The MBTI is corporate astrology

As a psychometrician, one of my biggest annoyances is when tools that have very little validity get major kudos.

The MBTI is one of the worst.

Don’t get me wrong. If people want to use the MBTI to have a discussion about each other’s preferences, or out of curiosity about themselves, or even to find a date (it happens!), that’s all well and good. In the same way as people would use astrology to help guide them in life, it’s a matter of choice and preference.

But when I see the MBTI used in situations that imply that it has some sort of validity — that it predicts something meaningful in the workplace, and hence that meaningful decisions should be guided by it — well, that’s going too far.

Let me explain this a bit more, but first its worth spending a little time understanding what exactly I am talking about here.

What is the MBTI?

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI for short, is a closed questionnaire which purports to elucidate psychological preferences in how individuals perceive their environment and make decisions. It was developed by Katherine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, a mother-daughter combo, during the Second World War.

The basis for the MBTI can be found to some extent in the work of Carl Jung on psychological types in the early 20th century. However, there are notable differences between the typology of the MBTI and that proposed by Jung. In addition, Myers and Briggs developed their tool using closed questioning, which was very different from the principles of projective measurement proposed by Jung and his ilk.

The MBTI has four dichotomies on which responses are scaled. One of these is attitudinal (Extroversion vs Introversion), two are functional (Sense vs iNtuition, Thinking vs Feeling). The final dichotomy is probably the biggest departure from Jung. It purports that individuals have a preference in which of the two functional dichotomies they use in how they relate to the outside world. Judgers prefer to use Thoughts or Feeling, Perceivers prefer to use Sense or Intuition. The results of the MBTI are presented on a scale of each of these four dichotomies, and depending on which end of each scale a person falls, a four letter ‘type’ is generated. For example, I came out as an ENFP when I first took this instrument many years ago.

Due in no small part to its popularity in the corporate sector, the MBTI has grown enormously in use since its development. In fact, as with many patented personality inventory instruments, an entire industry has grown up around it. You can take it, you can be trained in administering it, you can be an MBTI consultant at various levels of competency. That’s all great. I can understand its popularity — it’s simple, symmetrical, and resonates with people that like to think of things in ‘categories’. However, despite much attention focused on how to use the instrument ethically, I still see widespread misuse of the MBTI in organizations.

How should the MBTI be used?

In fact, let me focus on how the MBTI should NOT be used. As I mentioned earlier, like astrology, people can use the MBTI to make their own choices in life, personal or professional, that’s up to them. However, it is the responsibility of an organization to ensure that the MBTI is never used or associated with (or even comes close to being associated with) decisions about people, their abilities or their fit.

Why? Well, first, there’s a reason I keep referring to star signs. Like astrology, there is scant evidence that the MBTI has any predictive value at all, and there is a strong sense that it appeals to those who like to box people in in order to make life easier to comprehend.

Don’t just take it from me. Renowned personality psychologists have mostly rounded on MBTI as any sort of predictive instrument. Robert Hogan probably said it best in his 2007 book Personality and the Fate of Organizations: “Most personality psychologists regard the MBTI as little more than an elaborate Chinese fortune cookie …”.

Second, its unreliable. Many studies have shown that as many as half those who were retested within as short a time span as 5 weeks had a different result. Why does this happen? My bet is that it has something to do with the fact that its questionable whether some of the dichotomies in the instrument actually exist. And in any case, its not very hard to work out what each item in the instrument is measuring, and its all too tempting to play around. At least it is for me!

So when it comes to MBTI, a word to the wise:

  • Keep it out of your recruiting, promotion or other HR decision processes. Keep it out of your organization period. It won’t help, and it could get you in trouble.
  • Keep it out of your people analytics. Seriously, what’s the point? If you start spreading around that high performers are 4% more likely to be ISTJs, some people will take that seriously. Then what do you do when half of them retest and the fortune cookie says ‘only joking!’
  • Think carefully when you put it in a training program. Training is associated with the development of skills. MBTI has nothing to do with skills. If you want to train people to work well with each other, train them to have proper, honest conversations that don’t involve four letter acronyms.

My opinion is that MBTI has no role in the workplace, and its use should be a decision for individuals, not organizations. Its a fairly black and white issue for me. Maybe that’s because I’m a Sagittarian.

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