The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator: Fit for what purpose?

Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers – arguably the most famous double act in psychometrics -would have had little idea that the personality questionnaire they developed more than 60 years ago would still be going strong today.

Based on Carl Jung’s theories on psychological archetypes, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), as the tool is now known, is widely used in areas such as group dynamics, leadership training and personal development. Anecdotal evidenceindicates it is also used for recruitment even though it is inappropriate for this purpose.

Find your type

For those who haven’t come across it, the MBTI comprises about 100 questions, each with two possible logically opposed answers. Using this instrument and a consultation session with a qualified MBTI assessor, subjects find their personality type.

The questions include: “Would you rather be considered a practical person or an ingenious person?”, and: “Does following a schedule appeal to you or cramp you?”

The results will then be used to plot where a subject stands on four dimensions: extraversion and introversion sensing and intuition feeling and thinking and judgement and perception. This gives rise to the 16 four-letter descriptions – such as ISTJ – that describe the subject’s traits and character. According to MBTI and Jungian theory, these are innate.

Critics of the test say this procedure attempts to put people in a box or that it is an inaccurate way of measuring personality. Also, it is not unknown for subjects’ MBTI types to change every time they take the questionnaire.

John Hackston, lead learning consultant at OPP, the sole European MBTI distributor, says extensive research proves the questionnaire is at least 75% accurate.

But quibbles about percentages of validity miss the whole point,according to Garry Platt, an L&D specialist at training company Woodland Grange.

He says the purpose of the test is not to give a definitive prescription of someone’s personality, but to come up with some pointers from which to start a debate.

“Like all psychometric tests, it leaves something to be desired, but the results must be viewed critically. If a participant disagrees with a finding then this should be discussed, and through this process, the results are refined” says Platt.

For Platt, MBTI practitioners who take the initial results as gospel are misusing the tool. He seesthe primary findings assimply a sounding board for further analysis of a person’s traits. “The strength of the tool is in how people use it,” he says.

At executive coaching company Inspiring Potential, co-founder Marielena Sabatier also says that the MBTI test is simply a “starting point in the process of helping people understand themselves and others”.

She says the MBTI is particularly helpful in resolving conflict in teams where different personality styles may be at the root of a breakdown in communications.”If an individual can be shown they have a certain style and that others operate differently, they are better equipped to flex their style to accommodate their peers,” she says.

Understand traits

Sabatier also thinks L&D professionals can use MBTI in leadership development and coaching to help senior managers understand their traits and the way they must adjust their approach when dealing with different people.

But, says Graham O’Connell, head of organisational learning and standards at the National School of Government – a business school serving the public sector -it is likely that many of today’s potential leaders will have already completed a MBTI questionnaire at some time or another,so popular and widespread is the tool.

If this is the case, he suggests L&D heads try a different tool, for instance those aimed at teams, such as Belbin and TMS (Team Management Systems) or Marshall Sashkin’s instrument for visionary leaders. “MBTI is extremely valid, but if someone has already done the test before why not try another instrument? People are bound to get more out of looking at themselves through a different lens,” he says.

Case study: OPP

The days of filling in a psychometric test using a pencil may be numbered.

This is because, according to John Hackston (pictured), a lead learning consultant at OPP, an increasing number of practitioners are now using the internet to deliver the questionnaire.

Whereas the form was traditionally paper-based and the onus was on the practitioner to analyse the results, OPP’s web-based service uses purpose-built software to calculate the findings and deliver the results.

“In general, the use of paper and pencil is now seen as old-fashioned and the take-up of electronic reports has accelerated dramatically since we introduced them three years ago,” said Hackston.

While OPP charges for the internet service, its streamlined delivery should also bring savings to practitioners, who currently pay about £80 for 10 paper questionnaires.

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