Unbusinessy - title graphic 

Cartoon: Demon reading MBTI report. 

MBTI and Horoscopes

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

Are you familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)? It is a popular exercise in which people complete a questionnaire and are then tagged with one of 16 personality types. According to one of its vendors, it helps in team development, leadership development, conflict resolution and all kinds of good things.

I remember the first time I read some of the MBTI personality type descriptions. They reminded me of the astrology column I wrote for Business Review* magazine back in the 1990s. This was kind of worrying because I completely made up the horoscopes for every issue. You see, I don't believe in astrology. Never did. But, I have an imagination and it was no problem to dream up what I called "precisely vague" predictions, such as:

"A meeting with an old friend inspires a new business idea."

 "An unexpected call leads to a great opportunity."

"Wearing something red on Monday will lead to good luck."

These predictions seem rather precise, but are actually very vague and, as a result, very likely to happen to someone serious enough about business that she's reading a business magazine. They are also all basically positive. People like reading positive things about themselves. MBTI personality types seemed like that: precisely vague and basically positive.

So, from the first I was suspicious of MBTI and decided to do a bit of research. It did not take long to discover MBTI has been clinically tested and found, and I don't know how to put this nicely, to be: absolutely useless. Pretty much like horoscopes.

If MBTI is useless, why do so many businesses continue to use it and abide by it? Three reasons: bosses prefer status quo over science, there's money in it and it feels good. Let's look at each of these.

Bosses Prefer Status Quo over Science

Managers tend to prefer well established fads -- which is another way of saying the status quo -- over facts, research and other science. Businesses are changing their office space to be open, because senior managers heard that it will encourage creative collaboration, even though research has shown that open plan offices do the exact opposite. Managers love to brainstorm when they need creative new ideas, even though traditional brainstorms have been clinically shown to be poor at delivering truly creative ideas

Likewise, MBTI is trendy and loads of businesses are doing it. So, most managers reckon it's good and don't even bother to research it. If they did, they would spend their training budget elsewhere.


And that brings us to the second reason MBTI is still widely used. Many companies and individuals make large amounts of money selling MBTI related services to companies like yours. Entire institutions, complete with hungry sales teams, are built around MBTI. These institutions train facilitators who invest time and money to become certified so that they can sell MBTI services and pay off their mortgages.

As a mortgage holder myself, I can sympathise. Clearly, it is not in the financial or career development interests of any of these people to admit that what they are selling is nothing more than corporate placebo.

Meanwhile the psychologists and behavioural economists researching MBTI aren't selling anything. You actively have to search for their papers -- or make it a point to follow research in these fields.

MBTI Feels Good

Yet, there are vendors selling other services including alternatives to MBTI that are actually designed by competent behavioural economists, social psychologists and psychologists who actually know something about personality types. Yet managers opt for MBTI nearly every time. So, it must have some positive intrinsic quality that ensures its ongoing popularity.

I reckon that intrinsic quality is: MBTI testing makes stressed employees feel good about themselves -- for a little while, any way.

MBTI classifies you into one of 16 personality types, each of which is described with glowing terms. For example, according to the Myers-Briggs Foundation, the INTJ types:

"Have original minds and great drive for implementing their ideas and achieving their goals. Quickly see patterns in external events and develop long-range explanatory perspectives. When committed, organize a job and carry it through. Skeptical and independent, have high standards of competence and performance - for themselves and others."

You could also call someone like that, "a rebellious and compulsive trouble-maker who does not get along with others". But who would be keen to get a personality report like that? Hence, each of the 16 personality types sounds marvellous.Each is full of positive words and omits negative words -- like the horoscopes I used to write. If a terrorist did the MBTI test, he'd get a glowing personality type description.

As a result, doing the MBTI test makes you feel good about yourself, no matter what kind of despicable excuse for a human being you might actually be (just joking, I know you are a lovely person!)

So, What Should Managers Do?

If the secret to MBTI's success and ongoing popularity is that it makes employees feel good, why not drop the MBTI testing and training and just make a bigger effort to make employees feel good about themselves? You'd save money, have a better team and probably be more productive.

You don't need MBTI to compliment people on their strengths. If Jane does great research, just fucking tell her she does great research. No need to identify her personality type. Really. You know she does good research, so tell her. Making people feel they are a valuable part of the team and that they make a meaningful contribution to the company makes people feel really good. Trusting them, rather than micromanaging them, makes them feel even better. Empowering them makes them feel awesome. And you don't need MBTI to do any of this.

So, my recommendation to you? Skip MBTI and be nice to your direct reports instead. You'll be delighted by the results.


* Business Review was an Asian business magazine published in Bangkok. Sadly, it went out of print in the late 1990s. I am sure that had nothing to do with my astrology column!



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