Beyond Labels: Neurodivergence and the Flaws of Some Preferred Personality Assessments

As an executive coach I’m intimately familiar with the use of assessments to support individuals, teams, and entire organizations to develop a heightened awareness of different styles, proclivities, and preferences of behavior and leadership. I’ve also been carefully selective in the types of assessments I’ve chosen to use with my clients, how frequently I use them, and the manner in which I deliver the results.

There are already plenty of pros and cons to the use of assessments, and as someone with ADHD I felt compelled to do some digging into how neurodivergence plays a part in their overall effectiveness.

Here’s what I found…

In a world where quick categorizations and neat labels often prevail, it’s essential to delve deeper into the complexities of human experience—especially when it comes to neurodivergent individuals. While personality and psychometric tests like DISC, MBTI, and StrengthsFinder offer valuable insights into human behavior and aptitude, they are primarily designed for neurotypical populations. This article explores how the unique cognitive processing associated with neurodivergence can skew results and interpretations of these popular assessments.

The Neurodivergent Experience with Assessment Testing

Neurodivergent conditions like ADHD, autism, and dyslexia can significantly impact how an individual performs on tests that are designed for “normative” populations. Here are some ways neurodivergence can affect test results:

  • Attention and Focus: ADHD, for instance, can affect an individual’s ability to sustain attention, possibly leading to lower scores that do not accurately represent their true abilities.
  • Test Anxiety: Neurodivergent individuals may experience heightened anxiety during tests, which can impair performance.
  • Interpretation of Questions: Individuals, especially those on the autism spectrum, may interpret questions more literally, affecting their responses.
  • Timing: Some neurodivergent individuals may require more time to process and respond to questions, which could make time-limited tests disadvantageous for them.
  • Sensory Issues: The testing environment, including bright lights or background noise, can serve as distractions for some neurodiverse people.

DISC Assessment: A Case Study

The DISC assessment aims to identify stable traits of Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, or Conscientiousness. However, neurodivergent individuals may experience several challenges:

  • Literal Interpretation: Abstract or generalized statements in the DISC test may be interpreted literally by those on the autism spectrum.
  • Context Sensitivity: Neurodivergent individuals may behave differently depending on the context, which DISC may not adequately capture.
  • Anxiety and Focus: Quick interpretation and response to test questions can be challenging for those with anxiety disorders or ADHD.

MBTI: The Forced Choices Dilemma

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) requires respondents to make forced choices between two options, presenting unique challenges for neurodivergent test-takers:

  • Forced Choices: For those who don’t see themselves fitting cleanly into one category, this forced-choice method may not accurately capture their personality.
  • Consistency: Neurodivergent individuals may lack consistency in their behavior due to mood fluctuations or executive functioning challenges, making it hard for MBTI to categorize them effectively.
  • Self-Perception: There can be a significant discrepancy between self-perception and societal norms, further complicating how one answers MBTI questions.

StrengthsFinder: Measuring Unique Talents

While StrengthsFinder aims to be a more positive, strengths-based assessment, it has its own limitations:

  • Cognitive Processing: Neurodivergent individuals may have unique talents not easily categorized by mainstream frameworks like StrengthsFinder.
  • Interpretation of Questions: The wording and phrasing may not be easily interpretable for some neurodivergent individuals.
  • Anxiety and Overthinking: The time-limited nature of the test and the need to choose between options may induce anxiety, affecting the results.

The Way Forward

Neurodivergence presents a challenge to the one-size-fits-all approach inherent in many personality and psychometric tests. From the DISC and MBTI to StrengthsFinder, these assessments risk mislabeling or underestimating the abilities and challenges of neurodivergent individuals.

As awareness grows, it’s crucial for test designers, clinicians, educators, and employers to adopt more inclusive and nuanced approaches that account for the full range of human diversity. Only then can we move beyond labels to a more comprehensive understanding of each individual’s unique strengths and challenges.

By adopting a more nuanced perspective, we can pave the way for assessments that are truly inclusive, offering valuable insights without the risk of mislabeling or misunderstanding the rich tapestry that is human cognition and personality.