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The Problem(s) With Myers-Briggs in Business

September 28, 2017

 

Imagine going to a corporate team-building event where everyone in your office was sorted and evaluated based on the results of taking one of those time-wasting Buzzfeed quizzes, like “Which Disney Character Would You Be Friends With?” or “Which Muppet Are You?” It might make for an interesting afternoon, or at least a weird story to tell the next time you’re at a party, but it probably wouldn’t leave you feeling like you had gained some crucial self-insight to help you function better at work or in your home life.

 

Clicking through an online quiz might be a decent way to procrastinate, but in the back of our minds, we all know that Buzzfeed doesn’t employ a lab of white-coated psychologists to study, for instance, the deep-seated implications of preferring Cartoon Network to Nickelodeon. It may be fun, but we wouldn’t call it science.

 

This brings us to the Myers-Briggs. You’ve probably heard of Myers-Briggs, or as it’s more formally known, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator survey, or MBTI. Your boss has probably heard of it, too. According to Business Insider, as of 2014, it was used by at least 89 of the Fortune 100 companies.

 

The Myers-Briggs purports to divide people into 16 “types,” by placing you on four different continuums: are you more extroverted or more introverted (E or I)? More likely to intuit subtleties or focus on sensing objective information (N or S)? Driven more by thinking or by feeling (T or F)? Do you prefer to come to solid conclusions or continue to keep your options open (J or P)?

 

Each possible four-letter combination is associated with an archetype, and each archetype is said to approach the world in a certain way, with certain skills, shortcomings, wants, and needs. For instance, a type more adept at reading people might be better suited to a job with a lot of face-to-face communication.

 

There’s just one problem with this.

 

Actually, a couple of problems.

 

Okay, more than a couple.

 

Developed in the 1940’s by a mystery novelist and a magazine writer, neither of whom had any formal psychological training, the MBTI is based on the 1923 English translation of Carl Jung’s book Psychological Types—which itself was based on Jung’s own personal observations, anecdotes, and guesses; hardly rigorous, by today’s standards. Even so, Jung considered the MBTI to be an oversimplification of his ideas, noting that each and every individual is "an exception to the rule."

 

While the MBTI may frequently be used by successful businesses, we should be careful not to attribute correlation to causation. If 89 of the Fortune 100 companies also use the same brand of water cooler or coffee bean, do we assume that coffee brand is helping, or simply that it’s broadly popular?

 

In “Goodbye to Myers Briggs, the Fad That Wouldn’t Die,” Adam Grant quotes management researchers William Gardener and Mark Martinko, who, after a comprehensive study of the MBTI, noted that, “Few consistent relationships between type and managerial effectiveness have been found.” Interestingly, this study was published in 1996; the information has been available for a while.

 

Criticizing the Myers Briggs has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence over the past couple of years, in pieces like Vox.com’s video “Why the Myers Briggs test is totally meaningless,” an episode of the myth-debunking series Adam Ruins Everything, and Vice.com’s bluntly titled “The Myers-Briggs Personality Test is Bullshit.”

 

As some have pointed out, retaking the test just a few months later can yield dramatically different results, suggesting the measured traits are not so immutable after all.

 

In addition, it's been argued that measuring people on these four particular axes creates a number of false dichotomies. A person can avidly gather both facts and interpretations of those facts, weighing them a roughly equal amount. A person could also not feel very driven by either type of analysis. A person could selectively, in some areas of their life, seek hard data, while taking a more emotional, subjective approach when it comes to other issues. And all three people could find themselves placed at the midpoint between S and N, without much commonality to their experiences.

 

And as comprehensive as that four-letter profile can sound, even two people who consistently test as Extroverted, iNtuitive, Feeling, and Judging might behave in wildly different ways depending on their personal values—for instance, a group-oriented ENFJ might use their assertiveness and people-reading to advocate for fairness and harmony in a workplace, while a more individually-driven ENFJ might seek to influence a team in order to advance their own ideas.

 

Certainly, it can feel good to read about your “type,” and if you’ve never stopped to consider whether you’re more extroverted or introverted, you might even feel like you’ve gained some additional understanding of yourself. On the other hand, the same could be said for asking a couple of ‘90’s kids to debate which Hogwarts house they belong in. Maybe the real magic of your average personality test is just giving people an excuse to open up and describe themselves. As team-building exercises go, it beats trust falls.

 

Still, the next time your boss tries to institute a Myers-Briggs training module, maybe you should suggest a Buzzfeed quiz instead. It’s free, roughly as scientific, and anyway, at least you could finally confirm who is your office’s Cookie Monster…

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