Not My Type

Management would be pretty simple, if there were no people involved.

You can never underestimate how challenging it is to lead a team, whether in a business or a nonprofit. As a manager you want to provide a sense of direction. You also want to set an example – of hard work, of focus, of sensitivity, of steadiness.

But dealing with people is more art than science. When do you hold staff members strictly accountable? When do you cut them some slack? How do you incorporate their ideas? What is the right blend of direction and autonomy? When do you encourage them to innovate, and when do you rein them in? How do you productively defuse tension between staff? And how can you have across-the-board standards while also recognizing that everyone is different and needs individualized supervision?

I once supervised a very harmonious group – but one staff member needed every-day consultations, another expected a once-a-week scheduled check-in, and the third simply wanted to be left alone, other than to consult with particular projects as they arose. All were productive and felt that they had the right amount of my time. Had I tried to institute a system where I interacted the same way with everyone, it would have fallen apart quickly. That’s because, well, people are all different.

Managing people is not rocket science. It’s harder. There are no formulas and right answers that work for everyone. Moreover, life is situational: a staff member on a sunny day after a vacation is a different person on a day when a family member is ill or a tree falls on the house. Managing people is hard, it’s important, and it’s utterly imperfect.

But rather than accepting the inherent complexities of humans and their interactions, we tend to look for simple answers. Which explains our embrace of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

The chances are good that you’ve taken Myers-Briggs somewhere along the line. It’s essentially a personality test: you fill out a few dozen questions about your tendencies and preferences in various situations, and the analyzed answers render you one of 16 “types.” (Part of the attraction is that all 16 types are described in very positive ways.) Some businesses use Myers-Briggs as part of the hiring process, and many more use it after the new employee is on board, in order to better understand the most effective way to use that staff member or to construct a team. The affection for Myers-Briggs has spread deeply into the governmental and nonprofit worlds. I have worked in two organizations that had all staff members take Myers-Briggs, and in both cases the test was a focus of extended group meetings and discussions. And its use reaches beyond the workplace: for example, my son’s college asked all incoming students to take the test.

Many people swear by Myers-Briggs. “It ‘got’ me perfectly!” is a common response. Some of the most thoughtful businesses base their approach to HR management on Myers-Briggs.

The problem is: there’s no scientific validity to Myers-Briggs.

None.

A recent story by Lillian Cunningham in the Washington Post  recounts how the test evolved from the efforts of Katherine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Myers, to apply Carl Jung’s theories of personality types to the people around them. (In a version told in Annie Murphy Paul’s The Cult of Personality Testing , the driving force behind the creation of Myers-Briggs was the desire of Briggs and Myers to gain a better understanding of what made Isabel’s husband tick. They loved him, but he was so… different!) The two women essentially pulled the instrument together around the kitchen table. And their idea evolved into a colossus: a test taken by over 50 million people in 24 languages.

Myers-Briggs has an almost religious following. In fact, according to Brian Little, a psychology professor quoted in Cunningham’s article, adherents think that “to raise questions about [Myers-Briggs’s] reliability and validity is like commenting on the tastiness of communion wine. Or how good a yarmulke is at protecting your head. It’s simply the wrong question, from their perspective.”

Myers-Briggs has not been disproven by researchers, because, well, no one dares study it. Even referencing it in an academic paper gives it more credit than serious researchers feel it deserves. But academics are playing it both ways. As Cunningham notes, “[T]he psychological community has been reticent to speak up too vocally against it. The fact is, many psychology professors do lucrative side work as organizational consultants. And as taboo as it is to praise Myers-Briggs in U.S. academia, it’s equally taboo to disparage it in corporate America.”

I’m guessing that some of you (including my son, who simply refused to take the test when asked to by his college) are nodding in vigorous agreement. I assume that many more of you are upset. You think highly of Myers-Briggs, you’ve seen good outcomes from the use of the test, and you feel that, well, it works.

The test may be harmless, and in all likelihood is even useful in helping people sort through interpersonal issues. It’s important to understand the different ways that people react to various situations. If the test helps people realize that not all folks around them think and react and communicate in identical ways, then that’s not a bad thing.

But let’s not give Myers-Briggs more credit than it deserves. Let’s ratchet down the deep devotion. Let’s imbibe a sip of skepticism. And let’s remember that good management takes ongoing hard work, because human beings are incalculably complex, and their intellect, emotions, and ways of interacting simply can’t be reduced into 16 neat little boxes.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2013. All rights reserved.

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5 Comments. Leave new

  • Meredith Funston
    January 15, 2013 11:13 am

    Amen, Al! How interesting to hear how Myers Briggs was invented….very funny! I wonder how things went with the difficult husband/subject?! Happy to say that in my 19 year management and HR career at Neiman Marcus, we never succumbed to that popular methodology of classifying our employees by placing their mental and emotional aptitude in quadrants. I recall that we did once offer the Seven Habits of Highly Successful People course and One Minute Manager training among others, to our managers to help them become more effective as leaders and managers. And we deviated from traditional annual performance evaluation forms, opting for more of an ongoing coaching process centered on individuals’ goals, achievements and professional development. Great company, NM!

    But you have to love the kitchen table success stories! Like the young women who created new nail polish colors at their kitchen table with white-out as one of the “ingredients” and went on to create the popular nail polish and cosmetic company, Hard Candy. And maybe there was divine creativity passed through the white-out, because that was first made in the kitchen of Bette Nesmith who took a job as a secretary in the1950’s and to correct her typing mistakes, she invented white-out (Liquid Paper). (Trivia: She was also the mom of drummer, Michael Nesmith of the Monkees…hey, hey!).

    I’m sure there are millions more but I think, of these three kitchen table inventions, white-out wins!

    Reply
  • Great article, Al. I’ve always rejected tests like this because everyone is different and I don’t believe in pigeon-holing anyone. However, it does serve the purpose of helping people to realize that there are different personality types, and it may be easier than taking every individual as someone unique and, therefore, has unique needs. It takes a lot of effort NOT to categorize and judge people.

    Reply
  • Written like a true ENTJ, Al. Next you are going to tell us you don’t believe in Intelligent Design!

    Reply
  • M-B is certainly not the answer to all questions of personality or people management. But it is a positive way of learning about behavioral differences and seeing those differences in a positive light. It helped me to understand my spouse’s persistent reluctance to plan as a preference for spontaneity rather than a character flaw, and opened my eyes to the benefits of diversity on a team. I would be a poorer manager without knowledge of M-B.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much for everyone’s comments. This has been one of the more robustly read and discussed entries in the short history of my blog.

      As Linda and Tim point out, Myers-Briggs can indeed serve a purpose. I acknowledge that the process of using Myers-Briggs helps raise issues that can be instructive in the workplace, and, skeptic though I am, I’ll admit that I’ve found the discussions spun from Myers-Briggs to be useful at times in management. But what I question is the deep reverence with which the test is held in some quarters — even while the test is held in utter disregard by academics.

      Let’s take it for what it is — a sometimes useful and interesting tool — but let’s not give it unfounded weight. And for goodness’ sake, let’s not hire or pigeon-hole people based on the results.

      Reply

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