Utilizing Personality Testing in Construction Management Hiring​

Many people have heard of the Rorschach Inkblot Test, that old set of black ink-stains-on-paper that you’re supposed to look at and “tell me what you see.”  Is it a butterfly or a dragon, a bullwhip or a magic wand?  The answers people give are supposed to reveal something deep and personal about themselves and provide a window into ones’ soul.


Many of those with a passing familiarity to the Rorschach test believe that they are kind of silly; something intended for a therapy session straight out of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.  No normal person would submit to, much less administer, such a ridiculous test.  It’s all just science fiction, right?


Not so fast.  While it is true that the Rorschach was developed using 300 mental patients as the focus group, it is considered a type of “personality test,” a phrase becoming much more common in today’s business vernacular.  One could say that personality testing has gone mainstream, as these assessments have become commonplace in situations ranging from their traditional use in therapy settings to the screening of job applicants.  The construction management field is no exception; using these tests to understand what role a potential candidate would thrive in at your company can help guide many employment decisions.

Types of Personality Tests

There are two categories of personality tests. Projective tests, like the Rorschach or the Thematic Apperception Test, are conducted by giving the subject a general visualization, or “ambiguous stimuli,” with the hope of revealing emotions or personal conflicts that may not be known even to the subject themselves.  The concept is that people have both conscious and unconscious feelings about a variety of issues, and those can be drawn out by looking at an abstract picture or asking an open-ended question. 


Think about when you’ve lain on your back and looked up at the clouds.  Did you see the same animal or object as were seen by your children?  Have you ever been asked to “complete this sentence…”?  These are examples of projective test activities that have become so commonplace they are used in family games and celebrated as fun activities.


The second category, Self-Report Inventories, such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), are different. 


Sometimes referred to as “objective tests,” these are more structured and are evaluated on something closer to a universal standard.  Think of something like a multiple-choice or a True-False exam; the responses are limited to the actual content of the test.  You’re allowed to choose an answer that you feel is the most appropriate to the question, but it must be one chosen from a list of answers supplied by the examiner. A common college entrance exam, the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), is an example of an objective test that is taken by a wide swath of today’s population.

Using a Personality Test in a Business Setting

As used in a business setting, the Self-Report Inventory is generally considered to be the most valuable style of assessment.  Understanding how a person thinks can help a manager place the right person in the right job.  Objective tests designed for business are based on understanding the “Big Five Personality Traits,” also known as the Five-Factor Model.  


This model consists of the five elements that combine to make up a persons’ personality, commonly referred to by the acronym OCEAN:

Openness to experience        (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)

Conscientiousness                 (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless)

Extraversion                             (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)

Agreeableness                         (friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/detached)

Neuroticism                              (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident)



It is important to understand how these diverse elements coalesce to make up a single personality.  Different traits will apply to different positions in a company and should be considered when matching an applicant to a role.  While it’s seemingly obvious that you’d want an accountant who is consistent and cautious, would a little inventiveness and curiosity help them to realize a break-through path for financing the growth of your company? 


A salesperson who is outgoing and energetic seems like the obvious choice, but would someone who is more solitary and reserved accomplish more in a sales role that requires consistent reporting and the paperwork that goes along with that?  The idea here is that while there may be preconceptions about what personality traits fit what roles most comfortably, there is some nuance than can be extracted from the data provided by a personality test.

Personality Testing Specific to Construction Management

While a construction management firm has many, varied roles to fill in employment hiring, two that recur most often can generally be broken down into these categories:  does the person interact with clients, vendors and government personnel or do they deal with the workers on the ground who are doing the actual labor? 


In the first category, the person dealing with the customer and other non-labor points-of-contact spend a fair amount of time on the phone.  They work from their desk to secure materials, organize deliveries, work through permitting issues, and generally keep the flow of information and goods to the job site organized and well-communicated.  We’ll refer to this person as a Procurement Specialist.  The second category, generally referred to as a Project Manager, needs a different set of skills.  This Project Manager needs to deal with many of those same people but in a boots-on-the-ground setting.  The client may be present asking questions about elements of the job, or there may be a government inspector who comes to the site to evaluate processes and procedures to verify that sure all government requirements are being fulfilled.  And also, the Project Manager has to deal with the labor force. A group of folks who, depending on the specifics and scale of the project, maybe a landscaping crew of four who are installing pavers and a retaining wall and possibility have limited communication capabilities, or maybe a union crew stacked with experienced union members well versed in employment law and contract rights.


It’s easy to see that these two jobs require different skill sets, but why then do people who seem eminently qualified to fill these roles sometimes struggle?  If their resumes are filled with applicable job experience, why do they have trouble accomplishing their assigned tasks?  Often it’s because their personality just doesn’t mesh with that of the people they are interacting with.

Revisiting the OCEAN Breakdown

Let’s look at the OCEAN breakdown again.  We can all agree that if a personality test comes back on any potential employee showing a Conscientiousness rating of easy-going/careless, there isn’t a place for them in construction management.  Efficient and organized needs to be the baseline for that item.  We can also all agree that the Neuroticism result needs to be secure/confident. 


Construction Management is not the field for the sensitive/nervous type, as things can and do change frequently and often have some big dollars attached.  A person working in that environment needs the confidence to lead a team through these changes, and the security that industry knowledge can provide.



But the other three items are a bit more open for interpretation.  Openness to experience is defined as either being inventive and curious or consistent and cautions.  In the construction management field, those are two different things, but both can work for one of our open positions.  Being inventive and curious as a Procurement Specialist can be a positive trait.  Innovative materials, tools, and processes are constantly being introduced, and if a construction management team wants to stay up on these trends, the Procurement Specialist will be the “tip of the spear” in exposing your company to those breakthroughs and keeping the company abreast of the relevant items.  But the Project Manager has a duty to his workers to stay consistent in the message and cautious about making changes mid-job that could affect workflow or project timelines.



It’s important to understand that even though these are two different sides of the same personality coin, the differing results on a pre-employment personality test can help guide the decision on which role the potential employee is best suited to fill.  We discussed Extraversion a little in the opening as it could apply to an accountant, and a case can be made for any of these traits on any position being filled.  But to keep with our current example, being outgoing and energetic is a virtual requirement for procuring over the phone. Being solitary and reserved, on the other hand, can be defined as being “steady” and is a good trait for a Project Manager.  That’s not to say the PM has to be aloof and difficult to deal with, but in the setting of a project job site, he is not expected to be the worker’s friend. 



A level of detachment helps keep things stable when difficult decisions have to be made, and being sure that one is seen as the boss can eliminate a lot of discussion and debate. It is interesting to note that being friendly and compassionate is a different personality trait altogether than being solitary and reserved. It is an element of the Agreeableness trait and thus can work in conjunction with the solitary/reserved Extraversion element. In other words, you can be firm and still be kind about it.

Why Use a Personality Test in Construction Management?

There are myriad ways to interpret the results of a personality test, which is why a whole field of academics uses them and studies the results.  But if you break down your needs as an individual employer in the construction management field, you can recognize the type of person you need to fill a specific role and use a personality test as a tool in your hiring arsenal.  It’s not intended to be the final say in who is hired and who is not, but instead can be used to confirm the impressions gained through the interview process.  


Typically, a company wants to hire employees that have values aligned with that of the people charting the path of the organization.  A little variant of opinion can be good at the top, but most employers want the rank and file workers to be moving together as a team, shoulder to shoulder toward the goals set down by management.  These days, you are not allowed to ask many personal or probing questions at a job interview, but the proper utilization of personality testing can give management a little insight into how a person ticks.  


Consider it another arrow in your human resources quiver.

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