Drop the Gun and Step Away from the Big Five vs. MBTI Battle
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Drop the Gun and Step Away from the Big Five vs. MBTI Battle

Drop the Gun and Step Away from the Big Five vs. MBTI Battle

Followers of Adam Grant on LinkedIn know he’s recently written quite an emotional article about the MBTI, followed by a more reasoned article. Now Ron Baker has jumped on the bandwagon. While both authors make good points, their articles suffer from significant errors of fact about the test/retest reliability of the instrument, an unwieldy set of expectations for the model on which it’s based, and the false assumptions that those of us who use it are applying it to recommend who to hire and to evaluate employee effectiveness.

It is telling about our culture that Grant’s emotional, erroneous article so far has four times as many views as his well-written and more reasoned article, even though the reader would learn more about his point of view and what drives it by reading both articles in sequence, as well as the New York Times article and Hile Rutledge blog that he sites.

People love a dramatic story, as I pointed out in last month’s feature article. The troubling part is that the drama in this case obscures what could otherwise be an informative discussion that furthers everyone’s thinking and improves everyone’s work.

People have been asking me to share my point of view on the MBTI and Big Five. Here’s where I stand at this point, in no particular order of importance.

  • A little common sense goes a long way. Use the MBTI in your company for coaching or if your goal is to provide employees with insights that they can apply to be more effective in working and communicating with others, leading, and facilitating change. Don’t use it to determine who should be hired. It’s unethical and a waste of resources. No one directly associated with the instrument, including the publisher, has ever recommended its use in hiring or promotion decisions, yet this scary myth persists that we are making secret hiring and promotion decisions based on MBTI scores. To use it in hiring and promotion decisions is both irrelevant and unethical, because the instrument indicates a person’s likely pattern of thought, but you can’t draw conclusions about their effectiveness from it. For that, you need to look for evidence, not try to understand the way energy moves through their brains. LinkedIn is running a great series of articles right now titled “How I Hire,” and you would be better off following advice in these articles than trying to get the MBTI to tell you who to hire.
  • The instrument wasn’t designed to be predictive, but interestingly, I’ve found that it can be predictive in assessing the habits of a team and the likely strengths and weaknesses they will have in their decision-making and priorities. Based on the team’s MBTI results, I can generally assess many of their strengths and weaknesses, particularly those that pertain to decision-making, and these often align with the hard data I collect earlier in the project.

However, I intentionally kill the predictive accuracy of the tool in the way I work with it. I use the MBTI as a springboard to help teams understand their own behavior patterns, change the patterns, or at the very least, do a better job of managing the risks associated with these patterns. Because they have greater self-awareness and, more importantly, they change what they do, they get a different outcome, thus torching any predictions – and that’s just the way I like it. What would be the point of putting all of that effort into understanding your mental patterns if you don’t try to use the information to improve?

  • With seven billion people on earth and 16 type combinations in the tool, any reasonable person can conclude that the MBTI can only tell you so much about general patterns of thought and behavior, and that it’s up you to get to know yourself and your coworkers as individuals, not just type patterns. This inherent limitation is true of all instruments. Some people want psychometric instruments to tell them so much more about themselves and others than we could ever reasonably expect, but a good interpreter will be open and honest about the limitations of each tool he or she is using and the real work you will need to do to validate it and apply it in a practical way.
  • The MBTI itself is mostly neutral-to-positive in its language. Those of us who have worked with it for a long time and who continue our professional development know the downside risks associated with any pattern and we share these with clients who are willing to listen (some aren’t ready to hear it). The Big Five, a different theory, is quite open about the downside, complete with scales to measure your openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. At this point, I don’t plan to use it with my clients because it is evaluative. I don’t have a need for an evaluative instrument, because there are better ways to evaluate effectiveness and potential effectiveness in a given job. Grant wants to use only tools that correlate personality with effectiveness, but this puts too much emphasis on personality and not enough on potential and demonstrated performance, in my opinion.
  • I find Grant’s innuendo that it’s bad for practitioners to make good money to be downright offensive. He very nearly implies that if your work helps people at a personal level, you should be poorly compensated. He also implies that the tool is why practitioners make good money when for the majority of us, the MBTI is usually a small part of a much bigger project, and we don’t make our money from using the tool, but from the larger service of which it is a small part. Frankly, there are hassles and costs associated with using any tool, and it would be easier for me if I skipped it, but the vast majority of clients find it to be very helpful, so I keep it. There could be a self-filling prophecy here, in that now I’ve come to be known for my ability to sort through an MBTI report with a client and provide a lot more context directly relevant to their goals, so perhaps I now attract people who are open to hearing it. I will never know for sure.
  • I agree with Grant or, more accurately, with Brian Little that “Insight from the Myers-Briggs can start that conversation, but unfortunately it often ends the conversation. You’ve got your type stamped on your forehead.” There is always someone who wants to efficiently get all of the answers about everyone on the team by knowing their type code, and who is massively disappointed that it doesn’t work that way. This is a very real challenge with any instrument, and it’s up to both the practitioner and the leaders in the organization to reinforce what’s valuable and true vs. the expectations that are completely unreasonable or even counter-productive.

Still, there will be those who don’t want to hear it, and that does pose an undeniable risk. There are practitioners who work with groups using Jung’s model, but with no instrument at all, as I do when a client is uncomfortable with using an instrument or the MBTI in particular. I’m not convinced that ditching the MBTI or using a Big Five instrument solves the problem in and of itself, though. For some people, the desire to over-simplify human behavior is very strong. It’s a risk we must manage.

  • Jung’s theory, on which the majority of the instrument is based, started as a hypothesis (what Grant calls “mesearch instead of research”) as do all theories. There is data to support it, though I would like to see more. In my own work with clients, I place them in a series of workgroups based on MBTI results before they know what the results are, and I have seen enough of a consistent pattern over the past 18 years to feel confident that Jung was on to something.

He asserted that the psyche possesses all of the mental functions, but does not develop all of them at the same time, and uses some of them more consciously than others. As people age, the personality is much more complex, nuanced, and increasingly conscious (that’s to say, having a preference but having ready access to a non-preference). The reports do not do a good job of capturing that complexity, which is one of the reasons people can feel boxed in by their report. It’s up to me to provide the nuance, and for those who are open to the ideas that preference isn’t destiny and that you can and should also use your non-preferences, it helps to make the experience more useful and meaningful.

I’m disappointed that Adam Grant and Ron Baker obscured their valid points with factual errors. This could have been a great discussion about the role of personality-based instruments in context, where they add value and where they don’t, and how to best utilize them. Instead, it’s mostly a simplistic “MBTI vs. Big Five” debate. The MBTI still has room for improvement, but by virtue of the fact that it merely sorts people instead of ranking them from the best personality to the worst personality, it remains the means by which many people are most comfortable launching their understanding of Jung’s theory and how it applies to them. I’ve seen Jung’s theory help too many people to throw out the baby with bathwater.