Do you ever sit in a meeting and wonder why no one else in the room seems to understand the right way to set the agenda? Do you ever wonder why your friend wants to go out on the town at conferences and you want to just go back to the hotel and sleep? Does your collaborator’s working style make you grit your teeth, but you know he’s brilliant so you stick with him anyway?
For myself, I’ve found that the Myers-Briggs system for understanding personality traits has been very helpful in understanding and working through the conflicts that can arise in situations like these.
The Myers-Brigg Type Indicator (MBTI) is a psychometric tool based upon Jung’s theory of psychological types. It was designed by Katherine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers in order to provide a simple way for individuals and groups to apply that theory for greater self-understanding and for better communication in workplace settings. Although the validity of the MBTI has been criticized by some, many professionals in psychology and laypeople have found it useful. I’m not a professional in the field, and I’m interested in it only as a tool I’ve found useful. YMMV.
When you take the MBTI, you answer a series of T/F questions that ask whether you agree with a statement most of the time. The results of the test are reported as a series of scores for four pairs of terms. The terms you received high scores for then become your type. There are sixteen possible types in this system.
The four pairs are:
- Introversion/Extroversion (how you prefer to engage with the world, and where you gain energy from)
- Sensing/INtuition (how you collect information)
- Thinking/Feeling (how you make decisions)
- Judging/Perceiving (how you relate to organization or structure)
The actual MBTI can only be administered under licensed conditions, but a related tool developed by David Kiersey is available online. Kiersey’s book Please Understand Me is a useful resource as well. Kiersey’s system adds some descriptive terminology to the original MBTI types that makes certain distinctions more clear.
These terms are best understood as preferences, not predictors or limits on behavior. Thus an introvert may in general prefer solitude, but can succeed in a people-based career if he builds in enough rest periods in between. Your score for one pair may be very high on one side of the spectrum and close to the middle for a different pair, which means it’s a less strongly marked preference in your personality.
Most important, there is no judgment involved in the MBTI or Kiersey system. No one type is better than another.
Some personality types are naturally more interested in the whole system (because of their response to structure) and others naturally dismiss it. Some types are statistically more prevalent than others (and gender-marked). Certain professions tend to attract people of certain types, and so the MBTI has often been used in employment counseling.
So, what does all this have to do with getting along with your colleagues? I was first introduced to the MBTI through a professional development workshop offered by my employer at a job I held before academia. Approximately 75 people took the official MBTI and then participated in a day-long series of sessions to explain the meaning of the results. (I’m an INTJ.)
For me, the most persuasive moment of the day was when we were divided into groups based upon our last two traits, Thinking/Feeling and Judging/Perceiving. So I was with all the other people who were also TJs. All the groups were given a hypothetical workplace management problem (a decision about who in the hypothetical office to downsize) and told to solve it in half an hour. Because I was sitting in a group with people who shared my TJ trait, even though none of us knew each other, we were able to quickly and easily decide upon our process for discussing and deciding about the problem. It felt instinctive, natural, and easy. People sitting in the other groups similarly reported a sense of satisfaction and ease with their process. But as you might imagine, each group pursued a radically different strategy. My group discussed pros/cons, took a vote, and then we were done. Another group was still talking about how to make the decision when the half hour was up.
If I were on a committee made up of people from both of those groups, I might feel frustrated at some people’s need for emotional discussion and their wish for everyone to agree. They might feel frustrated at my need for a decision to be made and finalized. Because these traits are so deeply seated in our personalities, they feel obvious, natural, and self-evident. So it’s easy to just think that the other person is cold or inefficient, when in fact it’s a deeper question about how to communicate about making decisions. Knowing some basic things about the Myers-Briggs system helps me try to understand the information-gathering and decision-making styles of my colleagues even when they seem very different from my own preferences. And that’s the first step to greater individual and collective productivity overall.
(cc licensed image by flickr user OiMax)
Have you taken the MBTI? Let us know in the comments!