Getting the best from MBTI

Often when working with clients if I suggest that an understanding of personality type might help them improve a relationship or work more effectively at a team, they claim - oh but we've done Myers Briggs already.
'Great,' I say, 'so what did it tell you about your team?'
'Er, well it was four letters. Now let me see…I think S came into it, but I can't remember what that stands for…..oh, yes and I'm an extrovert.'

The Myers Briggs Type Indicator is one of the most widely used personality questionnaires. Based upon the Personality Type theory of the Psychologist C.G. Jung, it was developed into a useable instrument by the mother and daughter team of Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs-Myers over 50 years ago.
It has proved remarkably robust and versatile. MBTI can be used for many applications - career choice, personal development, team effectiveness etc. Another attraction is that all 16 types are described in a positive language that respects individual differences - all have their particular strengths and contributions and all have their development needs - a principle underlined by the title of Isabel Myer's book, 'Gifts Differing'.
Although distribution of the questionnaires is restricted to those who are qualified to use it, training for MBTI (in the UK) can be undertaken separately from the qualifications in Psychometric testing recognised by the British Psychological Society. There is no suggestion here that the training is less than thorough, simply that there are many users of MBTI who have only this one instrument in their toolbox.
All of these factors make MBTI one of the most accessible and easy to use personality questionnaires. Hence it has become both one of the most widely used, and also one of the most superficially used, personality questionnaires.

Most people are interested in themselves, so the use of a personality questionnaire, especially one whose results are so uncontroversial, is an easy win on a training course or a team event. But when the session consists of delivering scores and a brief explanation of Type, there is little that will be recollected, let alone used, a few weeks hence.
Yet Myers Briggs has so much more to offer. At its best it can contribute to greater insight into self and others, more tolerance and appreciation of individual differences, improved communication and relationships and more informed career choices.

So how can the instrument be used to best effect? There are four keys to good usage - apart from the general guidelines on ethical test usage (see July Newsletter)

However well researched and reliable a psychometric instrument, there is always room for error. This is particularly true of a personality instrument. There are many reasons why a person may answer the questionnaire in ways that vary from their true preferences. The most obvious one of course, is in recruitment, where a candidate may be tempted to give the answers they believe the employer wants. But even on an unconscious level, it is easy to be influenced by recent events, the prevailing company culture, family expectations or gender stereotypes.
Therefore, one element in good usage of MBTI is a process of verification. Rather than taking the questionnaire scores as the definitive type, they provide a starting point for exploration. The facilitator can give examples from real life to illustrate the different preferences. Where the person's own perception of their type differs from their score, the facilitator can help them explore the reasons for this. The ultimate arbiter, though, is the individual. Sometimes it takes some time to arrive at a firm conclusion about the best-fit type and the issue is not resolved for everyone within the scope of a single session.

Conceptually, the four dimensions that are used in MBTI are quite easy to grasp. For the notion of type to become useful, though, the concept needs to be related to the day-to-day reality.
Understanding self and understanding others go hand in hand. Imagine a white shape on a white background. Its outline is difficult to see. Put the same shape on a dark background, and immediately it becomes clearer. Understanding self involves understanding how we may be different from others, and understanding others involves understanding ways in which they are different from us.
Therefore, an MBTI feedback session should go further than a summary of an individual's own type to develop an understanding of the four dimensions of preference. Usually this produces some real insights into communication or relationship issues, as well as helping the individual to become aware of how their type preferences play out in daily life.

Although I use MBTI in individual Executive coaching and in Career Counselling, it is particularly effective to learn about it in a group. Exercises are engaging and help to build understanding of Type. When done in an intact team, they are at the same time building understanding of each other.
For example, I briefly show a picture and ask participants to describe it (dividing the group into those with a preference for Sensing and those with a preference for Intuition) Participants are really struck by how differently each group views the world, what each pays attention to, and even how they represent their description. (neat list versus random associations, pictures and arrows)

If there is no particular application in mind, then MBTI will almost inevitable produce an 'interesting …..but so what?' reaction. Translating new insights into action is the key to gaining real value from the instrument, whether it be choosing a career, improving team working or developing communication strategies. Understanding Type needs to go beyond understanding difference to develop practical strategies for working with difference.

Published on HBC Web-site 11/2000

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