Have a drink with a couple of friends or close colleagues and watch how quickly the conversation veers towards work issues. It’s not easy spending nine hours a day with people you don’t have much in common with, aside from your chosen career. And, most people are surprisingly incapable of switching off personality quirks just because they’re at work. Hence, endless fodder for happy hour bitch sessions.

Colleagues come in all forms, from the simply delightful to the merely irritating to the fully dysfunctional. The bigger the organization, the wider the variety of employees. All that diversity—background, skills, temperament—can make for a dynamic company. But it can also lead to misunderstandings and missed opportunities when colleagues struggle to relate.

Enter the work personality assessment—a much loved and oft-maligned management tool for smoothing out the rough edges and bringing teams together.

You’ve been profiled

If you’ve worked in corporate America within the last thirty years, you’ve probably been assessed. You’ve scrolled through a long list of seemingly random multiple choice questions designed to determine what makes you tick. The most popular personality test, the Myers-Briggs Indicator, boasts millions of test-takers each year. Upon completion, a person is determined to be one of sixteen personality types based on four dichotomies implicit to Carl Jung’s theories—extraversion-introversion (E-I), sensing-intuition (S-N), thinking-feeling (T-F), and judging-perceiving (J-P).

Personality profiling—Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, DiSC—offers organizations a common language with which to observe and articulate workplace behaviors—positive and um, less so. Different tests use different structures, some more complex than others. Regardless of the specific methodology, workers come away with profiles that highlight their

When we’re briefed on the assessment “DNA” of our colleagues—how they’re wired to work—we can act on that information, improving the chances of positive, productive exchanges. We can gravitate towards colleagues with complementary work styles, and develop informed strategies for relating to people who are very different.

When we’re briefed on the assessment “DNA” of our colleagues—how they’re wired to work—we can act on that information, improving the chances of positive, productive exchanges.

The question is, does knowing necessarily lead to accepting? Do personality profiles really translate into more harmonious workplaces?

I know who you are; so what?

Armed with this knowledge, the thinking goes, you understand the “why?” behind a coworker’s (off-putting) behavior and can take things less personally. You better understand how and when a colleague processes information and generates results—allowing for a greater appreciation for their contributions.

Jenna: Direct and goal-oriented. Responds best to meetings that are short and to the point.

Brad: An Idealist with an Ideation Strength. Views things very personally and requires lot of discussion before making a decision.

Likewise, your colleagues can flex to your style and preferences, making your company a happier, more productive place for all.

The proof is in the personality

Elizabeth Pierce, Director of Training at Zenefits, has used personality tests for most of her professional life and is a fan. “Using the more structured assessments has been really helpful for personal insight as well as team management. For instance, if I understand that I tend to need at least part of my day introverted and task-based, I can manage to that specifically.”

Pierce notes how valuable personality profiles can be to project teams. “Employees and managers can use the tools to ask for additional insight into something that is not a strength. For instance, if I was very focused on people—something extroverted and I had to do a task that was very structured, working with very few people, I might want to tap another person on the team who had that strength.”

Of course, not everyone is pro-profiling. Some argue that forcing people into categories limits their potential, or that the results are too black-and-white, where we as humans are not. But, while not everyone agrees on the purpose of the testing, almost everyone agrees on the proper usage of the results.

Some argue that forcing people into categories limits their potential, or that the results are too black-and-white, where we as humans are not.

As the Myers-Briggs Foundation says: “It is unethical and in many cases illegal to require job applicants to take the Indicator if the results will be used to screen out applicants. The administrator should not counsel a person to, or away from, a particular career, personal relationship or activity based solely upon type information.”

Test for good, and use for better

Regardless of the test your organization chooses, the assessment is only the first step. It’s not uncommon for organizations to invest in company-wide assessments only to leave them languishing in a file cabinet a few months later. With companies spending big dollars on assessments how do they ensure they get their money’s worth?

Anna Beeler, Human Resources Manager, The Focal Point, supports using assessments in the workplace as a strategic tool in developing functional teams. But, she cautions, “The key is reusing the info, referring back to it so it doesn’t just get lost.” Many organizations don’t realize the power of the assessment process because they move onto the next new thing before they’ve fully assimilated the results. To truly capitalize on personality profiles, Beeler offers individuals and organizations the following tips:

  1. Don’t overuse them. Profiles can become “kind of a joke” and lose their potency especially right at the beginning. “Let people process their results alone, and then start using them with the larger group.”

  2. Practice using them. As part of their development, ask employees to role-play difficult conversations with someone who’s a very different personality type.

  3. Remind people how you like to work. Preface team meetings with this information so your colleagues remember what your preferred work style is.

  4. Create a cheat sheet. Chart the work-style profiles of the people you most often interact with or need to work well with and take notes on your interactions.

  5. Continually refer back to the results. Weave profile discussions into project kick-offs, management retreats and team-building events.

In addition to providing a common vocabulary for behaviors and work preferences, personality assessments may give rise to to another—less expected—outcome. Armed with a new level of self-knowledge, there’s always the chance that individuals will choose to evolve. For, as Beeler observes: “Assessments are not who you are, they are who you choose to be and that gives people the power to change.” Spoken like a true ENFJ.

Laura Shear is a Bay Area-based freelance writer and consultant. She's addicted to home improvement projects and rescue puppies and firmly believes rosé should be enjoyed year-round. Find her on Twitter: @lmshear.

Photography by Carli Rene at Inked Fingers.