Musings: No Shortcuts To Understanding (People)

Are you interested in understanding yourself better? As a naturally curious person, I am. While I believe that there can be value in some personality tests, like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), there is also the potential for misuse – particularly in employment settings – because they can encourage “shortcuts” like labeling. When shortcuts are taken, we fail to see a complete picture of an individual…to our detriment.

I’ve taken the MBTI (including abbreviated MBTI-like tests) several times over the span of my career, typically in work settings. The first time was when I was in my early 20’s and the results of the test showed that I was a very different personality type from the rest of my colleagues. I still remember that someone made a comment when the results were shared that emphasized how different I was. Perhaps it wasn’t meant to be mean-spirited, but it made me feel singled out and excluded. I didn’t work at that (contract) role for long, but that memory remains fresh in my mind.

Over the years, the results have been consistent, and the tests confirmed that I was that same personality type. I accepted it, and tried to embrace it. I researched what it meant to be that personality type and how to effectively interact with other types.

The last time I took the MBTI in a work setting, my results were basically the same overall. No surprise. What surprised me, however, was that a couple of colleagues came out with the same personality type, and they were quite different from me. It made me wonder if the test was accurate, as well as if the results could somehow be skewed, intentionally or unintentionally. Those results planted a seed of doubt. Nonetheless, I utilized the tools that accompany the test results and tried to work on areas of weakness (every MBTI type has them), as well as to do career planning using those MBTI-specific tools.

Some years later, I took the MBTI again, but on my own, mostly on a lark. Of course I’d be the same personality type, and I already knew all about it. Except that I wasn’t. I came out a different personality type, and when I read more about it, I knew immediately that I’d finally found the right one.

So what happened? Did I change? I don’t think so, but I do think that my responses to questions when the test was administered in a work setting were likely influenced by the expectations of that environment. Outside of that setting, in one where I felt that I could be totally authentic, my results were different: two of the four areas changed for me. And I also understood why at least one colleague who had the same personality type as me according to the work-administered test may not have been that type.

So maybe a “miscategorization” like that doesn’t seem like a big deal. I would agree, but when you spend time working on improving areas of weakness specific to your personality type, and – even worse – you do career planning in accordance with it, you waste a lot of valuable time trying to fit your square peg into that round hole. The fit will never be quite right, and, for me, it wasn’t.

I also now understand why one colleague and I seemed to “click” when we met. Though very different people, with different frames of reference, we always seemed to understand each other. This person even got my sense of humor! It made sense when I looked back at the group’s test results and saw that he was the personality type that I now know myself to be, as well. Through this re-evaluation process, I also discovered that unicorns really do exist!

Also worthy of mention is that Patrick (aka Mr. fMf) was also mis-typed by the MBTI, for similar reasons, we suspect. Once away from the office setting and its attendant influences, he discovered that one of the four type “areas” had changed, and that the new type was a far better and more accurate fit. We’re competitive in a healthy way (I think), so when it ultimately turned out that we were (gasp) the same MBTI type overall, there was both laughter and eye-rolling (as in crap, now I can’t attribute whatever irritating thing he may be doing to being a characteristic of another type! And that probably means I’m irritating, too!).

MBTI wasn’t the only “personality” test I’ve taken in work settings. I’d guess I’ve probably taken at least six or seven types, each slightly different. I liked the idea that I could use these tools to understand myself and my colleagues better, but I didn’t like that some of these tests used labels that seemed pejorative, like “Challenger”. The description of this particular trait – which I apparently have – could be construed to mean that the person who has it is a troublemaker, asking lots of questions and critically analyzing everything. With bias removed, this is actually a useful trait to have on a leadership team – and a fairly rare one, since there was only one other individual who scored high in that area. I found myself feeling, once again, like I was being scrutinized, and not in a positive way.

I’ve truly come to embrace the “type” that I am, and it suits me well. My type marches to the beat of its own drum, and doesn’t need to run with the flock. I only wish that I’d known earlier that I was mis-typed, and hadn’t wasted years working from the erroneous idea that I was a different type. I’m driven to constantly improve, and I had been wasting my time trying to improve areas that didn’t even apply to me. No more.

While MBTI and similar tests can be a starting point for teams to better understand each individual’s needs, with the end goal being that the team works together more effectively, over-reliance on the test results and abuse of the information provided in those reports cast a shadow on the use of these kinds of tools in work settings. It’s tempting for us to want to know what someone is like based on a tidy report, but that oversimplifies human behavior. People are simply more than the sum of their personality tests, and those tests may – for a number of reasons – not produce an accurate result. Personality tests should be used judiciously, and not as a substitute for getting to know others. And it certainly shouldn’t be used against participants, particularly when it’s often not voluntary.

While I still find the MBTI to be a useful tool (when properly utilized), there are many other tests out there. One that I find both useful and less vulnerable to abuse is the Clifton StrengthsFinder (now called CliftonStrengths). This survey focuses on identifying the top strengths of an individual. I also found the questions to be less invasive, making it easier to simply answer without needing to analyze each for misuse potential. The results are presented in a positive, affirming format, with tools such as an Action-Planning Guide and reports designed specifically for leaders (both for the leaders to learn more about their strengths, as well as how they can interact most effectively with direct reports based on their direct reports’ strengths).

At the end of the day, the MBTI and other personality tests or assessments (or other euphemisms used to describe this method of categorizing people) are just tools. Misused or simply ineptly used, they can have negative consequences; properly used, they have the potential to help individuals discover their talents and interests and perhaps even productive ways to engage them. Even those with the best intentions should remember the adage that we are more than the sum of our parts, and that two people with the same type will still be unique individuals – and should be treated as such: no lazy labeling, and no shortcuts.

Read more about the pros and cons of the MBTI here. Share your thoughts about the positives and pitfalls of these kinds of assessments in the comments!