Over the past few years, people analytics, the practice of using technology to cultivate awareness of the people within an organization, has become the domain of entire departments at many large organizations.
This is not in any way surprising. After all, humans have always tried to understand why we are the way we are – horoscopes, for example, represent some of the earliest efforts in that area. Fortunately, our scientific understanding of the world has improved dramatically since that time, shaping our understanding of people in an evidence-based way. We now have an entire field of study dedicated to, as Wikipedia puts it, “the science of behaviour and mind, including conscious and unconscious phenomena, as well as thought.” This, of course, refers to the scientific discipline of psychology, the goal of which is to understand every aspect of how humans work.
But we can’t expect our people analytics departments to learn everything there is to know about human psychology; even psychologists generally choose one or two subfields to focus on. So how do we narrow it down, especially when it comes to understanding your workforce?
Many organizations have chosen to focus on personality – a natural choice, since “personality” is usually understood by the general population to mean the sum total of a person’s characteristics. It may feel intuitively like the best place from which to draw actionable insights about your people. This focus has led to a slew of personality assessments tailor-made for HR and people analytics. While not always intended for this use by their creators, many personality frameworks are marketed as an enticing solution for understanding people in your organization: they promise us a quantitative way to neatly and tidily divide a large workforce into smaller, more manageable bins. You can sort your workforce according to their personality “type.” A place for everything, and everything in its place.
There’s one massive problem with this: people aren’t so simple. They don’t fit nicely into boxes.
We cling to these personality tests for the same reason we still read horoscopes; they appeal to our desire to make order out of chaos. We like to have a tidy system of classification. To illustrate, let’s consider one of the most famous personality classification systems: the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) classification. The MBTI stands out because not only is it astonishingly popular, but it forces people into boxes while simultaneously claiming not to do so. Based on a series of questions regarding how you feel about certain morals and values, and how you think you would behave in various situations, you are assigned four letters – your “type” – such as ENTJ. Then, of course, you are provided with a description of your own “unique” personality.
But there’s one important detail about the MBTI that makes it difficult to actually use: it isn’t real.
In fact, there is no evidence to support the MBTI at all. A quick Google search will give you a plethora of articles, both academic and vernacular, about the fact that the MBTI actually measures…well, nothing. It’s as ephemeral as a horoscope. And just like a horoscope, MBTI descriptions are general enough to apply to anyone, but flattering enough to make us feel special yet connected to those of the same “sign.”
There are those nice, tidy boxes again.
Personality psychologists have long been advocating for the use of a constellation of scalar measures to understand psychology – combinations of mutable states instead of boxes of fixed traits that people don’t actually fit into. Nuanced, thoughtful approaches to psychology allow us to capture the notion that people can change over time (e.g. overcoming depression), can be different with different groups (e.g. family vs. coworkers), and can change their behaviour in response to external events. Personality tests like the MBTI miss the mark on all these kinds of details, completely failing to capture the nature of human thought and behaviour.
So how does a business incorporate vibrant, dynamic humanity into its people analytics initiatives?
For us, that understanding comes from one of the most unique and fundamental of human characteristics: language. How do you talk when you’re in a meeting with your boss? Is it different from when you’re chatting at home with your spouse? Of course it is. These linguistic differences are measurable – and importantly for businesses, they are actionable. They help us see states instead of traits.
What does your language tell us about your level of stress right now? How has that changed over the last year? What event(s) were any changes associated with? Do you speak differently with different people? How so? By obtaining a multitude of linguistic data, we present a more robust input from which to draw insights, and from which to base crucial organizational and management decisions. Assessing language in this way can provide a strong base from which to help businesses understand where they’re successfully helping employees feel more comfortable, more empowered, and more productive – and it can show where they are failing employees.
Yes, these kinds of analyses require a more careful study of human psychology, but the information they yield is much more valuable. By developing a more dynamic understanding of how to look at people – who we are with our friends, who we are when we argue, who we are when we’re tired, who we are when we write professional memos – we can come away with specific, reliable insights for our people, rather than a vague horoscope reading that forces people into clunky, unwieldy boxes.
Maybe it’s the Taurus in us, but at Receptiviti we would much prefer to understand people through a constellation of data-driven measures than to do so based on constellations in the sky.