The MBTI questionnaire: still going strong after 70 years

Posted 30 January 2013 by
Penny Moyle, CEO at OPP
70th birthday cake

Get out the cake and candles, wrap the carefully chosen presents, prepare your singing voice: the MBTI questionnaire turns 70 this year! The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is the most well known and trusted personality assessment in the world, so on the occasion of its 70th birthday, I’ve been reflecting on why it has such enduring appeal. At OPP, we’re proud to be experts in an assessment that is the biggest player in the market – and this doesn’t just happen overnight.

The thing that always strikes me the most when speaking with people who have experienced the MBTI in action is that it really works. For some people it’s as simple as making sense of aspects of themselves that they may previously have found difficult to express – or to understand and value aspects of others that they may previously have disparaged or found unfathomable. Many people talk about a ‘Eureka!’ moment of clarity when working with MBTI concepts: one that goes on to make a lasting difference for the rest of their professional and personal lives. This can be both inspirational and infectious! Over my many years of working in organisations and training HR professionals in how to use the MBTI system, I must have seen hundreds of such ‘Eureka!’ moments, and watched hundreds of HR professionals get hooked on wanting to create that same impact for the people that they work with.

Digging deeper into why people are so attracted to MBTI-based development, it’s clear that whilst the simplicity of the basic framework makes the concepts accessible and quick to apply, with lasting impact, there is a lot more to discover beneath the four preference pairs. It is the depth of the theory, and the versatility with which it can be applied across a wide range of work and personal issues, that keep people returning to type year after year, whenever they meet a new challenge. We know organisations that use the MBTI tool throughout an employee’s lifecycle (AAH for example), helping them to discover type dynamics, and to apply the tool in enhancing communication, facilitating change, coping with stress, building leadership capability and many more applications.

Moreover, the MBTI system encourages people to play to their inherent strengths, rather than criticising them for their weaknesses. It is pretty much the opposite of what people often imagine when you tell them they are going to complete a “psychometric assessment”. Focusing on strengths and recognising that all preferences are valuable helps people to be more receptive to the development process, rather than seeing it as a questioning of their competence. Thousands of comments on our learning and consultancy evaluation forms tell us so – and there is a growing body of evidence to support the power of using this positive psychology approach to provoke genuine behavioural change and improvement*. Rather than feeling defensive about being assessed, groups and teams using the MBTI tool embrace the language and structure it gives them for talking about their differences – and are equipped to stop these from becoming obstacles to productivity.

This is why this tool suits the modern workplace so well – because it acknowledges not just what you know, but how you interact. The framework empowers people; it doesn’t patronise them by telling them that they don’t know themselves, but rather provides a framework for them to understand how they fit into the bigger scheme of things, and how they might adapt to achieve more – individually and with others.

What is more, now that the MBTI tool has reached a ripe age, we can be more confident than ever in the insights provided. Rather than being out-of-date (implied by articles such as this one), the MBTI assessment is not nearing the end of its natural life – it’s gathering more and more robust data that support the original theory upon which it is based. Indeed, in the 70 years since its first inception, the publisher CPP and distributors around the world (such as OPP) continue to work tirelessly to evolve the questionnaire in order to ensure that it works as well cross-culturally as it does in the USA, where it was first developed, and to optimise reliability and validity over time. In doing so, MBTI researchers take advantage of current advances in psychometric techniques to build upon the body of empirical research that has built up over the decades. So scientific research backs up the more anecdotal experiences of the millions of people who have experienced MBTI development and say that it works for them.

The popularity and longevity of the MBTI questionnaire means that a comprehensive library of resources has been built up to support practitioners and end-users in their developmental journey with MBTI concepts. Whilst other psychometric instruments are only written about by their authors and publishers, MBTI books and resources capture the expertise of a large pool of experts in the field and cover a vast range of applications and interests.

Indeed, I believe that a key element contributing to the success of the MBTI assessment is the passion, enthusiasm and expertise of the people who work with this tool to deliver insightful and lasting development experiences. It’s not just about the questionnaire; it’s all about what you do with the results

*For example, Seligman, M., Authentic Happiness: Using Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfilment, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2003; Buckingham, M. and Coffman, C., First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently, Simon & Schuster, 1999

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