The conclusions to a struggle with personal assessments, specifically the MBTI

For most of the upcoming week I will be holed up in a mid-priced suburban extended stay hotel becoming certified in Myers-Briggs Personality (MBTI) testing and – as is typical of everything I do – I am feeling quite conflicted about this.

When I heard that I would be engaging in MBTI coaching as part of my work, my knee jerk reaction was something similar to what was written in this Huffington Post article. Like the author, I am highly skeptical of the MBTI. My high school administered these assessments almost yearly and I overhauled my personality assessment to suit whatever vulnerabilities were secretly ruling my day. Did I need to feel pretty and feminine? I’d dress myself up as a feeling extrovert.  Giving in to my sarcastic side? Judging introvert. Pretending to be a creative free spirit? Intuitive perceiver.  I’ve officially been them all.

Furthermore, like the author of this Harvard Business Review article, I am concerned about the harm – potential and realized – of the MBTI box. When I take the test as honestly as I can, I am a very strong INTJ.  It’s the rarest type for women and in my more vulnerable moments, this knowledge only reinforces (or somehow excuses in a very illogical complicated sort of way) how awkward I feel in gendered social spaces like bridal showers or “ladies nights.”   I know from personal experience that boxes can be very limiting when you apply them to yourself or others because I do it.  I do it just like everyone else does it all the time.

Finally, despite the fact that I seem to put a lot of stock in the power of categories and labels (I am a “J” after all), I would like to think I am more than my MBTI label. I have functioned successfully in dozens of diverse contexts that require me to learn how to act against any sort of type. The Myers Briggs folk like to equate their assessment results to handedness. Yeah, well, when necessary I can be ambidextrous.  Surgical instruments are right-handed. I was hit on the wrist with the back of a scalpel until I could cut suture, clamp vessels, and tie knots as quickly and accurately as the right handed residents. In life our preferences don’t necessarily mean anything; we learn what we have to learn.

That being said, refusing to engage with MBTI or writing it off as idiotic is not a viable option for me. Therefore, I need to find a way to come to terms with it.

I started by reaching out to my network.  I know therapists.  The therapists I know have mixed feelings on the MBTI.  Some discount it entirely for reasons similar to the ones I’ve listed above.  However, others talk about how it offers a vocabulary to those who have none for talking about their preferences or behavior.  The MBTI gives them a place to start in understanding themselves and their relationships with others. Furthermore, this place is positively framed. According to one therapist with whom I spoke, many people blame themselves for what they see as personality shortcomings.  MBTI takes away some of the perceptions of pathology, negativity, or less-ness so that the real work and understanding can begin.

Then I put on my researcher hat.  While observing a MBTI group coaching session, I put aside my own objections and observed what was happening around the room.  I saw some evidence of participants feeling validated.  Many expressed delight, stating that they felt heard and understood, some “for the first time.” I heard participants describing their workflows to each other, picking up terms and phrases from the MBTI assessment manual to communicate with one another more effectively.  I saw people with completely different workflow preferences working to negotiate an action plan that suited both of them (a negotiation mediated through words they had learned from the MBTI). I heard people say “Hey! I wonder if that’s why so-and-so does that…” as if light bulbs had just gone off in their head. I heard the beginnings of curiosity, that if properly coaxed, could lead to something a lot more interesting than MBTI.

Finally, I reached inside. Recently I took the conflict dynamics profile (CDP) as an observer of another leadership development program.  If you aren’t familiar, it’s probably exactly what you think it is. The assessment offers a series of statements regarding how you might act or interact in times of conflict and you provide a score for how frequently you think you engage in that specific behavior. The scores add up and provide you with a profile that tells you how often you use active-constructive responses (e.g. creating solutions, reaching out to resolve conflict, expressing your emotions honestly, taking the perspectives of others); passive-constructive responses (e.g. reflective thinking, delay responding when triggered, adapting to reality); active-destructive responses (e.g. demeaning others, retaliating, winning at all costs, displaying anger); and passive-destructive responses (e.g. avoiding, yielding, hiding emotions, self-criticism).

Overall, my results were good.  I am nothing if not active in any conflict. After years in and out of cognitive behavioral therapy (I keep going back because it works for me), I’ve got my active-constructive responses nailed firmly in place. However, I need to work on the passive-constructive responses, particularly delaying my response when triggered and adapting to reality when things don’t go my way.

This weekend, I had to drive my kids and my mother-in-law up to Pittsburgh for a bridal shower.  I’ve already mentioned that bridal showers aren’t really my scene; I have a lot of internal stuff going on as well as all the normal stuff that happens with in-laws, weddings, and really long drives. Things happened.  I got triggered.  And you know what happened after that?  Without even thinking about it, I grabbed on tight to my conflict dynamics profile.  Even as I was boiling away in some crazy blend of self-loathing and resentment, a part of me was excited by a perceived growth opportunity.  I forced myself to walk away – just to try it.  I forced myself to take my time and trust that nothing would be changed irrevocably by delaying my response for as long as I needed to calm down and figure out my next move.  I forced myself to stop focusing on what happened and start focusing on how to negotiate happiness with the current reality (adapting).  I came up with a plan, executed it, and ultimately ended up in a better place than I would have if things had gone as originally planned.  It wasn’t pretty, nor was it automatic, but it was still perfect.  And I got it done because the stupid conflict dynamics profile gave me some vocabulary and a framework for a personal growth plan…something simple enough that I could grab onto it in the moment, without a therapist or coach present, under pressure, and in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

My conclusion:

  1. Personal assessments are a starting place, not an end point, for self awareness and reflective practice.  I have a pretty solid foundation of skills and strategies for self awareness and reflective practice. The MBTI is not for me, because I don’t need  a starting place for understanding myself and my relationships with others. I’m more of an intermediate player. Obvious statement: Not everyone has been as lucky or privileged as I have been. Not everyone has had my past experiences. Quite a few adults can actually use a MBTI. The key is to make sure that people understand them as a starting place and then carry through with developing the curiosity about others that MBTIs trigger.
  2. Some personal assessments will be more useful to an individual than others. An obvious point of course, but a useful reminder to leadership coaches who pass these things out like they are cotton candy.  Maybe there is a place for personalization. Maybe there is a place for sitting down with participants first, finding out where they are in their personal development and goals, and making a tailored plan. Maybe that will make those personal assessments even more effective.
  3. Personal assessments without proper pre- and post-assessment counseling can be a waste of time (at the least) or harmful (at worst). I stand by this statement as I stand by all my knee jerk reactions I listed at the beginning of this post.  I was not all the way wrong.
  4. The best way for me to push forward my own agenda of points 1 through 3 is to get started. Damn it, Laura, stop dragging your feet, take the training, and use it to help you build some kick ass sessions.

Time to pack.

Featured Image: Andy Beales,

3 Comments Add yours

  1. CogDog says:

    So good to follow your journey Doctor Dr. The pitfall is falling into a trap that these are diagnostic, that our entire personality can be put in a box (Hi, I am INTP).

    I always loathed those tests. I cannot seem to answer those questions without thinking how the answer will be interpreted, what are the mechanics of the test game? In my first job in the community colleges these were rolled out regularly at HR events, colored parachutes, et al.

    Yet the one time when it was positive was when the faculty development office we ran it as a retreat activity. The value was not the results we all got, but the discussion led by Karen, who was an ID intern at the time, guided us through what the relationships and dynamics meant as a group. And she was the first one to explain things like introversion/extroversion as not definitions, but directions where our energies ebbed and flowed.

    And speaking of diagnostics, I think one of those 3rd grade standardized tests suggested I would end up in a clerical position. How ridiculous! Me sitting at a desk typing into a…. oh crap.


  2. gardnercampbell says:

    First, great post. Thank you.

    Second, as a kind of postscript or footnote to the Good Dr. Dog, I’ll say that the only MBTI experience I found truly helpful was the one arranged for an entire group during the Frye Leadership Seminar. Again, context was key, and the way the results were “revealed” was masterful. It all centered on groups that stood around the perimeter of the room, all responding to a shared prompt, and all working on that prompt, as it turned out, in ways that did track certain kinds of personality traits. In retrospect, I think the Big Five would have been even better, but even the junk science of MBTI gave us a chance, in groups and as a whole, to find vocabularies for leadership. And to realize we were not crazy. Yes, we eventually concluded, to a person, that we were not crazy. Indeed, and instead, valuable. And our bond grew even stronger as a result.


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