Why the MBTI test is useless in innovation programmes

Why the MBTI test is useless in innovation programmes

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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Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as the world's #5 Innovation blogger in 2016, I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love.
By | 2016-11-04T10:38:12+00:00 April 8th, 2016|Leadership|5 Comments
  • Pierre Nunns

    Hi Neil. Thanks for the article.
    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.

    MBTI is a statistically based instrument, a framework for communication and understanding – it is based on observed responses of a huge sample. It is not a belief system to be universally applied. It specifically advises it does not designed 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. Facilitators need to advise this. There are other tools for assessing competence and creativity. MBTI does not pretend to do this.

    MBTI results change: If I change my responses – the results will change.
    This is why teams are advised to respond 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 – and 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 our preferences. 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 thinking

    MBTI advises not to pigeon-hole people or ourselves based on preference. A 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. Do not confuse skill with preference.

    The administration of the tool requires respondents to validate their responses and the type proposed against scenarios. This gives teams the ability to compare real life examples against their 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. Extroverts tend to speak up first or loudest – and yes, managers and teachers tend to reward that. This is quite the opposite intent of MBTI – which states that no type contributes better or worse than the other. It is a lack of understanding of the benefits each type brings. A good understanding of a tool such as MBTI and skilled facilitation creates awareness and protocols that bring out all contributors to brainstorming.

    Innovation by definition is the marrying of ideas, techniques and tools in different ways. Innovation is greater in open and diverse environments. Properly used, the MBTI and other tools create a language for the appreciation and efficacy of differences. Innovation grows from that, not the measurement of personality preference

    The MBTI is not a be-all and end all. It is statistically very accurate in helping people identify their preferred mode of operating in comparison with other tools. A tool misused or applied to the wrong purpose will not do the job well.

    Thanks again for your insight and observation

    • HK

      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.

  • TheASCDoctor

    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.

  • Freeman

    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——

  • Jennifer Jarratt

    You’d do better with the KAI