Myers Briggs: how to get the most out of it

“Religion is about reassurance; spirituality is about enquiry.” Tatiana Bachkirova, 2010

I first had my personality psychometrically assessed using the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTi) about fifteen years ago. As for many people, especially those with my personality type ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, this was a revelatory experience. It presented a way to put order onto what had previously been pure chaos. Suddenly there were reasons for things that had confused and frustrated me in dealing with others and luminous solutions shone through where before there had been only darkness. Pretty hot stuff.

Nevertheless, MBTi is considered by many psychologists to have fundamental flaws. In particular as it’s derived from theoretical assumptions (albeit from Carl Jung) rather than evidence-based research. (The latter approach is the basis of the main alternative system of Personality Type, the Big Five personality traits, which literally began with a long list of adjectives that were whittled down to a final list based on observed behaviours).

But MBTi has grown in popularity, stretching out via its use in businesses since the 1980s, pioneered by McKinsey and now an almost ubiquitous shorthand for at last half of the millennials that I seem to meet.

Any system of classification is a simplification, especially when it’s about something as complex and mysterious as the human psyche. I’ve been administering the MBTi for over ten years now, and despite any scepticism I might have, I’ve seen many times how useful it can be to people looking to better understand themselves and how people relate to one another.

The great strength of MBTi is its simplicity and transparency; this is why I think it’s often of more practical use than newer systems that have been developed on top of its core model. In order to get the most out of it, it should be something that you do to yourself rather than have done to you.

By this I mean that I believe the assessment is most useful when it’s the start of something rather than an ending. Paraphrasing my old teacher Tatiana, that it can the first step in a journey of enquiry rather than a fundamentalist, assertion of Truth in 16 boxes.

I’ll explain what I mean a little bit more, but first a reminder / overview of what the system is:

There are four dichotomies, each consisting of two opposite poles. Each of us veers to one side or the other of these, not totally, but we prefer one of the two poles. These are: Extroversion (E) & Introversion (I); Sensing (S) & Intuition (N); Thinking (T) & Feeling (F); Judging (J) & Perceiving (P).

Once our preference on each of the pairs is identified we get given a type e.g. ENFP, ISTJ etc. There are 16 type combinations in all that exhibit distinctive behaviours and attitudes within the four poles but also mush them up in some science-bit ways where the factors interact with and influence one another. Depending on your type, you will learn, interact, have strengths and weaknesses, romantic proclivities etc in distinct and predictable ways. In the workplace, INFPs will be creative, blue-sky dreamers while ESTJs will be like the marine corps, making sure orders get implemented and taking no prisoners along the way.

MBTi is a proprietary system, and in order to know your type, you should be assessed by a trained and licenced practitioner. This is done in two parts, a questionnaire with 93 “forced choice” questions and an interview during which the pairs are explained in detail and you make your own self-assessment of your type. Where the conclusion of the self-assessment is different from the results of the questionnaire, the self-assessment takes priority. So although you fill in a form, in practice you determine your own type based on an informed conversation with an expert.

This is because there is a level incidence of error in the form. About a quarter of the time one factor will be incorrect and occasionally two. I once had someone self-assess three poles differently form the form (typical of their type, they answered it based on what they thought they ought to be rather than what they were).

This runs into a problem. Because of its popularity, the expense of proper assessment and the availability of forms and data collection online, there are many free assessments you can do on the Internet, all of which contain at least the same possibility of error. But worse in my view, this leads to classification without self-assessment, and a kind of black-box, computer says this approach.

There are three things that I think MBTi is really good for. (By the way, one thing it’s not good for and is actually prohibited by the owners of the system, is screening for recruitment. There are other systems for this which are based on the Big Five system, like 16PF).

Introduction to psychological type

MBTi has its roots way back in the 1930s, and one of the goals of its founder was to give people a better way of understanding one another, during a period of great intolerance, prior to WWII. This remains one of its great strengths.

I work with two people who run a business together, one of whom has a strong preference for extroversion and the other for introversion. When a problem came up, the first would want to talk about what had happened in order to find solutions. As an Extrovert this made complete instinctive sense to them; so much so that they could only interpret someone else’s unwillingness to talk about the issue as a sign of indifference.

The second, being an Introvert, had a different preference when faced with an important problem, which was to spend time thinking about it. To them, wanting to talk about it was a distraction from the necessary process of inner reflection and likewise, a sign that the other person wasn’t really that concerned and just wanted to chat without having been bothered to actually think about it first.

So there were two problems: firstly they didn’t work successfully to address the problem as they had conflicting ways of doing this. And secondly, that they interpreted the way the other behaved as a sign that they didn’t care. And this second thing was having a damaging effect on the trust and regard which they had for another.

It all turned into a huge success story though, when they learned that this was a function of their different psychological types, rather than different motivations. They now know to consciously indulge one another with thinking time and talking time, with an awareness that they’re helping one another to collaborate.

The point isn’t even that MBTi is “right”, but that it opens the door to an understanding that people are wired differently, which can lead to ongoing and profound insight and learning.

Another example of misunderstandings within a management team highlights the Sensing and Intuition dichotomy. In a creative client company, four of the group were strongly Intuitive – forward looking, blue-sky thinkers constantly looking at possibilities. The fifth, the finance director, was a Sensing type who looked at practical solutions for the here and now.

When I asked the others to describe a painting (part of a group exercise I’ll explain further below), the Intuitive types talked about the meaning they saw in the picture and how it might connect to other things they saw and thought about in the world and their lives. The Sensing type instead wanted to talk about how big it was and how much it weighed. The key realisation for the others was that this was really how the Finance Director saw the world. He wasn’t be obtuse or difficult in this or previous discussions, but simply looked at things very differently from them.

Again, this provided them all with an explanation for previous disagreements and importantly the realisation that they were the result of different filters in the mind, rather than different motivations.

In fact, it prompted a realisation that diversity of type within a team is actually useful, when it’s understood, as it encourages a range of perspectives rather than a herd mentality, which can occur when there’s a predominance of one type.

Common language

MBTi provides simple terms of reference for colleagues to share when they look to understand psychological type. This can be used to understand differences between one another so that new behaviours can be adopted to get the most out of situations.

A good way to reinforce this is to bring all members together for a workshop once they’ve been individually assessed. Everyone is split into two groups for each of the pairs, depending on their preference. They then review and discuss a question that will highlight the differences very clearly, first on their own and then with the other group.

The task for the Thinking and Feeling dichotomy is to discuss what matters to them about work. The group with a Thinking preference will tend to emphasise practical and logical matters: pay, promotion, whether the work is fulfilling and challenging etc. The group with a Feeling preference are more likely to emphasise the value of the human relationships they have.

The difference can be very stark. The first time I held this workshop someone with a Feeling preference was accidentally put in the room for the Thinking preference. As ideas were discussed, she realised a mistake had been made – so much so that she literally ran out of the room, looking back at the others and exclaiming “I’m not one of you people!”

The workshop works well in highlighting differences, which in the MBTi system are not hierarchical. There are no “better” types, just different ones and what the workshop can do is highlight how these can complement as well as conflict with one another.

Role revision

Context has an important role in MBTi, and although there are no better or worse types, there are strengths and weaknesses that are highlighted in different roles. This is the same as a common sense understanding that some people are more suitable for certain roles, that there are natural salespeople, teachers etc.

MBTi can highlight less obvious issues, where someone seems suitable for a role that is not such a natural fit for them.

I’ve often noticed this when assessing project managers. On a normal day, this role calls for organisation, communication and clarity, to set and follow a plan and bring others along with you. This would suggest Judging as a complementary preference. Judging people have an orderly thought through approach, and will have neatly catalogued and colour coded files and desks.

But a lot of good project managers shine not when things are going well, but when they go wrong. The preference that works well here is not Judging, but Perceiving. Perceiving people are spontaneous and flexible, they often have a good system but can’t explain it to others and their desks are a mess.

So a Perceiving project manager works well and even thrives in a crisis, but they find the normal part of their job a bit of a stretch. They will have learned to “act against type” and develop judging skills but deep down that’s not them and they find it rather tiring.

Furthermore, that may well be acting against type on other preferences too (they may be introverted rather than extroverted). This is why some very good project managers say they want to do something else, which often comes as a bit of a surprise to their managers.

An understanding of type allows a more informed response to this and maybe changes to responsibilities that stop someone capable from leaving.

Of course, this hypothetical scenario depends on more things than just psychological type. But it’s example of how MBTi can best be used to open up complex questions, rather than to provide re-assuring but simple answers.

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