Why I like Myers Briggs (with dynomight's expansions)
Let’s talk about Myers Briggs. For those of you that don’t know what I’m talking about - great! read on. For those of you that are rolling your eyes - hopefully I can get you to reconsider.
I’ll elaborate more on this below but my thesis is that Myers Briggs provides a language to help you quickly understand people and make teams work better together. It helps you realize that everyone has different ways of interpreting and working in the world and it shifts one’s mindset from “This person is a duffus” to “This person sees and processes the world very differently from me, let me try to understand them better” which is a valuable thing to do.
OK enough prelude.
What is Myers Briggs?
Myers Briggs (aka MBTI) is one of the most common personality type frameworks out there. It stems from insights made by Carl Jung in the 1920s, then expanded by Briggs and Myers in the 1940s. As described in “Working Together: A personality-centered approach to management” (available used for $1.66):
“The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator [aka MBTI] is probably the most insightful and useful instrument available to very quickly understand how and why people tend to behave and contribute in work situations the way they do.”
It is based around four types of preferences which are used to describe ones’ personality: Extroversion vs. Introversion (E/I), Sensing vs. Intuiting (S/N), Thinkers vs. Feelers (T/F) and Judgers vs. Perceivers (J/P). People fall on a spectrum on each axis which can then be combined into a four letter acronym describing a person’s personality type. I won’t go too much into what they all mean since that is available ad infinitum online.
What does it mean to have a preference for one of these characteristics? Does it mean you are that type forever and in every situation? No:
“Neither Jung nor Myers suggested that a person is purely one way or the other. By preference, Jung meant that a person prefers and therefore chooses, fairly consistently, one way of doing or being over another way. Individuals can be extraverted to some degree, as well as introverted to some degree, thinking as well as feeling, etc.
[…] our preferences are similar to the way in which we "prefer" to use either the right hand or the left hand for writing our name. Some of us are more flexible in shifting back and forth than others. Most of us, however, have a distinct preference for using one hand over the other, just as we have a preference for either extraversion or introversion.
The main reason Myers Briggs is helpful is because there is a value in having a language around how we are different from each other more nuanced than “I am right. They are wrong.” Personality tests gives us a language to empathize with others and have productive conversations about how best to work together.
[Myers & Briggs] felt that it was important to reliably know what types people are in order to resolve conflicts between people of different types. If a person is to be freed from the prison of his or her own typo-centric view of the world, it is critical to know one's own type. It follows that if one wants to develop a genuine tolerance for an individual of another type, one must know one's own type and that of the other person.
For most of my professional life, companies I’ve worked at have mostly ignored the fact that people have different personalities. Of course everyone knows everyone is different but there is no common vocabulary adopted. It’s rare to have team discussions about the team’s personality preferences. As a result, it’s not rare to have unproductive and unhappy teams with a lot of passive aggressive conflict. Since the teams don’t have good language for engaging on how they approach the world, they instead default to binaries and blinders such as “that person is just inconsiderate” “that person is messy” “that person is too emotional”, etc.
There was one company I worked at, however, where Myers Briggs was front and center: McKinsey.
I worked at McKinsey for a handful of years starting in the mid-2000s. McKinsey was (and probably still is) a huge believe in Myers Briggs. From the very first days after you join you’re taught about MBTI. McKinsey is not exactly a “touchy-feely” culture (in fact it’s like 80-90% “T”s in MBTI) so the fact that personality tests were prioritized was strictly a result of their being helpful in practice - having high-functioning teams is essential to McKinsey’s success since the model depends heavily on people quickly forming new projects every couple of weeks in high-pressure situations. Anything that would improve team dynamics is highly valued.
In practice this meant that at the beginning of most McKinsey projects when team members introduced themselves they mentioned their MBTI. This then allowed the team to identify areas that were likely to be pain points in working together. For example, if everyone on a team was a strong Extrovert except one team member who was a strong Introvert, everyone then could find ways of giving that person extra space to process information before engaging. Or if someone was a strong “J”, that meant that they were very likely to be uncomfortable if anyone deviated from the plan or if things got messy.
Did every team do this? No. Did it mean teams then didn’t have problems? Of course not. But it did mean that many problems could be averted in advance and when problems did occur, instead of saying “person X is totally unreasonable” you could ground it instead in differences for how different team members preferred to work.
Without something like Myers-Briggs the alternative is rarely another personality model - the alternative is to just pretend personality types don’t exist. Pretending everyone works the same way is a recipe for failure and frustration.
I recognize that in the past decade or so, it’s become very fashionable to hate on Myers Briggs. “Only the Big 5 personality types are robust!” “Who needs personality tests.” “Myers Briggs isn’t replicable!”
Well, it turns out there’s a great blog from dynomight called “In Defense of Myers Briggs” analyzing all of these claims. The short of it is that most arguments against it are weak. Except for one: most people don’t fall cleanly into each bucket.
dynomight’s remedy to this issue is simple: “Don’t binarize the axes”:
90% of the complaints about MBTI come down to: you can’t split people into two groups along these axes! Yeah, OK, then how about we don’t do that?
Traditionally, Myers Briggs says that if you have a score of 0.51 on a 0-1 range, you then round up. The problem with this is it treats someone with a 0.99 and a 0.51 on the range the same even if they have very different degrees of a certain quality -this, rightly, leads to a lot of skepticism.
But Dynomight has a solution:
Of course someone can be borderline [on a trait]. Most people are borderline along at least one axis. Early versions of the MBTI actually gave an “x” for someone near the middle. Let’s bring this back! In fact, let’s go further.
Behold: Dynomight™ MBTI notation:
Strong preference: Capital letter
Weak preference: Lower-case letter
For example: eNxJ is:
weakly extroverted (e)
strongly intuitive (N)
borderline thinking / feeling (x)
strongly judging (J)
I think this is genius.
The value in MBTI for me isn’t that it’s some final baseline that allows you to categorize humans mechanically into 16 buckets. The value is rather that it forces you to think about these issues at all! It gets you out of your head and makes you ask: “How does the person I’m working with engage with the world? How do they prefer to work and live their days?” This shift in orientation is the value - the categorization itself is secondary.
So this new approach to using lower-case, upper-case and “x”s to denote degrees among each personality type, helps you overcome the main issue with Myers Briggs while still deriving value.
If you want to do a quick MBTI test, dynomight also has a 2-minutes test using the notation here. It’s not as accurate as a longer test but it’s a nice starting point.
Here is the way that this ends up looking for me - you can see that on the first axis I’m in the middle (“x”) and then the other three I score very much to the extremes.
You can learn a lot more about MBTI online (the internet is littered with resources).
I really love this topic (as a strong NF would!) and I hope this interesting to some of you and it encourages you to learn more. If nothing else, it’s worth reflecting on the teams and people you work with - how well do you know the people around you? How well do you understand what makes them tick?
PS - One of the other big issues people point out with MBTI is that “the Big 5 is better” - dynomight does a good job describing how MBTI is effectively “the Big 4” given high correlations. They also explain why MBTI is way better from a “polite company discussion” perspective. If you are in the “Big 5” camp - it’s worth reading the post.