A couple of weeks ago, I met my former advisor at a campus coffee shop. It had been a while since we had caught up and the conversation went as these things usually do. He updated me on his research plans and I told him all about my new job. Things were going well and with minimal angst until I brought up the upcoming MBTI training:
Me: They’re sending me to learn how to give the Myers Briggs.
Me: I need your reassurance that i’m not going to get dumber by getting certified in MBTI testing.
Him: You’re the one with the doctorate in research and evaluation.
Me: What if they brainwash me?
Him: You’ll probably be okay.
Him: Just don’t get brainwashed.
My transition from institutional research to leadership development has not been gentle. I had to hit the ground running, reading everything from Forbes to Harvard Business Review while also developing reading lists, proposing conferences, and creating sessions. Three months in, and I’m still trying to make sense of the field of leadership development. I’m not a fan of what I what I think I see: a hodgepodge of organizational development, adult education, and social/developmental psychology interpreted through a cloudy and unchallenged business lens and served up with a side of fluff.
For me the struggle against business-lite is real, and I don’t think that I am alone. For as many business executives and executive coaches swarming around glossy and well-marketed personal assessments, there are just as many academic researchers who challenge their efficacy and use.
As I wrote in a previous blog post, I have not had the best experience with the MBTI. However, getting certified and teaching with it is a fairly non-negotiable part of my job. I was not asked to get certified; I was told. Therefore, I needed to be okay with this experience. I focused on the fact that my experience with the MBTI had been as an uneducated consumer. I recognized that I really didn’t know anything about the MBTI. Finally, I shut up, opened my mind, and drove up to a Courtyard Marriot in Northern Virginia to figure out what I was missing.
I’m only going to say this once, so listen up.
I was not wrong about my previous experiences. Furthermore, given that many people have MBTI experiences similar to mine, the concerns I listed in my previous post are valid. However, I was wrong about the MBTI.
I have taken the MBTI several times, usually in a classroom setting without initial coaching (e.g. how to take the test), contextualization (e.g. specific purpose of the test), or follow-up counseling (e.g. how to interpret and use the results). In other words, it was given to me inappropriately. In fact, the Myers Briggs Foundation would say it was given to me unethically. While anyone with a master’s degree in counseling or similar can order and distribute tests and reports, relatively few people are certified or have received specific training in how to interpret and use the results. In other words, lots of people give these tests and plenty of them are doing it wrong.
I am certified in MBTI coaching and facilitation and I have a few things to say.
MBTI has a theoretical framework. MBTI is based on Carl Jung‘s theory of personality type. Jung wrote that individuals are born with innate preferences for how they focus their energy (introversion or extroversion); take in information (sensing or intuition); and make decisions (thinking or feeling). How individuals express these preferences will be shaped over time through culture, parental expectations, life experiences, etc.
After Jung published his work in the 1920s his American contemporary, Katherine Cook Briggs began to adapt it into an inventory of questions that could be used to help people identify their preferences. Among other things, she and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, added an additional axis to Jung’s theory related to how individuals choose to orient themselves to the world (judging or perceiving).
MBTI has changed over the years. The questions are constantly tested and refined. If you took an MBTI in the early 1990s and found it to have a gender bias, you are not wrong. It was revised in 1998. Recent evidence suggests it is there is no longer a gender bias present.
MBTI has some advantages over other personal assessments. Results given through Myers Briggs are positively framed. There are no wrong answers. Every type has its own special strengths and weaknesses. The inventory provides insight into healthy normal human behavior – not pathology. The positive nature of the Myers Briggs works for marriage counseling. It works for team building. It works for personal growth. As an academic I like the Big Five, which is more commonly used in academic research than the MBTI. Go ahead and call me an introverted, curious, antagonistic (but conscientious) neurotic, because I can take it. However, imagine sitting with your work group and being told you are an antagonistic neurotic. Like I said, it works for me, but it doesn’t work for most…even other antagonistic neurotics. The positive nature of the MBTI just works better in team based scenarios.
MBTI appears to be reliable and valid. Trained skeptic that I am, I looked at sample sizes, populations, reliability, validity. The number of types in any population (e.g. introverts and extroverts) is relatively stable over gender, race, ethnicity, country, language, age, employment status, marital status, socioeconomic status, etc. The Myers Briggs Foundation (and independent evaluators) routinely implement reliability (split test and test-retest) testing. They routinely check validity through reliability and correlational studies (other tests, career choices, factor analysis, etc.). There are ridiculous amounts of data. I am comfortable saying that MBTI appears to be reliable and valid FOR THE TYPE OF ASSESSMENT THAT IT IS.
So, let’s get to that.
MBTI is a type tool, not a trait tool. It indicates that you have a preference for introversion or extroversion; concrete versus abstract thinking; logical/systemic vs instance-centric decisions; early-bird versus just-in-time organization. It does not measure “how much” of something you have. It does not measure how good you are at something. It doesn’t even measure what you usually do in the world. It is about your innate preference. When your assessment returns with something like “you have a very clear preference for introversion” it means just that: You are clear on your preference. You know that you prefer introversion. It does not mean you are a “strong introvert.”
MBTI is a self-report inventory. Mindset is critical. In my previous post, I mentioned that I used to change my answers to suit whatever person I wanted to be the day I took the test. Yes. A high school student can game the test, which is why it is essential to provide appropriate instructions when you facilitate a Myers Briggs assessment. You are supposed to take it as if you were in a perfect world and could always do things the way you want to do them. When you look at a word pair, choose the one that seems easiest, more natural. The idea is to cast off your roles and others’ expectations. When you don’t do that, you aren’t really getting to your innate preferences. If you don’t want to get to your innate preferences, you won’t. The individual taking the test has to be fully cooperative, have full buy-in, have some knowledge of themselves or this thing won’t work.
Appropriate post-assessment counseling is essential. Which brings me to my point: sometimes it is hard to cast off cultural, community, familial, or even personal expectations. Sometimes we don’t know the difference between them and our innate preferences. Conflicts such as these (between innate preferences and cultural expectations) will often show up in Myers Briggs results. Someone who knows how to interpret the results can see the conflict. What a wonderful opportunity for self discovery.
So let’s talk about post-assessment counseling.
This is a facilitated self assessment. The client decides their type. The test does not label you. The Myers Briggs Foundation is clear on this. When facilitating the MBTI, a certified coach must go through the following steps, in this order:
- Have the client take the test but not see the score.
- Describe the dichotomies (I vs. E; S vs. N; T vs. F; J vs. P) to the client and have them hypothesize their type. This is an interactive activity, lots of questions and counseling (first hypothesis)
- Review the assessment results with the client (Second hypothesis)
- If the client took Form Q (includes information on personality facets), review these results with the client(third hypothesis).
- Given all these data points, the client decides their own type.
Facilitation can be oriented in different ways. The type of things your coach does with these results will depend on the context in which the inventory was given. There are dozens of contexts; I’ll discuss three.
Team building. Sometimes teams will take the MBTI together and a coach will be hired to facilitate team building around the results. In these cases, the focus may be on the team personality type rather than personal types. Discussions and facilitated activities might focus on how the team tends to process information or make decisions; how other teams or supervisors might perceive them; how certain members might dominate or be dominated through in certain group norms or behaviors; how to appreciate or communicate with other team members.
Relationship dynamics. Some of the therapists I know will ask couples to take the MBTI so that they might begin to develop a language for talking to each other and understanding their differences. I completely get this now, but I’ll need to go into a little more detail to prove it. When you receive your four letter type (mine is ‘INTJ,’ you can google it if you like), you also receive a dominant, auxiliary, tertiary, and infantile traits. Dominant is exactly what it sounds like. Auxiliary supports the dominant. Tertiary and infantile are much less well developed, although in times of extreme stress the infant will often jump into the driver seat. You know those times when you say “I have no idea what happened to me – that was so uncharacteristic…it’s like I went crazy”? Your infant was in the driver seat. I can explain it to anyone who wants the detail, but suffice to say, there is a formula. When my husband and I reviewed each other’s Myers Briggs identified stress reactions, there was such a huge A-HA! moment. We can now identify each other’s craziness as a stress reaction rather than straight up craziness. This can only be good for our relationship.
Personal growth. As I said in my last post, Myers Briggs is a starting point, not an end point. The questions that emerged for me as I studied these traits were deep and uncomfortable. I questioned the source of my empathy and emotional intelligence. I questioned my choice in practicing and then leaving medicine. I questioned my relationship with my parents, my husband, my friends. I sweated through every shirt I took with me to Northern Virginia. I had a tension headache every day by 12 noon. I worked hard this week. However, it was worth it. I came away with a better understanding of what has happened up to this point in my life. I have some goals for my own leadership development. I validated the best ways for me to guard against burnout when I am required to do things against type at work. I forgave my parents, my partners, and even myself a little. I let some things go and I celebrated others. I got some closure and some confidence. I am and will always be more than my MBTI, but this silly little facilitated self assessment challenged me – it asked the hard questions and I worked just as hard to answer them. It was good. Really really good.
Bottom line: Maybe I’m brainwashed, but I’m also stronger and smarter than I was a week ago. I highly recommend taking the Myers Briggs, but only if you are going to do it right. Get a purpose. Get a coach. Get ready to do the work.
This post’s featured image is my own.