Why HBO Max’s Persona Documentary Misses the Mark on Personality Assessments

“The world will ask you who you are, and if you don’t know, the world will tell you.”  

These are the words of Carl Jung, the psychiatrist behind the field of analytical psychology. His theories were also the foundation of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and influenced much of the business world’s focus on using psychometric tools to find the “perfect” employee. Unfortunately, Jung’s quote predicted the future and a serious problem in the use of these tools. 

HBOMax’s recent documentary release, Persona, purports to evaluate psychometric tools like MBTI. The film is described as exploring “society’s addiction to ‘understanding’ people, toxic corporate practices, and the billion-dollar personality test at the heart of it all.”

I say, not so fast.

An Assessment Is NOT a Test

Documentaries are designed to make us think. But the filmmakers are bound to have an opinion, if not an agenda. I ask you to consider this film with caution. Even the most savvy viewer can get swept up into the sensationalism.

While Persona does have some valid points, it misinterprets how personality assessments should be used and essentially paints them as corrupt or malicious. Instead of looking at these tools as what they are–assessments, not tests–the documentarians blame them for bias relating to hiring and infers their connection to a tragic ending for one of the individuals featured in the film.

It’s important to view these psychometric tools for what they are and understand that there are no shortcuts when it comes to hiring. You must build the right employee (not hire the “perfect” one) with training, measurement, and process.

Whether or not you’ve seen Persona, the subject matter is highly relevant to business leaders and educators. Ultimately, this op-ed piece gets to the roots of what any good teacher expects as a learning outcome for his or her students: critical thinking.

Critical Thinking (and How It Relates to Personality Assessments) 

Critical thinking is a term that is bandied about a lot, but few understand the depth of what it means to be critical while thinking. In short, it involves understanding that one has attitudes or characteristics along with specific skills that color your understanding. When you combine that with a reflective sensibility about how you apply those skills and attitudes, you are thinking critically. 

In a few words: critical thinkers know they are biased and control for it. 

Scoring High on Critical Thinking Doesn’t Make One a “Good” Employee

So we test for that then? Psychologists have come to settle on the best way to measure a good critical thinker by evaluating categories of reasoning. These still face the problems of subjects not responding accurately or honestly and bias by the evaluator. Because of this psychologists recommend administering at least two assessments to verify. More problematically say nothing about the motivation, determination, and drive of a person.

So not only is this method cumbersome it is also insufficient.  If you were to hire someone based only on their high scores on critical thinking, you’re ignoring another important factor. Who cares how effectively they think if they don’t care about your business?  

Predicting Future Behavior: An Exercise in Impossibility

That brings us back to why businesses use personality assessments so poorly. In Persona, the filmmakers outline the story of a young man, Kyle Behm, who was flagged and not hired for being “very likely to ignore customers if they or he were upset.” This was the perceived result of an assessment given by the hiring company (Kroger).

Not hiring someone because of this potential attitude is a fundamental misunderstanding of humans’ ability to think critically. Humans are quite capable of “Paradox Thinking,” meaning they can hold two contradicting thoughts in their mind at once. 

Kyle was, as most people are, capable of separating personal feelings from the job. Yes, he might get irritated at someone, but that does not mean he will actually trigger a negative reaction. It is also quite possible to be frustrated, or even angry, at someone yet still provide respectful customer service. We have all seen it being done by representatives in the retail, travel, restaurant industries, and elsewhere.  

Assessments, like the one Kyle took, that try to predict future behavior fail to consider the very thing they are purporting to measure: critical thinking. It is conflating a correlation for a person to “act out” with a cause of customer behavior. 

Successful Business Leaders Don’t “Pick” a Good Employee… They Build One

Persona is right about how personality assessments are used, but wrong about their value. Businesses are using them incorrectly to hire ‘perfect employees’ with the results being biased to the point verging on illegal. How can business leaders fairly evaluate who is worth the time to invest in as an employee? 

The answer is simpler than you might think. Just ask them! Find out directly from your team what works for them; how they see themselves and their place within the team. If you are hiring, ask questions that relate to your company mission. Use the typical 60 to 90 day probationary period for new hires and measure their performance.

In an effective leadership process, a leader doesn’t pick the “perfect employee.” The most successful leaders implement a flexible process where an individual’s foibles and diversity are accepted and people are encouraged to ask for help when they know they are in over their head; before it causes a problem.

In short, they teach. It is here that personality assessments work. They help you communicate clearly to the diversity of your team and coach them.

These are the things research has demonstrated makes a team great.  So why test for something when the tools already exist to build a team? You, the leader, just need to do your job and stop looking down a rabbit hole for a magical solution.


Ryan Sanders is Founder of Educate Innovate Inspire (EII) Consulting, LLC and Adjunct Faculty at Lerner College of Business and Economics at the University of Delaware

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