A little MBTI knowledge can be a dangerous thing

Posted 09 May 2013 by
Dr Penny Moyle, CEO at OPP
Man in box

If you’re an MBTI practitioner, you will already know how powerful the Myers-Briggs approach can be. You may well have seen first hand how it can drive long-lasting development across the whole employee lifecycle. I know that I personally, along with millions of others, have benefited enormously from returning to MBTI concepts over many years, and finding new and valuable perspectives to help me tackle the different life challenges that I’ve encountered. So it saddens me whenever I hear of people who have had less positive MBTI experiences.

My observation is that where things go wrong, it is often because the MBTI instrument has been used badly, in contravention to ethical guidelines and best practice. 

Like all psychometric instruments, the MBTI assessment is a tool. It’s a high quality tool, but even so it can either be used powerfully for great positive impact, or it can be used badly – and this also has powerful and long-lasting effects. I think when people have a negative experience of the MBTI tool, it falls into one of these areas of misuse:

One of the most problematic and common objections is that people feel 'put in a box' by their MBTI feedback.

The top three in this list can be particularly disastrous. One of the most problematic and common objections is that people feel 'put in a box' by their MBTI feedback. Sometimes this is because people are far too keen to stop at the MBTI label, rather than using the MBTI terminology as a starting point for development. The philosophy underlying MBTI development is not at all about limiting people through pigeon-holing or stereotyping.

On the contrary: preference should provide a foundation of self-awareness and understanding of others that enables people to make conscious choices about when to operate in their preferred mode – and when to flex into an alternative style.

Another abuse of the MBTI tool is to use it in recruitment and selection. This is simply an example of the wrong tool for the job. The concept of type preference is slightly subtle, and rather different from how other personality assessments work, so it is dangerous to confuse the MBTI tool with personality and ability tests used by businesses in hiring and firing. The design of the MBTI tool means it is only suitable for development purposes – it does not measure skills and abilities, but preferences; and people can, and do, flex their preferences all the time. We all use both sides of each of the preference pairs, as practitioners often explain with the analogy of handedness as a preference. So the MBTI tool is just inappropriate for selection and recruitment purposes. It is sometimes criticised for being transparent and easily faked, which would not be helpful in recruitment. One could argue about whether the different items really are transparent, but in any case, for the purposes of development there is less incentive to fake, and a degree of transparency in the process is actually an advantage, as it helps the person being assessed to take charge of their own development, rather than an assessment being ‘done to them’. This is particularly so through the best-fit process, which is unique to MBTI assessment.

Another unfortunately common occurrence is when newcomers to the MBTI ideas are so taken by the concepts that they believe they know all they need in order to excitedly apply type concepts to everything, regardless of their knowledge the underlying theory and application. Even experienced practitioners can sometimes get overly caught up in their own enthusiasm, and apply their type knowledge too widely. To some, this could come across as dogmatic if care isn’t taken to temper the way type concepts are talked about. For example, it is easy shorthand to call people “Introverts” and “Extraverts” and to relate many behaviours to these fundamental preferences, but people can find this alienating and limiting, especially if they haven’t heard proper explanations of these concepts. Using different language and taking the application of the MBTI concepts slowly will help get everyone on board and feel comfortable with the framework.

At OPP, we take our responsibility as custodian of the MBTI very seriously. We follow up whenever instances of inappropriate use of the MBTI instrument are reported in Europe, and would encourage anyone having had a bad experience of the type described above to get in touch with us. Whilst it is sometimes necessary to remind MBTI practitioners about best practice and the ethical use of the MBTI, we have a fantastic community of practitioners acting as our advocates and standing up for professional, ethical practice that gets people thinking (just take a look at this LinkedIn discussion in response to someone wanting to use the tool for selection). Ensuring MBTI assessments are only ever sold to a qualified practitioner is a key way we ensure that it will be used correctly and ethically.

Far more often, we find that instances of reported misuse of the MBTI assessment turn out not to have involved legitimate MBTI questionnaires at all. Copycat instruments may not be developed to the same psychometric standards, and may or may not have the same requirements for delivery by a qualified practitioner. As a consequence, such tools will not necessarily provide the same positive development experience. A central tenet of MBTI practice is that each person is the best judge of their own personality – and that they will discover this themselves through the feedback process and application of these results. This is why the outcomes from this process, when done well, are distinctly more powerful than just filling in a questionnaire and being given your results.

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