Hidden figures

Posted 26 Apr 2017 by Katy Lyne, Principal Consultant, OPP

Being an OPP consultant, I spend much of my time helping our clients consider how to develop effective organisations. Often this includes using the MBTI® framework to help individuals and teams recognise the power of personality difference and the dangers of adopting a ‘one sided’ approach within their organisational culture. A recent example of this was some team development I did with the board of an energy company, helping them to harness their Introverted iNtuition to think more strategically about the future.

With this issue of balanced organisational cultures on my mind, I was particularly interested to see the new film Hidden Figures recently. Based on a biographical book of the same name, it recognises the huge achievement of three brilliant African-American women at NASA and their contribution to launching John Glenn into space in 1962 to become the first American man to orbit the Earth. 

The racial prejudices and segregation these women faced are particularly shocking to watch. However, it was their challenges of working within such a task-focused, logical and complex organisational culture that also sparked my interest. As a ‘computer’, Katherine Johnson’s role within the Space Task Group was to calculate flight trajectories using advanced mathematics, and the film has many scenes set in the fast-paced, task-focused office where the brilliant, and mostly male, team work on complex calculations. In MBTI terms, the culture in NASA was (and probably still is!) predominantly Thinking – focused on finding the logical, correct answers to their complex aeronautical challenges. 

In the video clip below, recorded at our MBTI User Conference in London last year, I talk about a senior manager in construction who I worked with, and the challenges she faced as an ENTJ in a task-focused and logical culture. While she herself had a dominant Thinking preference, the task-based culture she was working in encouraged her to rely on this style, especially when under stress. In this Thinking environment, she was struggling with building relationships with her team and so, as part of the coaching journey, we used the MBTI Core Characters to explore her behaviours and her impact on others.

As this clip shows, the MBTI framework added a depth of understanding for this leader, particularly in helping her to understand her Thinking style within a Thinking culture, and some of the related risks (such as undervaluing the Introverted Feeling element of her personality). Using the MBTI framework helped her to understand the benefit of ‘flexing’ to differing behaviours, particularly in utilising both her values and a relationship-centred approach when developing her team. As we worked together through the coaching sessions, she developed her understanding of the value of both ‘Thinking’ and ‘Feeling’ behaviours. She also came to see how needed and important they are within any organisational culture.

Interestingly, this leader also acknowledged the issue of gender in her leadership – recognising that, as a woman in a Thinking environment, she had unconsciously felt less able to demonstrate behaviours which may have been seen as more feminine. Our recent webcast Decision-making, gender and the glass ceiling explores this in more depth, and considers some of the factors that contribute to the imbalance in the number of women in senior leadership positions. Undoubtedly, gender must also have contributed to the challenges that the women in Hidden Figures would have faced. 

After watching the film I must admit that I’ve caught myself day-dreaming about what it would have been like to coach such inspirational women as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. It would be fascinating to know what their types were and to understand more about the challenges they faced within the logical, task-focused and male-dominated culture of NASA in the 1950s. Hearing the stories of their courage and tenacity reminds me once again of how important it is to persist in ensuring minority voices are heard, whether these are gender, race or personality based. Much may have changed in the world since those early days of the space race, but Hidden Figures reminds us how important it is to value the richness of different perspectives, and work for a world where we leverage and celebrate the power of difference in all its forms.


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