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At 60, Myers-Briggs is Still Sorting Out and Identifying People's Types

Demand for the venerable personality test remains strong, even though the world has changed.

November 26, 2003
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Anyone who has worked in an office knows that certain personality stereotypes stand out. There are the friendly, outgoing people and the quiet, serious people who hate small talk. There are big-picture people and hands-on number crunchers. Caricatures though they may be, they are accurate enough in describing extroverts and introverts to have kept psychologists, trainers and human resources executives enthusiastically using personality tests in the workplace for decades. And it is the widely used Myers-Briggs Type Indicator that has been the standard-bearer of testing for generations.

    Myers-Briggs celebrated its 60th anniversary in October, a noteworthy achievement for a test that has been sorting out quirky personality types since 1943. After all those years, it’s said to be still the most popular and widely used personality-assessment tool of its kind in the world, with about 2.5 million tests given each year. Both critics and supporters say that the Indicator endures because it does a good job of pointing up differences between people, offers individuals a revealing glimpse of themselves and is a valuable asset in team-building, improving communication and resolving personality-based conflict. Many consider it an essential tool for career planning and development.

    Calling it a test will spark an argument because ideally no one can fail Myers-Briggs. There are no right or wrong answers to the basic 93-question "test." It can identify introverts, extroverts and other personality types in 15 or 20 minutes, though analysis and interpretation of the results can take at least an hour if done correctly.

    Begun by Isabel Myers and her mother, Katharine Cook Briggs, and based on the theories of psychologist Carl Jung, the questionnaire successfully nailed down personality types in World War II such as GI Joes and Rosie the Riveters, then ’50s conformists, ’60s rebels and on to Gen X types. Attitudes, styles and cultures may change, but the eight basic personality types that Myers-Briggs identifies don’t.

Logic over sentiment
    Myers-Briggs distinguishes personality types from four sets of opposites. Establishing differences comes from questions like: Are you inclined to value sentiment more than logic, or value logic more than sentiment? After the answers have been completed, the responses are dropped into broad categories of opposites, the best known of which are the introverts/extroverts. Other categories are judging/perceiving, sensing/intuitive and thinking/feeling. At the end of the process, four initials identify people, say ISTP (introvert, with strong sensing, thinking and perceiving traits). Although there are some of the different characteristics in just about everyone, the test is about discovering dominant personality traits and recognizing strengths or areas of potential weakness, such as things that can produce stress. A "thinking" person, for example, who likes organizing and structuring information in logical, objective ways, might work on organizing in a more personal way. An introvert who likes to work quietly should be aware that others might interpret that as a lack of interest.

    Today, most Fortune 500 companies use the test in some form or another, including 89 of the Fortune 100, says CPP Inc., publishers of Myers-Briggs. General Motors Corp. has put its workforce through thousands of the tests. Myers-Briggs was a key part of an executive training program between 1997 and 2000, when every GM executive was given the test. It is still widely used by the company. Robert Minton, GM’s manager of global human resources communications, recently took it for the first time and came away impressed. "It was uncannily accurate," he says. But it does have its critics, who say that Myers-Briggs has limited value, has not been validated by solid science and is subject to manipulation by test-takers who want to present a certain picture of themselves to employers. Myers-Briggs, they note, is not an indicator of success and does not measure intelligence or skills. Detractors also argue that test results can change over time.

    "It’s accurate the way a $5 wristwatch is accurate," says John Binning, associate professor of psychology at Illinois State University, who specializes in industrial and organizational psychology. "It is not the most sophisticated measurement instrument, but it does what it purports to do in a useful way."

    Wendell Williams, managing director of ScientificSelection.com, a consulting and test-developing firm, points out that it isn’t like a blood test that is backed by solid science. "People who take the test may find they are characterized as one kind of person today and if they take it tomorrow, they will find they are characterized significantly differently," he says.

    A major concern of critics and supporters alike is that Myers-Briggs will be used by hiring managers for selection or promotion purposes, a practice that is widely condemned by both supporters and critics. Many companies do use psychological tests to determine whether job applicants are suited for a job, but Myers-Briggs was not intended for that. "In most cases, scores on a personality test have little or nothing to do with how well you perform on the job," Williams says.


"It is not the most sophisticated measurement instrument, but it does what it purports to do in a useful way."


    A Canadian client called him in because he had a workforce of "highly sensitive, team-oriented folks" who couldn’t get anything done together. The company had opened up a new branch and built the workforce largely with new hires, bringing in people who were team oriented and people friendly. "They ended up with a workforce that would not meet unless everyone was there, and wouldn’t make a decision unless everyone agreed," he says. "They never ever wanted to leave each other, to the point that they liked to have a few drinks with each other after work. This was highly irritating to their spouses." The proposed solution was just as bad. "Their answer was that they wanted to use another cheap personality test to bring in anti-team members." Williams bailed out.

Agrees up to a point
    Michael Segovia, director of business development at CPP Inc. agrees with some of the concerns, but only up to a point. He says that Myers-Briggs is not intended for hiring or job-candidate selection, and that its use as a hiring tool is unethical. "The MBTI is meant for inclusion, not exclusion," Segovia says. "It is used most often for team-building. Its purpose is not to move people in and out of the team, but to help people work more happily, more successfully, as team members."

    Segovia says the biggest misconceptions about Myers-Briggs are generalizations about personality types. "It doesn’t mean a person is loud or shy," he says, referring to two common stereotypes of extroverts and introverts. The terms apply to how people absorb and process information. Segovia says that misinterpretations of Myers-Briggs stem in part from people who imitate the test, which keeps CPP’s legal department busy. He recommends one-on-one analysis of the test results to ensure that test-takers do not walk away with misconceptions about who they are or what the conclusions mean.

    Over the years, Segovia says, the basic ideas on personality assessment presented by the two women in 1943 have been researched extensively. "It continues to be studied, continues to be evaluated," he says. "It’s amazing how much it holds up."

    Rebecca Tilley, a team-building facilitator with Adventure Associates, says her firm uses Myers-Briggs as a core team-building device. She takes groups of executives, administers Myers-Briggs and then explores the individual differences and approaches of team members. The premium here is problem solving. People have different ways of dealing with stress and problem solving, and one benefit of the exercise is to bridge differences between managers and show that there are several ways to tackle a problem. There are group activities, such as writing ad copy for a product, that indicate how different personality types approach problems differently. Each group learns where its strength is, and where it might be closed off to possibilities, she says.

    Tilley says that sometimes extroverts have trouble understanding an introvert, who processes information internally and likes to think about things before acting. Common misconceptions might be that the person doesn’t have anything to say or is not interested in the topic being discussed. One solution, she says, would be to give information to participants the night before a meeting so that they have time to study it.

    She describes a conflict between two companies that Myers-Briggs helped to resolve. A manufacturing company was working with an advertising firm on a campaign. The ad agency sent the manufacturer sketches of a proposed advertising campaign, and wanted a quick answer about the approach being taken. Tensions developed. "They didn’t feel that their relationships were solid," Tilley says. "They did the Myers-Briggs to find out more about themselves." Turns out the client who received the storyboards was a strong introvert who wanted a longer time to think about the ads before giving his feedback. A light went on. "They said, Aha!" and a dialogue opened up, Tilley says.

    She acknowledges that corporate managers are tempted to use Myers-Briggs for hiring, but says she will have nothing to do with it. "We do have people who call us who want to use it as a screening process for hiring," she says. "But Myers-Briggs has strict ethical guidelines that it can’t be used that way, and we won’t do it that way."

    Minton will buy that. "We use it to help leaders figure out their own personal style and how they are perceived by their peers as well as the people who work for them," he says. "Leaders are encouraged to share their [personality] type with their staffs. It doesn’t mean you are that way all the time, just that you have a natural preference. We are all kind of wired a certain way, and this helps us see that."

Workforce Management, December 2003, pp. 72-74 -- Subscribe Now!

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