Chances are you’ve heard of and maybe taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality test. Unfortunately, what it tells you is pretty much pointless.
I remember when I was at Deloitte, my whole cohort took the MBTI test to find out more about our working preferences. The test consists of 93 questions around four contrasting values (e.g. introversion vs extroversion) and from the 16 resulting “personality types” claims to be able to predict your preferred working and social style. Apparently 89% of the Fortune 100 companies conduct it, and often use the results to determine not only training requirements but sometimes even job placements for the individuals.
Which is terrible news, because the results have consistently been shown to be meaningless.
“There’s just no evidence behind it,” says Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who’s written about the shortcomings of the Myers-Briggs previously. “The characteristics measured by the test have almost no predictive power on how happy you’ll be in a situation, how you’ll perform at your job, or how happy you’ll be in your marriage.”
This week I found out more about the limitations of the test from an interesting article on Vox which highlighted the video (above), as well as a thought piece on Jeffrey Baumgartner’s blog.
Once you watch the video, you’ll see how the test has no basis in real psychology, is widely discredited by research (which found that as many as 50 percent of people arrive at a different result the second time they take a test, even if it’s just five weeks later) and is more a tool for entertainment than a performance indicator.
Most damningly, even the people running company which administers the test show that they don’t have much trust in the results and don’t use it in their own research. One of their board members, Stanford psychologist Carl E. Thoresen admitted:
I used it practically, but I didn’t use it in any of my research. In part because it would be questioned by my academic colleagues. That was always a barrier.
The main issue I have with it is that I’ve seen many instances when this test has influenced who is involved in innovation within companies.
Since the test only offers blunt, “yes or no” style questions to force you onto one end of a spectrum or another, what this creates is a situation where people are put into boxes. And in my view the most dangerous of those is people are either an Introvert or an Extrovert.
Extroverts vs Introverts
Actual data tells psychologists that these traits do not have a bimodal distribution. Tracking a group of people’s interactions with others, for instance, shows that as Jung noted, there aren’t really pure extroverts and introverts, but mostly people who fall somewhere in between.
But in reality, once team leaders and individuals have a piece of evidence like an MBTI result which tells them “I’m an extrovert” or “I’m an introvert”, it can begin to reinforce how they think about themselves and other people.
This is a real issue in brainstorming sessions or other idea generation sessions, where often the people invited are the loudest ones with the highest energy, who appear to come up with the most ideas during the session. Often managers think extroverts are better at this, so they are the ones involved in the process, especially as some more quiet colleagues can feel overshadowed by their louder compatriots and not find the right moment to share their ideas.
In reality, you’re not likely to get any more or better ideas by having these people in the room at the expense of more quiet colleagues. But again, this also harks back to some of the myths of brainstorming people still believe and is for a future article.
What’s more effective is to ensure that whichever way your company gathers ideas and runs its innovation programmes, it enables everyone to feel like they can contribute, no matter their energy levels and preferred working style.
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Hi Neil. Thanks for the article. I’m curious why anyone would try and use the MBTI for a purposes outside its design. MBTI facilitators are expected to give workshops a number of guidelines along this point. If they don’t they are not doing their job. There is a lot of misunderstanding about the scope and application of MBTI.
it is based on a huge statistical sample. It is not a belief system to be universally applied. It is not designed to assess competence, creativity and skill. It should not be solely used as a basis for job selection and in fact is illegal to do so in some jurisdictions. There are other tools for assessing competence and creativity.
MBTI results change: If I change my responses – my results will change.
Teams are advised to respond in a single, consistent mindset (when life is at its best and I am relaxed ). We advise against using work, home or other contexts – because behaviour changes to fit the environment. It is intended to help us understand our, and others, preferred data gathering style, communication and decision making styles – to choose and apply the appropriate approach to communicate effectively with other people’s preferences.
Personality tends to (statistically) remain the same where we are mature and experienced in our understanding of ourselves. If this awareness grows or changes, we do statistically see a level of shift in typically one or two scales. Radical changes tend to occur where a life changing experience has significantly impacted our view of the world.
MBTI advises not to pigeon-hole people or ourselves based on preference. Preference does not indicate ability – although we do tend to develop the skills we enjoy doing. There are charismatic speakers who are introverts, there are excellent detail negotiators who are Intuitive.
The administration of the tool requires respondents to validate their responses and the type proposed against scenarios. This gives the ability to compare real life examples against responses and only then, if they agree, confirm their type. It is not a foolproof method – it puts the decision in the hands of the respondents, rather than a metric.
Where managers use this incorrectly, it is either a deficiency in their training or understanding of the purpose and use of any tool or framework. It does not suggest the tool itself is the weakness.
Brainstorming: Extroverts tend to speak up first or loudest – and yes, managers and teachers tend to reward that. This is the opposite intent of MBTI – it states that no type is better or worse than the other. I
A good understanding of a tool such as MBTI and skilled facilitation creates awareness and protocols that bring out all contributors to brainstorming.
Innovation is the marrying of ideas, new perspectives, techniques and tools. Innovation increases in open and diverse environments. Properly used, the MBTI and other tools create a language for the appreciation of differences. Innovation grows from that foundation.
The MBTI is not a be-all and end all. It is statistically accurate in helping people identify their preferred mode of operating in comparison with other tools. Thanks again for your insight and observation, I really enjoy your thoughts
Love this reply. It’s my thoughts exactly. I’m personally INTJ with strong ENTJ, INTP, and ISTJ leaning traits from personal skills I’ve learned and development I’ve done over the years. I rarely test out as INTJ but it’s the lowest common denominator, it matches my childhood leanings, and personal tendencies/approaches when I’m on my own or with people that are close to me.
All of us are capable of growing outside of our basic personalities when it is needed. People using the MBTI like an astrology reading isn’t the fault of the system itself; but the fault of the people misusing it.
The MBTI has more everyday practical use sussing out someone than many of the interview questions touted by numerous “Top 25 Interview Questions” found on Glassdoor.com et. al., such as — what is your favorite color and if you were an animal, which one would you be? Such questions have a zero correlation to the future performance and output of the one hired. If all there was to go on was the MBTI or replies to those questions, I’d rely on the former.
The MBTI is based on _Psychological Types_ by C. G. Jung, and he warned repeatedly against using his type classifications to pigeonhole people. He was analyzing how consciousness works, not how people fit into jobs or any of that crap.
The attempts to use personality typing in creating ideal departments or project teams have been debunked in the literature many times.
Despite all that, there are people selling typing systems to companies to this day. —–siiiigh——
You’d do better with the KAI
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