such as introversion and extraversion, sensing and intuition, thinking and feeling, judging and perceiving. Some assessments may use different vocabulary (or even colours!), but effectively they are measuring the same things – a person’s personality ‘style’. Now, while it is possible to ‘flex your style’ (something crucial for leadership development, for example), basically your style remains unchanged and reflects how you tend to respond, how you will usually view things.
As a result, these kinds of assessments are very useful when applied to teams and relationships. They can help identify potential pinch points within teams, how individuals may need to change their communication style to work more effectively with colleagues, and so on. The most famous Personality Type assessment is MBTI, but others include DiSC, Lumina, and Kiersey Temperament Sorter.
However, a major limitation to Personality Type assessments, which it is important to know, is that they are not predictive. They do not measure competence. They measure preferences, but cannot be used to predict performance. The Myers-Briggs Foundation is very clear about this on their website, when they say it is unethical to use MBTI for screening or recruitment purposes*.

So while Type-based assessments can be great for understanding how someone is going to react, for any in-depth development or assessment, we need to look at a behavioural level in order to get a full understanding of how strong someone’s competencies are. That can be achieved by using Personality Trait-based assessments.

Type vs Trait

Almost all Trait-based assessments are based on the ‘Big Five Factor’ model, which is often remembered by the acronym ‘OCEAN’ (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism). Research has shown that this five factor model is basically consistent across all cultures and ages**, meaning that it is not culturally biased.
While it is not necessary to remember those five factors, what is important to realise is that Trait-based assessments are behaviourally focused. And those behaviours can be grouped together to build competencies. Because they are behaviourally focused, they are predictive (but to what extent is the subject of part 2 of this topic), but also behaviours can change over time and be changed through personal awareness and development. It also means that competencies can be measured – individuals can be compared against other individuals and against norm groups.
Thus, Trait-based assessments can be used in a wide variety of applications, from screening and recruitment, to individual development and career planning, leadership programs, team development, and organizational audits. They can provide, then, a benefit to the organization and to the individual themselves, bringing opportunities for personal development and higher motivation.
There are a number of trait-based assessments on the market, many translated into Japanese, although there are no indigenous Japanese assessments. Recruit’s SPI, for example, is a mix of an aptitude assessment with type-based assessment.

Next Installment
In my next installment, I will look at what to look for in a trait-based assessment, and cover areas such as validity, time for completion, return on investment, fit with organizational culture, and implications for reporting results back to assessees. I will also give some specific examples of how companies are using psychometrics to hire, retain and develop their people.

J. Hollingworth


** Schacter, Gilbert, Wegner (2011). Psychology (2nd ed.). Worth. pp. 474–475


This post is also available in: Japanese