Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Cult of Personality

Perhaps the worst thing about looking for work in this dismal economy is the fact that there are precious few job-hunting resources available to unemployed citizens. And those that exist are mostly a joke.

Case in point is the Portland Career Center’s weekly Unemployed Professionals Workshop series, which I attended last week. I had hoped the workshop would provide some useful insight to help me narrow my job search, or even advice on how to craft a 30-second “Elevator Speech,” even though I absolutely abhor the thought of selling myself like a TV advertisement.

Unfortunately, neither of those items was on the workshop agenda. Instead, the audience received a protracted and useless seminar in the importance of personality testing.

The meeting presenter specialized in workplace personality tests (think the Myers-Briggs Indicator Type, which most people have taken at some point in their lives), and walked the group through one. The purpose of this test (the “DISC” personality profile), she explained, was to help us better network with potential employers. DISC identifies test-takers as one of four easily categorized “personalities”: Dominant, Influence, Steadiness and Conscientious.

Discovering one’s individual personality “type” may seem like a fun Friday afternoon bonding activity to some employers, but the fact is these pseudo-psychological exams are not rooted in any scientific basis, whatsoever.

According to Annie Murphy Paul, author of The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves, psychologists have long resisted the concept of categorizing individuals as “types.” Understanding that, as a “C,” you are more prone to careful analysis and questioning than others does not confer upon you any specific workplace skills or knowledge. More importantly, it does not get you a job.

Furthermore, because tests like DISC are based on such generalized, preferential answers, one can take the test four different times and never end up with the same results.

So, why the continued reliance on these pop-psych exams, you ask?

Because—and here is the truly frightening part—obtaining a job in the 21st century has little to do with one’s education, experience, or skills. It is primarily about one’s attitude and personality. Employers want to hire someone who is “likable.” In fact, potential employers focus 85-90 percent on a candidate’s likability and the remaining 10-15 percent on skills and knowledge, according to the Career Center literature. The personality type companies are increasingly looking for resembles that of a high school cheerleader more than a hard-working, educated and experienced professional.

This, in essence, is how an ignorant, inexperienced, uncultured moron like Sarah Palin can become a viable candidate for president.

No doubt a pleasant, upbeat employee is more desirable to share an office with than some of the misanthropically maladjusted co-workers I have had the misfortune of working alongside at various jobs. But, as was often the case with these likable co-workers, at the end of the day, they frequently lacked even the basic skills and education necessary for the job. Indeed, this scenario would be humorous if it were not the reality in most workplaces.

Barbara Ehrenreich comes to similar conclusions in her 2005 book, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. In the book the author and social critic attempts to get hired as a PR consultant for a corporation, only to discover how frustratingly difficult it is to get a professional job in America. (The book is a follow-up to her highly praised, Nickel and Dimed, in which Ehrenreich goes undercover as a blue-collar laborer to see if she can make a living on minimum wage.)

“What does personality have to do with getting the job done?” Ehrenreich asks when encouraged to take the Myers-Briggs Test by a perky, overpriced career coach.

She goes on, “For all the talk about the need to be a likable ‘team player,’ many people work in a fairly cutthroat environment that would seem to be especially challenging to those who possess the recommended traits. Cheerfulness, upbeatness, and compliance: these are the qualities of subordinates—of servants rather than masters, women (traditionally, anyway) rather than men.”

Indeed, intelligence can actually be a character detriment in the job search. Employers loathe critical thinkers for the simple reason they are difficult to control and more prone to dissent.

The late comedian George Carlin put it best: “They [the corporate business leaders] don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and realize how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard thirty fucking years ago.”

And that, ultimately, may be the real purpose behind the Career Center’s emphasis on personality tests and positive thinking. Even so, one wishes local services for job seekers could offer more substantive, practical information. Upon leaving, I was not sure which I found more disheartening: The workshop itself, or the Brave New World-mentality which now permeates the hiring practices of corporate America.

“The owners of this country know the truth,” Carlin adds in the same skit. “It’s called the ‘American Dream’ ‘cause you have got to be asleep to believe it.”

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