If you’ve worked anywhere with a HR department, chances are you’ve filled out the Myers-Briggs personality assessment. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is used so much that people use their four-letter ‘type’ almost as an extension of their name - “Hi, I’m Ellen and I’m an ISTJ”. Despite its popularity in business, the MBTI is not well regarded by psychologists; it owes this popularity to marketing, rather than good science. It’s also the source of frustration for people that have to complete it, as it is often used to categorise people into inflexible ‘types’ that may or may not be accurate. If you’ve ever had a stranger try and tell you what sort of person you are based on a single observation, you’ll be familiar with why a lot of people roll their eyes when the words “Myers-Briggs” are uttered. Being shunted into a type is offensive to the ideas of the individual and self-determination, brings up memories of some of the darker moments in human history, and is incompatible with the self-evident reality that people can adapt themselves to different situations. There are quite a few critiques of the MBTI easily found through Google, so I won’t give you an exhaustive account of its shortcomings. A brief description is helpful though. The MBTI prescribes each individual a ‘type’ based on their scores across four dimensions: Extraversion-Introversion, Sensing-Intuiting, Thinking-Feeling, and Judging-Perceiving. The MBTI makes a big assumption here: for each dimension, one answer must be true and the other false. For example, if you’re Extraverted (e.g., being loud and proud), you can’t be Introverted (e.g., being quiet and low-key), and vice versa. The issue with this is clear – people are more complicated than that. It’s not hard to come up with an environment where you are extraverted, and another where you tend to be introverted, is it? We can, when required, adapt our personality to fit the situation; this idea isn’t really compatible with the MBTI. Already you can see how, in reality, our personalities don’t really fit in the boxes the MBTI provides. While we might be able to flex certain parts of our personality in different situations, it is generally accepted that people tend to have a ‘base’ personality that is, overall, relatively stable. Think of it like this: you can probably write with your non-dominant hand if the circumstances required it, either through injury, curiosity, boredom, or to win a bet. This is like flexing your personality in different situations. Across all situations, however, you’re more likely to use your dominant hand, and so it is with personality. So personality is flexible from one situation to the next, but generally stable over time, then? Not exactly… Although it was once widely accepted that personality was pretty much set in stone by adulthood, research now suggests that it continues to develop throughout the lifespan. For example, Sanjay Srivastava and colleagues (2003) compared data from over 130,000 working-age adults and found that several personality traits tend to become stronger or weaker depending on how old we are. You might be asking yourself “So the Myers-Briggs isn’t perfect, so what”? You’re right, that the tool itself isn’t great isn’t THAT bad. But, as any tradesperson will tell you, if you try and build a house using bad tools, the results aren’t going to be fantastic. This is even more true when you’re using dodgy tools AND the wrong materials. The REAL problem with the Myers-Briggs, and a lot of other similar diagnostic tools like it, is when it’s used in career planning. If we can adapt our personality to fit the situation, and our base personality changes over time, how can we use it as a reference point to plan for the future? If we think of finding a good career choice as finding an oasis in the desert, then using personality to show us the way is like navigating using sand dunes as reference points. Oh, and the shoes you were given (your personality ‘type’) don’t really fit your feet. If someone is trying to define your (flexible, evolving) personality into a (inflexible, set) ‘type’ to determine what sort of career you might be suited to, and the diagnostic tool they've used is flawed, what hope do you have of them steering you in the right direction? If you’re using off-the- shelf blueprints to build a house, how confident are you that the end product will be something you like? That’s what it’s like using the MBTI and the personality ‘type’ it prescribes to plan your career. Wouldn’t it be better to use blueprints that you had a hand in creating? Blueprints that take into consideration what you want? A better approach to career planning is to focus on how we prefer to think and solve problems. Rather than taking a ‘one or the other’ type view, like the Myers-Briggs does with its dimensions of personality, thinking styles encourage us to embrace our ability to adapt. This makes it much more useful to us in planning a new career. Ned Herrmann’s ‘Whole Brain Thinking’ concept is a framework for understanding the different ways in which people think and learn – things that are much more important for job performance and career success than personality. The concept identifies different styles using two dimensions – Rational/Intuitive (do you need to be able to explain why you’re doing something?) and Intellectual/ Instinctive (do you need to think before you act?). From these two dimensions, Ned Herrmann identified four broad thinking styles: I know what you’re thinking “But you’ve just been banging on about how sorting people into boxes is bad!” – but stay with me. Unlike the Myers-Briggs, the Whole Brain Thinking concept understands that individuals adapt their style depending on the circumstances. Unlike the MBTI, which says you must belong to one category or another, the Herrmann model says people can exist across multiple categories. Typically, people will have a dominant thinking style, but the vast majority (as much as 95%) of people use multiple thinking styles depending on the situation. This makes it much better for career planning. So, instead of being a Thinking OR a Feeling person (but not both), in the Herrmann model, your thinking style might be 50% Practical, 30% Analytical, 15% Relational, and 5% Experimental. Instead of saying: “This is your personality, and these are the jobs that fit your type”, the Herrmann model can be used to develop thinking styles that you might not typically use so that you are better able to adapt to the career you want (not the career that matches your personality ‘type’). Peer-reviewed research shows that having the flexibility to use multiple thinking styles effectively is important for creating new insights to existing problems (Meneely & Portillo, 2011). Being flexible is also key in surviving in a changing workplace, where the way things are done now is completely different to how they were done as little as five years ago. So instead of having to rely on your dominant Analytical thinking style, for example, you can develop your ability to use the other styles to give you more options. This can be really liberating and empowering for people who want a career that requires them to use a thinking style that might not come naturally to them. In this way, the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument is less of a diagnostic tool that tells you what career might match your personality ‘type’, and more of a development tool to enhance your ability to succeed in a career that you WANT. So the next time someone tries to use your personality to plan your career, ask yourself if you fancy wandering the desert, hoping that the shifting sands of your personality will somehow guide your to that oasis. Are you willing to build a house with blueprints that don’t take into account your hopes and dreams? I thought not! References Meneely, J., & Portillo, M. (2005). The adaptable mind in design: Relating personality, cognitive style, and creative performance. Creativity Research Journal, Vol. 17, p. 155-166. Srivastava, S., John, O. P., Gosling, S. D., & Potter, J. (2003). Development of personality in early and middle adulthood: Set like plaster or persistent change? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 84, p.1041-1053.
- Written by Patrick Page
- Published: 05 Dec 2016