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Psychology At Work

Psychology at Work

My Adventures in Personality Testing

November 29, 2011
Related Topics: Strategy and Management

The December issue of Talent Management focuses on post-hire assessment measures. In my last post, I discussed psychological testing and its utility in this regard. During the next few weeks I will discuss several of the key tests in greater detail. This week, I take on the Myers-Brigg. If it makes some of you who are fully invested in the MBTI mad, sorry. Blame my inner ENTJ, and share your comments on this site:

Millions of people in the workplace take one of a variety of personality tests every year. From the 800-pound gorilla of the industry, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), to the growing franchise of Gallup’s StrengthsFinder 2.0, to the more academic VIA strengths inventory pioneered at Penn’s Positive Psychology Center, our personalities are being sliced and diced in as many ways as a researcher can conceive. Each has its strengths and it limitations, and business organizations need to be very careful in how they apply test results in individual cases. As a general principle, though, it is better to make some attempt to understand what makes a person tick than to ignore it.

As a lawyer/human resources consultant with a graduate degree in psychology, I am often asked which of these measures “work.” Long, equivocal academic answers prove quite unsatisfactory to a general audience, so I decided to take a trip through personality testing myself to better inform my answers. Self-analysis is a bit more scary than sitting in the library or on my laptop writing a critical review based upon the work of others, but what the heck, I’ll show my spontaneous side, throw caution to the wind, and go where no man has gone before – other than the 2 million or so who did the same last year.

INTJ, ESFP? I Think I Need a PBJ

Try this. The next time a person starts raving to you about the MBTI, ask them this: “So, you must be a Jungian?” At least if you don’t mind being considered a jerk. The MBTI is the most widely used personality test in the workplace, but few outside classrooms know it is based upon the 90-some-year-old theories of human behavior of Carl Jung. During World War II a mother-daughter team of psychologists, Katherine Briggs and Isabel Briggs-Myers, were focused on the issue of helping females leaving the military be prepared to enter the post-war workplace. They became fascinated with the work of Jung, who in the 1920 book Psychological Types advanced a theory of personality that neatly divided humankind into one of 16 categories. Based upon this theory, the Briggs developed a test, what we now know as the MBTI, and applied it to a sampling of nurses. Based upon what was considered to be their success, the MBTI spread in popularity. In the 1950s the educational establishment even considered its wide application in schools, but abandoned the idea out of concerns about its validity and the reliability of the results. In the 1970s rights to the MBTI were acquired by a consulting firm, which was wildly successful in marketing it. Literally thousands of organizations and millions of people have used the MBTI in a variety of settings.

So I went to a website and took the MBTI (you can find a “close-enough” version of it online quite easily, so try to avoid paying for it on the proprietary sites). Like all of the major personality tests, indeed like much of all psychological research, it relies on self-reporting. While all self-reporting measures suffer from a common weakness – social desirability, or the propensity of people to try to influence the results by the way they answer - they are the best tools we have, and are generally reliable.

Since I am unaware of any prize money associated with a particular result I was as honest as I could be in answering the questions. Honest as I could be, but not necessarily precise and accurate. I couldn’t be because the questions are bimodal; they force the subject to make one of two choices in answering the question. In other words, I am either the type of person who cares about others’ feelings or I am not. Unfortunately, life is not like that – I care about my wife’s feelings, but not those of North Carolina basketball fans. For about half the questions I wanted to scream at the computer, “It depends, you idiot!” (I wonder if the computer had been around in Jung’s time if he would have had a separate classification for the type of person who screams at them). And the bimodality – or “forced choice” - of the MBTI is one of its greatest weaknesses, one that has been discussed by numerous academics. Some are brutally dismissive of the entire measure. Professor David Pittenger, writing in a scientific journal in 1993, had this to say: “A review of the literature suggests a lack of evidence ... of the utility of the MBTI.” Folks, in the academic world this is a smackdown.

More problematic from an ethical standpoint, the MBTI and certain other personality surveys are based upon typology; i.e., their results assign the subject to a personality box. According to the MBTI, I am something called an ENTJ, which I guess means a “thinking extrovert” (although isn’t that an oxymoron, given the propensity of extroverts to blurt out the first silly thing that pops in their heads?). Often consultants will create fictional characters, or refer to historical figures, as concrete representations of the assigned type to help in application. This is cute; possibly useful on a non-academic level, such as a team-building workshop, but I don’t think fellow ENTJ Napoleon and I am the same sort of guy (it has been some time since I marched a conquering army through the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin).

The ethical problems arise when organizations apply personality tests and then attempt to sort and evaluate personnel based upon their findings. Our culture is notoriously quick to rank and sort everything, with little thought and preparation. Business in particular is looking for quick and easy solutions to its talent assessment processes, and the boxes the MBTI neatly provides play to our very worst angels. In my experience in corporate America, I have seen organizations quickly decide which MBTI type is appropriate for key roles, and which is not. Even if an argument could be made for the validity of such an approach, what typically happens is that the “right” type is whichever box the leader finds himself in.

A coaching client, a lawyer in a major firm, recently told me of the disaster that ensued when the senior litigating partner discovered his “type,” looked in the mirror, and decided his type was the only one suitable for courtroom battles. Within a short period of time lawyers were being taken off cases, or rapidly promoted, because of their results on this suspect measurement. Quickly, being lawyers, most figured out how to “game” the MBTI to show they were the right type, but not before significant collateral damage occurred within the firm. My client, by the way, is no longer there.

The MBTI has its virtues, the greatest being its ubiquity and resultant face validity, but it is that very face validity that makes it dangerous in the wrong settings. It also has its place, but any organization seeking to use it needs to be fully cognizant of its methodological limitations. It is better than nothing, yes, but don’t make life and death decisions based upon it. Maybe just dinner plans.

Next week I dissect StrengthsFinder 2.0 and the mega-popular Gallup strengths inventories.

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