"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Myers-Briggs - Party Trick Or Serious Management Tool?

A few years ago, a supervisor in a Washington K Street firm got wind of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), was impressed by its reputation for correctly identifying personality types, and decided to administer the test to all in her department.  Most of the younger staff were excited to take the test.  In a world of social media and networking, they were anxious to see with whom they would be paired.

Image result for images logo myers briggs test

The boss was a hard-driving, Type-A workaholic; a multi-tasker who was proud of her intelligence, discipline, and drive.  She had no doubt where she fit on the MBTI scale – it would be an off-the-charts ESTJ (extrovert, focused on the concrete, logical, and organized). Like most people with this profile, she suffered fools badly, and all of her employees knew that once she found out who was in the softer, fluffier, more emotive categories, she would fire them. 

Many critics have observed that the test is suspect because it has never had any kind of serious scientific or academic review; because it smacks of pop psychology and adolescent curiosity; and because its results can and are used against employees.  The boss said that the reason why she wanted to administer the test was because it would help all in her department get along better.  A colleague having trouble writing a logical paragraph was not intellectually short but simply not of the personality or character type that favored intellectual rigor and discipline.

Through Myers-Briggs, all staff would come to know her other, equally valued attributes, like thinking intuitively or feeling compassion for others. The supervisor said that in the development business (international aid organizations whose mission was to alleviate poverty) both writing tight, logical winning proposals and feeling compassion were important.  The goal the company's work and of Myers-Briggs was to form a closely-knit, respectful team.

Of course this was all fol-de-rol  and everybody knew it.  The boss had no patience with mission-driven, compassionate objectives or the people who subscribed to them.  Writing winning proposals, paying attention to every dollar swing on financial statements, and ruling all personnel teams with discipline and an unwavering and controlled organization were the only keys to success.

An acquaintance who worked at the firm was convinced that the test was hokum and that the boss had her own self-interested goals in mind; and he decided to take the test so that the results would describe him exactly opposite to what he was really like. This manipulation of the test was not hard to do at all, he said, and it wouldn't take much to figure out which answers would produce which final Type.

He was an extrovert, very logical and organized, and not very different from the boss except for the fact that he was not as driven about work, success, or money. He answered the questions so that he would be an introvert, very compassionate, a good listener, and very open to others.

A workshop was organized for the purpose of team-building based on Myers-Briggs; and after the results of the individual tests were reported out, the staff went to respective corners – INTJ’s in one ESFJ’s in another, and so on.  Because of his test results, he was put in the most introverted, sensitive group. At first everyone in his group tried to puzzle out how this self-confident, hard-driving, organized man ended up with them.  Some of them suspected that something was up, and when he told them what he had done, they enjoyed the joke.

As he expected, during her public remarks when she commented on everyone’s placement, the boss said that one could clearly see that he was introverted.  “He always has his door shut”, she said, totally misinterpreting the practice which he used to avoid interruption.  He had remarkable and unwavering concentration and always used it to get work done quickly and efficiently so he could leave early and still be applauded for his productivity.

It had nothing to do with introversion. He was the loudest, most insistent, and outspoken of any staff member at meetings and in private.  After work he always went out drinking with his staff and colleagues.  Yet, the boss, suspending her disbelief, disregarding her own insights and perceptions, and adopting Myers-Briggs as received wisdom, found ways to put him in the Introvert category.  She also somehow twisted and turned his willingness to work on proposals as a sign of a committed and caring professional who knew that a winning proposal would equal help and succor for the poor.  It was ridiculous.

Also as expected, her remarks about other underlings who did not share her Type, although couched in respectful language, were transparently critical.  “Tiffany”, she said, ‘Is one of our most valuable employees because she brings charm and humor to the team, and is able to be the intermediary between contentious disputes among us ESTJ’s”.  Here she paused for audience laughs.  “Thank you, Tiffany”.

Now in reality Tiffany was slow and unproductive but who had family connections to the CEO; and all managers were told to tolerate her.

Although the protocol for Myers-Briggs suggests that managers are not to use the results as a personnel grading tool, and there is supposed to be a certain degree of confidentiality guaranteed, none of us believed it for a minute.The boss was already sketching out new personnel configurations based on the test, all of which marginalized the soft, emotive crowd.

A week after the test my acquaintance asked her if she really had learned anything new from the results.  “You must have known that Tiffany was really less than competent", he offered politely. No, she replied, she had learned new things – well, perhaps not new things, but an expanded understanding of staff behavior. Then, turning her attention to my friend, said, “I must say I underestimated you.  I didn’t know that you had such deep feelings and sensitivity for others”.

Myers-Briggs is big business, writes Lillian Cunningham in the Washington Post (12.16.12).
More than 10,000 companies, 2,500 colleges and universities and 200 government agencies in the United States use the test. From the State Department to McKinsey & Co., it’s a rite of passage. It’s estimated that 50 million people have taken the Myers-Briggs personality test since the Educational Testing Service first added the research to its portfolio in 1962.
It has become the gold standard of psychological assessments, used in businesses, government agencies and educational institutions. Along the way, it has spawned a multimillion-dollar business around its simple concept that everyone fits one of 16 personality types.
Here’s how the business mod­­el works: It costs $15 to $40 for an individual to take a Myers-Briggs assessment, depending on the depth of the test and how fast a customer wants the results interpreted. Supplemental guides and tool kits quickly make the cost grow. Moreover, the only way to take the test is through a certified administrator. And the only way to become a certified administrator is to pay $1,700 for a four-day training class.
There’s a lot of money involved, and its success despite questions about few serious peer reviews or scientific proof of performance, is a tribute to marketing and consumer demand.

Since after a while everyone in any office knows everyone else, their preferences, abilities, deficiencies, and potential, there is no point in being told what you already know. Most co-workers figure out how to deal with their toxic colleagues.

Most damning of all is that one week after the hoopla surrounding the Myers-Briggs experience in the office, it was totally forgotten. No one changed their attitude or behavior because of it.  Tiffany was ignored.   After a month, it was as though Myers-Briggs had never existed at all.

Many people swear by the test, but it may well be that they are the ones with weak social skills. They are the ones who never notice obvious changes in dress, hairstyle, perfume, shoes; let alone more subtle changes in demeanor.  They never have a clue when someone is having a bad day.  They are simply deaf and dumb to other people.  They do their job well because they have figured out a way of staying out of the way of office politics where sensitivity to currents, tremors, and irregularities in behavior are the currency; but they are social fire plugs.

The nature of a good manager is knowing the staff, encouraging those who can benefit from it; criticize those who need direction; applaud real achievement, and frown and inefficiency. If they cannot do this, they rely on Myers-Briggs.  Too bad for their staff.


  1. Ouch you seemed really hurt. I feel sorry for you.

    1. Oh come off it, douchebag. He's an ENTJ, he doesn't care.

  2. You took a mbti test and lied, then got a wrong result. You are a extroverted and a tested introvert, because you lied, that shows that it works, dude.

    Ofcourse everyone can cheat and answer the questions wrong, a 3 yo could do this. The MBTI works, if you are honest to yourself and answer the questions correctly. Your boss is a dumbass, as if everyone would tell the truth, typical incompetent management.

    Maybe take the 10 inch stick out of your ass and learn before you criticize, there are enough ignorant people out there.

    1. It "works" because it's based on self-reporting. Oh, you believe in mercy over justice? Obviously you care a lot about people. You prefer quiet time alone to partying all night? You must be an introvert. Smoosh enough of these rewordings into a few unmeasurable categories and you have the equivalent of the Harry Potter houses. (Those online Sorting Hat quizzes work, too.)

  3. You take a very hypocritical position here . . .

    On one hand, you clearly describe your boss and yourself using the same adjectives the MBTI would use . . . and on the other hand, you dislike the test for doing the same thing.

    Edit this piece and REMOVE everything you wrote about MBTI . . . just look at how you described people. What you will see there is MBTI (or DISC).

    From what I gather, you're using emotion rather than logic . . . and the mere fact that you reject quantifying personality profiles coupled with your disdain for people who are not sensitive to other's feelings seems to indicate that you are . . . well, one of the profiles that would typically behave in that manner. ;)

    1. That, or he can accurately assess individual behavior patterns without trying to shoehorn everyone into one of 16 distinct categories. And what's this last sentence, other than a passive-aggressive attempt to smirk at someone else's transparency? I'd call it: "You did X and Y; therefore you must belong to the Hogwarts House typified by X and Y. Hahaha, applaud me."

  4. You are such a dumb ass.

  5. As a License Clinical Psychotherapist, I use the MBTI very often with my clients. It does exactly what it was designed to do. If you understand the 16 archetypes, having that information about a patient is very helpful in doing more effective clinical work with them more efficiently. Could I just “get to know them” and learn the same things in time. Abosutley. However at $100 an hour, the more quickly I can come to some fundamental understandings, the more cost effective treatment will be for the client. This is what the MBTI was designed to do. It's particularly useful in couple's counseling and family counseling working out interpersonal dynamics. Do other people use it poorly. YES. Don't criticize a hammer for being a crappy tool because you see people trying to remove bolts with it and failing.

    1. That only works if you allow for the MBTI's fallacies and failings, rather than insisting it's the be-all end-all for "getting to know someone accurately." Would you say "This client is black, so she's sensitive about her hair?" I'm guessing no. But you'd say, "This person is ISFP, so she's artistically inclined and tends to think convergently." And what if you get it wrong? Suddenly you're making unfalsifiable assumptions with a person who's counting on you for authoritative help. The usefulness of MBTI stops when it causes us to make false assumptions about people...and, unfortunately, those assumptions don't get tested unless we QUESTION THE MBTI. Which is precisely what nobody likes to do because it feels so reassuringly "true."


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