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The MBTI–My Most Valid Tool

Adam Grant’s recent article Goodbye to the MBTI, the Fad that Won’t Die includes a long list of criticisms pointed at the MBTI assessment. The article is well written and thoughtful as it tries to build the case against the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment and also to diminish the efforts of anyone who finds the indicator useful or enlightening.

At its core, Grant’s article is actually a promotion of The Big Five, another psychometric tool which some would consider a competing tool to the MBTI assessment. What I find disheartening—as I do whenever this tired argument is trotted out—is how instrument-centric this line of thinking is. The false argument becomes about which tool is more “right”. And in my 20+ years as an organization consultant, I have come to see plainly that the real client work is not about the tool, but instead about using these tools to help increase client self-awareness so that they can more effectively manage themselves.

Be more aware and better manage yourself:   What are your innate preferences? What are your motives? What patterns of behavior have you developed and why? What are your strengths and how can you harness these? What are your weaknesses and how can you mitigate these? While it is interesting to know the styles and tendencies of others, my real breakthroughs come when I can empower individuals to know themselves more clearly and manage themselves better. That is how we help build leaders, teams and organizations, communities: with increased self-awareness and better self-management.

Given this goal— which I would argue is the true goal of all good OD work—we have countless assessment tools at our disposal to help us engage clients on the field of self-awareness, self-management, development and behavior change. One such tool (apparently one of Grant’s favorites) is The Big Five. That’s great. I have used it and have found it useful. I am likewise a big supporter of the EQ-i (emotional intelligence instrument), the California Psychological Inventory (CPI), the SDI, the Hogan and many others.  In fact, I will use any tool that gives me responsible feedback my clients can use to illuminate their path and move toward self-development.

Having said that, while my professional toolbox is full and varied I have found nothing that surpasses the MBTI assessment in its ability to spark powerful, deep client insight. The MBTI assessment is a restricted tool—you must be certified to purchase and use it. This requirement is in place to ensure that only trained consultants, coaches and trainers use the Indicator. From its inception, a critical component of an MBTI administration has been interactive feedback and the client’s self-assessment and engagement with the content.

The tool is an important piece of the process, a launching point.  It is neither an authority nor an end in itself. (By the way, I would argue the Big Five should not be either.)

What I like best about the Myers-Briggs tool and its underpinning model (Psychological Type)—as opposed to The Big Five or any other trait-based tool–is that it speaks to personal preferences and not to specific skills, performance or ability. Ironically, one of Grant’s sharpest criticisms of the MBTI assessment is perhaps the thing that has made (and kept) the tool so popular for so long: the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator never claims to indicate what I do well. It never indicates what job I should take or what partner I should choose. For these reasons, metric-centric folks claim the MBTI assessment does not give us “outcomes that matter.”

On the contrary—I believe (as have millions of Type users over many decades) that the MBTI assessment is a tool of self-awareness. It never tries to select us, or grade us, or rank order us. It does not try to predict what we will do next or who will succeed or fail in any given endeavor. What it does do instead is indicate what may be my preferred way of gathering information in the world and my innately preferred way making decisions about that information.  It also indicates where I tend to energize as well as the behavioral face I prefer to show the world.

The MBTI offers no judgment, no normed scores, no bell curves—just a value-neutral template to understand my own tendencies. It is a tool to help me understand me.  It is not–and has never been–a test. Perhaps for Grant this is its greatest sin, but for me and other Type professionals, this is its greatest gift.

Adam Grant and professionals like him want tools to measure, rank, predict and select.  These are all fine things to want, but if that is what he is after, he is right to avoid the MBTI assessment. If, however, Mr. Grant is ever in the market for a client-centered tool that builds self-awareness and helps lead to better self-management and growth, he would be hard-pressed to find a better option than the MBTI assessment used by a certified MBTI trainer or coach.

Since Isabel Myers started her work on the MBTI assessment in the late 1940s, the indicator has drawn scorn from a sub-set of critics. But since the instrument became publicly accessible in the mid 1970s, it has become (and remains) the most popular personality assessment tool in the world. ”Fads” don’t last forty years. The MBTI is here to stay. And, unfortunately, so are those who would prefer the work of personal self-awareness and development to be constrained and defined by metrics, rather than merely informed by them.

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4 Responses

  1. Chuck Gold says:

    I agree with you. Thanks for always reminding us that MBTI is a tool of self-awareness, and your points strongly back-up this side of the conversation.

  2. Carol Shumate says:

    Brilliant response. I’m sharing this with fans of Adam Grant.

  3. B. Rubin says:

    “And in my 20+ years as an organization consultant, I have come to see plainly that the real client work is not about the tool, but instead about using these tools to help increase client self-awareness so that they can more effectively manage themselves”

    So by this logic, a medical doctor can use a tool that is not accurate in its diagnosis as long as the patient believes it is and can change his/her behavior. In other words, its okay to dupe people as long as they come around to what the practitioner feels is the best way forward (the ends justify the means). What is being missed here is that this is a form of “harm” – once people acquire this label they self-fulfill their label and others who learn about the label treat them in subtly different ways that can be harmful (e.g., not sharing bad news because of a believe about how their type would respond). Grant is focused on the instrument because its the basis for intervention you are suggesting is “increasing self-awareness.” But if the output of the instrument is inaccurate, what kind of awareness is this building?

    • OKAUser says:

      These are interesting points. I do not mean to suggest that the results of the MBTI themselves do not matter. My intention was to emphasize that the more important factors in human development work are the humans involved in it—the coach, trainer or consultant and more importantly still, the individual wanting to or at least open to change. For instance, I am not a DiSC fan. I find the tool over-simplified, psychometrically lacking and in too often pejorative. That said, I have worked with many outstanding coaches and trainers who motivate clients to impressive insight and behavior change through DiSC-centered processes. I think, in general, too little attention is paid to the expertise and skill of the trainers/coaches while too much focus in placed upon the tools they use. My argument in this blog was and is not to take attention off of the MBTI’s (or any tool’s) validity, but to cast attention onto the skill, ability and experience of the trainer, coach or consultant. Validity studies and ROI reports don’t speak to a consultant’s skills, and they are—I would argue—the more important factor.

      But to your argument specifically—I don’t think you can or should link self-reporting psychological surveys with medical instrumentation. Medical tools are tangible gear made of steel—accurate to 1/1000 of an inch—from which we can rightly expect the same results time and time again. Laws of physics can predict and measure such things. Self-reporting instruments are quite different. If the argument is not physical instrumentation, but hard medical tests—like blood type, for instance, again, that is not a good equivalent for the MBTI. The medical equivalent of the MBTI, perhaps, would be the self-questionnaire a doctor gives a new patient that covers medical and family histories along with more general (and personal) questions about lifestyle, pain levels and “how do you feel” kinds of questions. These are the kinds of data sources that present a series of dots (simple data points) that a good doctor or diagnostician can link together into a helpful developmental narrative but that taken by themselves present an incomplete—if not even misleading—assortment of disparate facts.

      Insofar as Grant’s concern is the danger of intervening based on data that may be incorrect, he need not be concerned. The MBTI is a preference indicator—an assessment that indicates preferences on four set dichotomies. These preferences may be interesting and thought-provoking, but none is negative or value-laden, and in addition, none of the preferences is designed to predict performance or behavior, so there is no “harm” that can be done. The harm that is done with the MBTI—selecting with it, predicting success with it, making assumptions of performance because of it—is done by people who are misusing its output out of ignorance or malice. So—in my view—problems always come back to the people who use it, not the tool itself. The tool, as a preference indicator, is terrific and popular, but any real good that comes from it comes from the training, coaching or development work that is crafted around it or as a result of it—not the tool by itself.

      I hope this is clear and helpful. I appreciate your engaging with these ideas and taking the time to offer your take on it. MBTI aside, I believe this kind of debate/discussion is important.

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