MBTI: Useful or Just Interesting?


Intuition by Sandy McMullen

I’m fortunate to work with a very smart team. One of them has had a lot of experience and training with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), and led a session at a recent offsite.  (If you’re not familiar with MBTI, there’s a good description on Wikipedia, but essentially a series of questions are used to diagnose a preference for Introversion or Extroversion, Intuition or Sensing, Thinking or Feeling, and Judging or Perception.  This test gives each individual one of 16 types, such as ENTJ, made up of all combinations of the 4 pairs of opposites.)  It’s all very clever and fascinating, and remarkably popular, but I’m constantly struck by its complexity and the question: What can you actually do with it?

You may not be aware that a score on one of the four axes simply indicates the clarity of preference, not ability.  It also is not a score of the strength of the preference (I interpret this as: not how much you prefer introversion for example, but how reliable the prediction is likely to be accurate that you are actually an introvert).  On the T-F dichotomy the test indicates (most times) that I have a slight preference for F.  Having low clarity can be due to cultural, social, family, or other reasons.  My colleague has explained that if someone scores an even split, e.g. 12 for T, 12 for F, then the tie is broken in the opposite direction of the governing societal bias.  In America this means ties are broken in the direction of I, N, F or P.  So given that MBTI doesn’t predict preference or ability, just because you score I, doesn’t mean you can’t either be a brilliant presenter (once of my B-school’s favorite lecturers fell into this camp) and/or enjoying being in a crowd.  Wikipedia puts it bluntly “Someone reporting a high score for extraversion over introversion cannot be correctly described as more extraverted: they simply have a clear preference.” Hence my question, what should I actually do with this?

I’ve gone through MBTI testing and workshops about 5 times in the last 11 years.  I’ve never seen anyone do anything useful with it.  I’ve have seen it create fear and doubt in the participants, wondering what it will be actually used for.  The workshops have typically been lively affairs, as people enjoy typecasting their colleagues and chuckle nervously as their intimate inner workings are potentially revealed.  There are labels applied to each of the 16 types such as Author (INFJ) or Field Marshall (ENTJ)  that people latch onto (as they are much easier to remember, and create a potential story).  The presenter typically throws up a grid of the 16 types with the team’s names in each of the boxes and people not sagely and ruminate on the potential implications.  By the next day, every participant has forgotten at least their colleagues’ types, and perhaps even their own, can’t remember the difference between everything except I and E, and there are no ongoing action items.  Is this symptomatic of a weakness with how MBTI is taught or the underlying methodology or both?

Circling back to the key question: if it doesn’t indicate strength of preference or ability what do you do with it?   Our current team has too many ENTJ’s and ENTP’s and only 1 person with a dominant S (our only female consultant).  I’m sure this means we have too many white upper-middle class males on the team, but I didn’t need a MBTI test to tell me we lack diversity.  We can’t use the MBTI for hiring, so we need another tool to decide what we are looking for to fill in these blind spots.  Perhaps I should ask the Meebo team (at Failcon they spoke about their explicit policy to hire those not like them.)  As I mentioned in that post, my experience at RSM with highly diverse teams was mixed – I’m not sure how you get the optimal amount of dissonance to drive creativity and fill blind spots yet still play nice together.

I was intrigued by the idea that in times of stress MBTI could be used to predict what behavior one would revert too.  If you knew a colleague’s type and their likely behavior under stress you could potentially develop the capability to detect they were stressed and a method for addressing it.  That does mean you have to know them pretty well, but its certainly possible.  I’ve actually found the best resource for dealing for stressful situations is outlined Crucial Conversations.  In this brilliant book, the authors describe how, when people get stressed, the amygdala section of the brain (the primitive “fight or flight” instinct governor) kicks in resulting in emotional and dangerous communication in which people invariably say things in ways they ultimately regret, typically escalating rather than resolving situations.  We’ve all experienced this in our professional and personal lives.  Some of us let it all out, and some run away or shut down.  Neither of these approaches is very effective.  Crucial Conversations provides some practical tools for detecting these situations as they occur, and then helping whoever is no-longer in a safe place (yourself or the other party) get back there by searching for and stating common objectives and using these to guide the conversation back to a productive place.  I’ve found it to be tremendously helpful both at work and home, but it does take practice.

The most useful workshop I ever went to on personality typing was led by a sales guy.   We all love to typecast salespeople as ADD, and maybe that characteristic (plus being a sales guy) resulted in his promotion of a simple and effective set of tools.   After you meet someone in a sales situation, you have to rapidly decide how best to communicate with them.  The best way to do this is to meet them on their side of the differences.  In other words, be more like them, and you’ll get along better.  The well-known aspects of this include searching for areas of commonality (a sporting interest, kids, people you’ve known, locations you’ve lived in) and echoing physical position.  You’ve probably met someone who likes to talk before getting down to business and others who are the opposite.  In this workshop, we learnt how to read those first responses to opening questions (expansive vs. short) to gauge when to start talking shop.  My takeaway is that in the vast majority of interactions you can’t whip out the MBTI test, you’ve got to make a snap assessment based on a few indicators and go with that.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that people typically tend to prefer to either work collaboratively: thinking aloud, in public and on a whiteboard or projector, or to work privately and use meetings for review cycles.  This can be hard to read, but when someone is quiet or getting uncomfortable in a group session its usually an indicator of the latter.  Likewise understanding whether people prefer numbers and factual evidence to anecdotes and stories is hard to read, but typically comes from reading the non-verbal communication – are they nodding heads or frowning, arms crossed or even not paying attention.  Of course there could be some other personal or work crisis weighing on their mind, but at least these are indicators worth investigating directly.

Apologies to the legions of MBTI fans out there, but my conclusion is that MBTI is great for amateur Jungians and psychiatrists, but too complex and inconclusive for the rest of us.  It may have some nuggets in it, and with this much time invested, I’d love to know what they are.  What would be great is tools for:

  • Understanding rapidly the key dimensions that affect how we should interact and work with others,
  • How to deal with situations when emotions get out of control (like Crucial Conversations)
  • Indicating true strength of preference and ability (to help put people in the right jobs)

I’d really like to hear from anyone who has experience with tools that attempt to measure strength of preference and strength of ability,  or that can be used to help in difficult conversations.


2 thoughts on “MBTI: Useful or Just Interesting?

  1. Rich
    Interesting blog. I’ve also been through MBTI many time, but I have to say I am more of a fan than you, but only within context. The most use I’ve found of MBTI is in understanding myself, and my impact on others. I view it as more of an introspective tool than anything else (BTW, I am off the chart E, suprised, not:)…

    In addition, like any tool, it’s what you do with it. So when i got the most value was when it was in context of a broader T-Group setting, which strips away all of the task and focuses ONLY on group dynamics. I’ve been lucky enough to do 2 t-groups in my adult career, in 92 and again in 98. I’d love to do a 3rd. They are illuminating and exhausting. In my first, I was a single guy, in my second engaged, and I’d love to see how it differs now that I am a husband and father. In addition, I’ve come a long way career wise, and I like to think understand myself a helluva a lot better than I ever did.

    So if you ever get a chance, dust off the Johari quadrant and head to a T-Group…!

    BTW, will check out crucial conver, sounds interesting…

    BBTW, the other great study of human behaviour is at the poker table, talk about a real lab!

    • Ken,

      Thanks, great comments. Now I’m wondering if (as a borderline I/E) whether I’m not in the sweet spot for getting the benefit out of MBTI hence explaining my dissatisfaction.

      I’ve never done the T-group – that sounds fascinating. Let me know what you think of Crucial Conversations…


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