The three sceptics sit, as sceptics tend to do, together. And as Bernard Cooke, a consultant at occupational psychology firm OPP, goes around the room asking each member of the group what they expect to get out of the day, the sceptics cross their arms, lean back in their chairs, and prepare to share their doubts about the value of business psychology and psychometrics.
“I’m very cynical about the idea of identifying personality types and preferences,” says the first. “Why do we need to do it? I worry that it might cause us to pigeon-hole people.”
His co-conspirators add their concerns. The group of 15 Personnel Today journalists had completed a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) questionnaire a fortnight previously, and Cooke is visiting our office to share the results, both from a personal and team perspective.
Cooke listens patiently to our hopes and fears, before explaining the scope and limitations of MBTI as a management and teambuilding tool. From a team perspective, MBTI should help us:
understand more about preferred working styles and identify how to develop these to be more effective.
increase awareness of the team’s working style and thus improve communication, problem-solving and decision-making, encourage appreciation of diversity and resolve conflict.
understand why people react differently to change and how to support them though the process.
help people understand how to communicate effectively with different people and develop influencing and persuading skills.
MBTI is different to many psychometric tools, believes Cooke, in that all differences are described positively – there is no desirable type, and no measurement of individuals against percentiles. “MBTI is never used for selection – just development,” he says.
What’s your preference?
MBTI is based on people’s preferences. “Preferences, like whether we are right- or left-handed, are innate,” argues Cooke. “We can adapt if we have to, but we gravitate towards our hard-wired preferences.”
The MBTI preferences are: Extraversion/Introversion Sensing/iNtuition Thinking/Feeling and Judgement/Perception.
By undertaking the questionnaire, and following up with a self-assessment exercise, individuals will reveal a “best-fit” type, represented by a four-letter construct. Mine, for example, is ESTP (Extrovert, Sensing, Thinking, Perceiving), and I am a “care-free problem-solver – adaptable, tolerant and conservative, at my best with real things that can be taken apart”.
But why is this useful to know? “Well, to paraphrase Jung: ‘To grow, you have to know where you are planted’,” says Cooke. “The spirit of MBTI is not to put people in boxes – not to say: ‘Don’t talk to John, he’s introverted’. We would always guard against the superficial use of typing.”
After completing the original questionnaire, the next step is self-assessment. This phase is used to fine-tune the types indicated by the original questionnaire. However, some feel it encourages them to respond according to social conditioning, rather than their natural preferences. One participant argues: “My results reflect what I have to do at work. In the office, I have to act in a certain way at home, I am completely different.”
Around half of the team finds it quite hard to identify their preferences, while the others believe they can see themselves very clearly in terms of the various dimensions. The greatest clarity tends to come from the self-assessments on Thinking/Feeling. Cooke reveals that this is the only MBTI measure where men and women typically differ. Some 70% of men are Ts, and 70% of women are Fs, he says.
This is also the preference that can cause the most tension, especially when it comes to giving and receiving feedback. Ts are mostly concerned with outcomes and competence, and will happily accept praise only at the end of a project, whereas Fs want to do things in the right way, and appreciate encouragement along the way.
Another notable trend is the effect that parenthood seems to have on the Judging/Perceiving preference, especially on women. All the mums on the team are staunch Js – claiming to prefer structure over spontaneity.
Ideally, an OPP psychologist would follow up an MBTI session with one-to-one consultations to pinpoint people’s true types, but there is no time today for such in-depth analysis. For many of the team, much of the value of the day actually comes from the debate it has raised. “Actually discussing these types together has given us a common language and a foundation for better understanding ourselves, our colleagues and our team dynamic,” says one.
Armed with our personal preferences, how do we interact as a team? Cooke helps us identify our team type by calculating the most common results against each dimension.
The Personnel Today editorial team type is ENFJ, characterised as “responsive and responsible, feeling real concern for what others think and with regard for people’s feelings – sociable, popular and sympathetic”.
Happily, this means we are nicely in tune with our readers, as people in HR tend towards N (iNtuition) and F (Feeling), according to Cooke – himself a former HR professional.
The team displays a great spread right across the MBTI preferences, which is to our advantage. “A diverse group may make better decisions,” says Cooke.
“But while type-alike groups may feel they get along better, the quality of their decision-making may be suspect.”
So what did we learn about ourselves and our colleagues? How, if at all, will we change our behaviours? “I can see the usefulness of this, especially for managers,” says one convert. “Knowing their own type and the types of their staff could help them to be more effective – to understand how to get the best out of their team.”
Others remain undecided: “I think there’s a danger that some managers could label people as having certain personality types even when they might be able to ‘flex’ easily or with the help of training,” says a wary participant.
A one-off MBTI session simply isn’t enough to delve into the real preferences and personalities of a team, but with some fine tuning and one-on-one time with a consultant, you may just succeed in finding the real people behind the job.
What is MBTI?
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is based on the theories of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, and was developed during 50 years of research and development by a mother and daughter team of non-psychologists, Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers.
It is, according to occupational psychology firm OPP, the most widely used personality questionnaire worldwide – more than 3.5 million are completed every year. A whole industry of authors and consultants thrives on providing information, training and occupational analysis around its principles.
MBTI types and their meanings
MBTI preferences are not to be taken literally. For example: Extrovert does not mean talkative or loud Introvert does not mean shy or inhibited Feeling does not mean emotional iNtuition does not suggest a sixth sense and Judging does not mean judgemental.
The first MBTI dichotomy is E-I: Extroversion/Introversion.
People who prefer Extroversion tend to focus on the outer world of people and things. They direct their energy and attention outwards and enjoy interacting with people and taking action.
Individuals who prefer Introversion like to focus on their own inner world of ideas and experiences. They direct their energy and attention inwards and enjoy reflecting on their thoughts and memories.
The second dichotomy is S-N: Sensing/iNtuition.
People who prefer Sensing like to take in information that is real and tangible. They are observant about detail and are especially tuned in to practical realities.
Individuals who prefer iNtuition like to take in information by seeing the ‘big picture’, by focusing on the relationships and connections between facts.
The third dichotomy is T-F: Thinking/Feeling.
Individuals who prefer to use Thinking like to look at the logical consequences of choices and actions. They examine pros and cons objectively and aim to find common standards and principles.
Those who prefer to use Feeling like to empathise and consider what is important to them and others involved. Their goal is to create harmony and treat each person as a unique individual.
The final dichotomy is J-P: Judging/Perceiving.
People who prefer Judging like to live in a planned, orderly way. They want to make decisions, reach closure, and move on. Sticking to a schedule is important and they like to get things done.
People who prefer Perceiving like to live in a flexible, spontaneous way. They seek to experience life, rather than control it. They stay open to last-minute options and adapt to the moment.