Know Thyself—Self Knowledge for Managers

One’s own is well hidden for one’s
own; and of all treasure troves, one’s
own is the last to be excavated ….

Friedrich Nietzsche.1

Are personality test an effective tool to obtain self knowledge?

The importance of self-knowledge has been acknowledged through the ages and across cultures. A visitor to the temple of Apollo at Delphi in ancient Greece was commanded to “Know Thyself” and Chinese philosopher Lao wrote that “self knowledge is enlightenment”.2 Thousands of years later, the search for the real self is still central to the human experience. Contemporary management thinkers also recognise the importance of self-knowledge and have linked it to improved management performance and subsequently the success of the organisation.3

Self-knowledge is different from knowledge of the objective world.4 It is, by definition, subjective and is thus not easily obtained, as illustrated by the epigraph. Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers, two of the most influential psychotherapists of the last century, theorised that people have a hidden personality of which they are not aware.5 It is this hidden, subconscious, nature of personality that creates epistemological hurdles and makes self-knowledge a difficult to obtain treasure.

Many different types of psychometric tests have been developed to determine a subject’s personality or other aspects of the self. These tests are used in clinical settings and research, but are also widely used for recruitment and leadership development.6

For my MBA studies I was asked to undertake a battery of personality and motivation tests in an attempt to improve my self knowledge. The main question to be answered is whether this myriad of numbers and classifications actually describe me as a person and whether they can provide a deeper self-knowledge to enable me to be a better manager.

Numerous studies have shown that psychometric tests can be used to make predictions about behaviour of individuals and job performance. There are, however, many situational variables, such as organisational culture, which influence behaviour and research indicates that personality plays the greatest role in situations where there are no social clues on how to behave.7

Some of the often used methodologies are scientifically problematic. There is little empirical evidence to confirm the validity of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Also for Theory X/Y and ERG Theory there is little or no evidence to confirm the validity of their assumptions.8

Problematic aspect of self administered psychometric testing is a high level of inherent confirmation bias, also known as the `Forer Effect‘.9 Am I really very conscientious, or do I perceive myself to be conscientious? Am I really an extroverted person, or is it my high level of energy which subjugates any innate introvertedness? Do the results of these tests provide a picture of my inner self, or are they a reflection of my perceived self?

The test results do not actually reveal any information beyond what has been entered by me, because the results are only a linguistic rearrangement of the answers. This is confirmed by recent research that showed that most people are able to guess the outcome of personality tests without actually undertaking them.10

Comprehensive self-knowledge can thus not be obtained by completing surveys because they can only reveal the perceived self and are not capable of unearthing the inner (subconscious) self. Psychometric tests are suitable only as a vehicle for introspection, providing an entry point for reflecting on one’s self. This introspection can, however, not occur without life experience to reflect on.

Obtaining self knowledge, considered essential for leadership development, requires something deeper and more substantial, as alluded to by Nietzsche in the epigraph to this blog entry. As our behaviour is predominately controlled by situational variables, the only way to obtain self-knowledge is life experience.

Only by being exposed to a multitude of situations and challenges can we know what our personality actually is. As we gain life experience, our inner and perceived selves slowly converge. Maturity is the situation were the inner self and the perceived self are almost identical and self-knowledge becomes apparent. Even the most carefully designed personality test can not leapfrog the knowledge obtained through life experience. Carl Gustav Jung, who inspired development of the MBTI recognised this when he wrote:11

Anyone who wants to know the human psyche … would be better advised to abandon exact science … and wander with human heart through the world.

This foray into psychometric testing leaves me to conclude that no psychometric test can ever replace the fullness of life experience to obtain true self-knowledge. Experiences such as exposing oneself to a challenging situations, occasionally exploring the boundaries of morality, experiencing different cultures or going through emotional turmoil are the only meaningful ways to gain self-knowledge.

  1. Nietzsche, F. (1990). Alzo sprach Zarathustra. Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen. In Hauptwerk (Vol. III). Münschen: Nymphenburger. Translated by the author. 

  2. Pausanias. (1995). Description of Greece I. In W. H. S. Jones (Ed.), Loeb Classical Library (Vol. 93); Lao Tzu. (1963). Tao te ching (D. Lau, Ed.). London: Penguin Books. 

  3. Bourner, T. (1996). Personal development to improve management. Management Development Review, 9(6), 4; McMahon, T. J. (1992). Teaching management to MBA students: The issue of pedagogy. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 7(1), 21–25; Smith, B. (1993). `Building Managers from the Inside Out’’ – Developing managers through competency-based action learning. Journal of Management Development, 12(1), 43–48. 

  4. Gertler, B. (2003) Self knowledge. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Available at, downloaded 18 May 2008. 

  5. Prevos P. (2005), Hidden personalities according to Freud and Rogers. Available: Downloaded 20 May 2008. 

  6. Michael, J. (2003). Using the Myers-Briggs type indicator as a tool for leadership development? Apply with caution. Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies 10 (1), 68-81. 

  7. Gray, P. (2002). Psychology (4th ed.). New York: Worth Publishers; Robbins, S. P., & Judge, T. A. (2007).Organizational behavior (12th ed.). New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall. 

  8. Lorr M. (1991) An empirical evaluation of the MBTI typology. Personality and Individual Differences, 11 (12), 1141-1145; Michael (2003); Robbins & Judge (2007). 

  9. Forer, B. R. (1949). The fallacy of personal validation: A classroom demonstration of gullibility. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 44 (1), 118-123. 

  10. Furnham, A., & Dissou, G. (2007). The relationship between self-estimated and test-derived scores of personality and intelligence. Journal of Individual Differences 28 (1), 37-44. 

  11. Jung, C. (1999). Two essays on analytical psychology (2nd ed.). London: Routledge. 

2 thoughts on “Know Thyself—Self Knowledge for Managers

  1. Pingback: The Lies We Tell |

Leave a Reply