Did you break up with MBTI?

When writing MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) in the headline of an article, there is a good chance to lose at least half of the potential reading audience. But let me write – for the other half and for the curious individuals who are not fond of the tool – about how and why I got back to using MBTI in my work. 

In a well-read article about a decade ago (https://adamgrant.substack.com/p/mbti-if-you-want-me-back-you-need), Wharton professor Adam Grant wrote a letter to MBTI. He is describing her as an exotic beauty he fell in love with on the first day they met. He tells how much they were in love when they really opened up to each other, but also how they grew apart later (especially after he met her family). Labeled often as ‘astrology for nerds’ and ‘junk science’, MBTI is not among the most popular kids in class. And rightly so, as there is no need to fall in love with any tool in particular, adoring it like there is no equals. 

I was trained in the use of MBTI like 20 years ago, and did not only join the basic training, but also the advanced Step-II qualification, and learned about the use of MBTI in conflict resolution. Even longer ago, I was trained as a physicist. I have a healthy dose of skepticism about tools that are described as ‘scientific’, while in reality only the validation of the tool was done according to a scientific method (the content left unchecked but wildly believed in). And I share the concerns Adam Grant shares in his article: the theories of Jung are quite outdated, MBTI is a wildly modified version of the creative, yet solid ideas of Jung, the dimension of Thinking or Feeling suggests that these two aspects are the extremes on a scale, while in reality they describe a different thing. And I can go on. Yes, the tool is flawed. Like any tool is.

A tool, not reality

As long as you keep in mind MBTI is a tool and not ‘the reality of a person’ I am happy to use it. Indeed, a 64-item questionnaire is unlikely to grasp all the complexity of human behaviour. You cannot summarise the human mind with 8 simple letters (16 personality types). And using MBTI like that – a classifier of personality types – in my view has no value. Any trained MBTI practitioner knows that a tool that describes human preferences should not be used for recruitment purposes: bookkeepers do not need to score high on the Sensing side of the scale, Feeling-preferences do not mean you cannot take rational decisions, and a Judging preference does not mean you can only survive in a highly structured and organised office environment. As Adam said in his article: “Giving me a thinking-feeling score is not like assessing whether I’m right-handed or left-handed. It’s more like evaluating whether I prefer soccer or Swiss cheese.”

In spite of that, I think using MBTI as a language to talk about human differences is very useful. Let me explain why I have 3 reasons to use MBTI in leadership development programs and conflict management sessions.

  1. Classifying people in boxes is not ok. This leads to wrong assumptions about others, stereotyping, and if taken too far, to exclusion. There is no value in calculating the percentage of extroverts in an organisation or in a leadership pipeline. But when we make people talk to each other about their differences, we no longer talk about boxes. We talk about the specific aspects that make us different. And I’d argue that that contributes to more inclusive workplaces, where we discuss rather than disqualify, and where we empathise, rather than take offence. 

Making work environments more inclusive is done by stimulating dialogue at every level in the organisation. It’s every day dialogues – rather than corporate initiatives and processes – that make us value human differences more. When two people are in conflict and not speak about it in high-quality dialogue, both of them are right and can live in their own bubble being right for the rest of their life (leaving the conflict firmly in place). When the same people take on a curious mindset and start learning about the perspective of the other person (refraining from judgment) they progress. The conflict is openly on the table, studied from all sides and open to resolution. 

MBTI is a language to talk about human differences. And just like Spanish is not better than Korean, MBTI is not better than Big Five. It’s just a different language to talk about the same thing: how we are different.

2. The richness of MBTI is severely downplayed when only working with the 16 possible letter combinations. Especially when we assume you can either be introvert or extrovert, rather than acknowledging that we can have different strengths and preferences and that these vary according the context we are in. But MBTI is so much richer than just 8 letters. 

MBTI Step II describes – with 5 facets – how our preference for Thinking or Feeling can play out. This is the moment in my education that I really started to appreciate MBTI: I understood that although my overall preference is for Feeling (taking into account the consequences of your decisions on others), two of the facets underpinning this show a strong Thinking preference for me, in spite of an overall Feeling preference. 

Even when you do not believe that each aspect of personality can be broken down into exactly 5 facets (I don’t), the richness and nuance of this breakdown is very helpful in describing in which situations I use which preference and how. A trained and methodological scientist, I am happy to accept that although this breakdown in 5 facets might not be scientifically ok, it helps me discuss my behaviour with people who are different from me.

MBTI is rich: it’s a colourful language built for nuance rather than polarisation.

3. MBTI uses a quite straightforward and simple language (although admittedly the 8 words describing the 8 main preferences do not cover the content well). This language is powerful when it can be used to describe real-life work situations. For example in conflict resolution sessions, I use the MBTI language in 2 exercises that lead to more understanding of different perspectives.

“The Reversed Conflict” is an exercise where we argue back in time and find the moment we started to look differently at reality. It takes today’s conflict as it is: we just have a disagreement about how to look at the same reality and that is ok. Conflict – although unwanted – is not bad: we can learn. So let us go back in time to the first uneasy moments when we felt something was wrong. Here MBTI provides a colourful language; did you prefer to speak openly about our disagreements or did you prefer to deal with it in private? Did we disagree about the big picture and the principles, or were there factual differences that made us derail? This exercise often brings people way closer, and makes them understand how their personal preferences play up in their daily interactions at work.

“Task vs. Relationship” is a reflective exercise to find out which aspects of conflict is causing bad feelings. Two people in conflict often find it hard to describe what exactly is the nature of their disagreement (“It’s just not fair.”. Task vs. Relationship is close to the Thinking-Feeling dichotomy: do we have a principled disagreement where we both follow our own (but different) logic? Or are the relational aspects more at the foreground (“You never listen to me anyway.”) The MBTI language – and especially the facets underpinning the T vs. F scale – help us better describe to each other why we disagree, and what is causing us tbeing upset.

Is MBTI the holy grail helping us to get out of conflict? Is it better than any other tool? Definitely not. And I think that can be said about each tool. 

But rather than taking a tool, discrediting it publicly and then bringing forward your own preferred tool (Big Five or whichever alternative you embrace), we can be more accepting of each other’s preferences. What all these tools have in common is that their validity can be questioned (and should be questioned), that they are used as personality indicators (rather than what they are: a set of in-the-moment responses to behavioural questions) and they put people in boxes. All of them. But what they have in common as well is that they make us talk about our differences, and that to me is key.

You keep your tool. I’ll keep mine. But whichever tool we use, let’s make our human interaction richer and our understanding of differences more profound. I think we can do that. 

I recently was a guest in the Myers-Briggs Company podcast: listen to the full episode here (https://www.themyersbriggs.com/en-US/Connect-With-Us/Blog/2023/August/Working-Across-Cultures). In the podcast, I speak more about the use of MBTI in the context of intercultural training and Diversity & Inclusion efforts. 

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