June 08, 2021

The Role of Informal Personality Assessment in Leadership and Everyday Decisions

Written by Dr. Chris Frueh

Each of us uses informal personality assessments to make decisions about other people – and we have done this our entire lives. Yes, clinical psychologists receive training in conducting formal personality assessments using questionnaires, projective tests, interviews, and even psychophysiological reviews. They learn how to write long, detailed reports to be read and used by other mental health professionals in making decisions related to treatment or court decisions. But it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in psychology to conduct informal personality assessments. Most of us do this not just frequently but constantly – and not for frivolous purposes either.

What do I mean by this?

I mean that inherent in every interaction we have with other people, we are assessing them, evaluating them, forming ideas and hypotheses about them. We observe behaviors, physical appearance, and body language; we hear words and tone of voice; we notice reactions elicited from other people. None of us took a childhood course in how to do this – and yet, we’ve been doing it ever since. We rely on our instincts and lessons learned through experience.

Our ability to read others is undoubtedly fallible, but it is our best primary tool for making decisions about others. We use our informal personality assessments to guide our choices regarding friends, work colleagues, lovers, roommates, and business collaborators, as well as the people we hire to provide services such as medical, dental, lawn care, house repair, etc.

You’ve been doing this your entire life.

Okay, so even if everything you’ve just read so far is correct mainly – so what? What difference does “experience” by itself have to do with anything? I’ve been singing poorly my entire life (when I’m alone in my truck, the shower, or doing house chores). I have lots of experience with singing, but experience alone doesn’t mean I am good at it. I’ve never received singing lessons or expert-level feedback.

When it comes to singing, I will confess to you that I am terrible, really terrible.  

We can probably all agree that experience alone is not enough to become an expert at something.

Consider this, however: you have received lessons (i.e., “hard knocks”) and expert-level feedback in informal personality assessment. Some relevant feedback has followed pretty much every decision you’ve ever made about someone. How did that roommate you chose in your early 20s work out? Remember that plumber you trusted? How did he do? What about the last ten people you hired or promoted?

You can look back at the outcomes of your decisions. Reflect on this for a moment. Think about some of the calls you made that were spot on – and some of the calls you made that were far from spot on. What factors influenced those decisions? What are some of your biases and blind spots that have reduced the effectiveness of your informal personality assessments over the years? Also, what are your strengths in this area? Under what circumstances are you especially good at judging others?

Informal personality assessment is critical in talent evaluation at every level. Every leadership decision, every personal decision, large and small, is influenced by how we assess and understand others. Trust your gut instincts, but also reflect on your experiences. Be aware of your mistakes – and what led to them. You are probably already really good at this, but you can get better still!

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Christopher Frueh, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, Professor of Psychology at the University of Hawaii, and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, University of Texas Health Science Center, Houston, TX. He has thirty years of professional experience working with military veterans and active-duty personnel and has conducted clinical trials, epidemiology, historical, and neuroscience research, primarily with combat veterans. He has co-authored over 300 scientific publications, including historical analysis of U.S. Army suicides dating back to 1819 and a current graduate textbook on adult psychopathology. Professionally, he has worked with combat veterans since 1991 and devotes much of his time to the military special operations community. He has also published commentaries in the National Review, Huffington Post, New York Times, Time, and Washington Post; and has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Washington Post, Scientific American, Stars and Stripes, USA Today, Men’s Health, and Los Angeles Times, among others. Under the pen name Christopher Bartley, he has also published nine novels, including THEY DIE ALONE and most recently, A SEASON PAST.

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