It’s a rite of passage: the off-site training session designed to arm a team of managers with new language to decode their office personalities. Depending on the program, they’ll return as “plants” and “shapers” or “critical partners” and “background champions.” But the most mighty personality test of them all is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)—at one point 89 Fortune 100 companies were said to use it—and everyone wants to be an ENTJ. After all, these extroverted, intuitive, thinking, judging managers make excellent C-suite material.
The problem is, organizational psychologists increasingly won’t go near the test, even if clients request it.
“Clients ask me about it, and I say I don’t offer that,” says Craig Dowden, an executive coach who holds a PhD in psychology from Carleton University. He cites reliability issues and a lack of scientific credibility as key reasons he doesn’t trust the psychometric test. “I’ll provide my rationale and suggest other instruments or activities.”
The consensus from psychologists is that the test—invented more than 50 years ago by mother-daughter duo Katharine Briggs and Isabel Myers—is too rigid and fails to provide context or leave room for people to change. It’s based on the writings of Carl Jung and categorizes people into one of 16 different four-letter types using a series of agree-or-disagree scenarios, such as, “you tend to be unbiased even if it might endanger your good relations with people” or “failing to complete your task on time makes you uncomfortable.” That a manager may be extroverted at work but a hermit at home isn’t a consideration—nor the idea that he can easily game his test to earn a more desirable result.
The first time Adam Grant, a professor of organizational psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, took the test, he was an INTJ, an extreme introvert. When he took the test again, he was an extrovert: “The guy who follows his heart and throws caution to the wind,” he wrote in Psychology Today. “When it comes to accuracy, if you put a horoscope on one end and a heart monitor on the other, the MBTI falls about halfway in between.”
Given the test’s unreliability, psychologists say the MBTI should be used as a conversation starter, not to influence big managerial decisions. (To be fair, CPP Inc., the exclusive publisher of the Myers-Briggs test, advises against using it to make decisions about hiring, firing and promoting.) But for people who feel the MBTI has captured their essence, they often can’t be swayed.
In fact, employees can take results to heart and begin acting to type or defining themselves by a self-limiting label, warns Brian Little, a professor emeritus of psychology at Carleton University and current research fellow at Cambridge University. For managers, the test might cement pre-existing biases, making them less likely to give employees so-called “stretch assignments” that force staff to work outside their comfort zones.
Most of all, tests like MBTI can exacerbate the problems companies want to resolve in the first place. They can become “a distraction from real issues by focusing on the hypothetical,” wrote consultant Ben Dattner in the Harvard Business Review in 2014. Ultimately, he says, the real sources of conflict in an organization are complex and, often, political; the most effective way to address them are by observing how staff work together.
As for Dowden, he encourages managers to cultivate a sense of genuine curiosity about their employees by talking with them. “It’s something we don’t get a whole lot of practice in,” he says. While you might not manage to easily classify your staff, you’ll do one better—you’ll actually get to know them.
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