New age babble or science? Jon Curtis takes a light-hearted look at psychometric testing – in particular Myers Briggs (MBTI) – and its usefulness.
Psychometric testing - does it work?
OK. So, I’d like to start this blog post by pointing out that I am not a psychometric testing aficionado. I don’t choose my friends or relationships based on their “profile” and, as an MD, I’m not really sure how useful it might be for most recruitment (where it is commonly used). But neither do I think personality profiling is nonsense and I do think it can help teams work more effectively.
Some years ago, a friend of ours did some informal profiling for me and my wife Amanda. It was no surprise to either of us that we came out at opposite ends of every spectrum there was on her chart. We already knew that we thought and reacted differently, even though our values were very similar.
However, it was really useful to learn that some of the trigger points in the relationship had a perfectly simple explanation. For example, it turns out that I’m motivated largely by logic; she is motivated largely by feelings. On reflection I guess we knew that anyway, but only passively, and it was useful to have it made explicit and to be shown how this might impact on our relationship and also how we might go about using that knowledge to grow up a bit.
Anyway, part way through the session I had one of those ‘light bulb’ moments that showed me the potential of profiling. Our trainer put an apple on the table and asked us, individually, with the other person out of the room, to “talk about this” (the apple). I went first. After a moment of being nonplussed I launched into a monologue involving William Tell, Adam and Eve, the Beatles, and what the apple had been used to symbolise through the years. Eventually I ran out of steam and could think of nothing further to say. Amanda had her turn with the trainer and I was invited back into the room with Amanda for feedback. It was a road to Damascus moment when the trainer told me that Amanda had simply said: “well, it’s mostly green with some flecks of red. It has a stalk and a blemish on the side. Not sure what else to say.” It simply never occurred to me to describe the apple itself and it never occurred to Amanda to talk about Adam and Eve.
It turns out that MBTI suggests that, in this way, people are divided into two groups; roughly, those who work from detail on the one hand, and those who deal in concepts on the other. In MBTI-speak these traits are called ‘Sensing’ (for the detail people like Amanda) and Intuition (for the concept people like me). This trait is described as: ‘a predisposition for gathering data directly through the senses as facts, details, and precedents (Sensing) versus indirectly as relationships, patterns, and possibilities (Intuition).’
Suddenly so much made sense to me. It was like scratching a mental itch I had had. So, in practical terms we might want to discuss next year’s holiday. My tendency is to start dreaming about mad possibilities – ‘let’s ride ponies on the Mongolian Steppe.’ Annoyingly for Amanda, I don’t necessarily actually mean such suggestions as realistic possibilities; I’m kind of playing with ideas. Amanda’s tendency is to ask lots of practical detail questions which I really don’t want to be bothered with. We find the process puzzling and difficult. I can feel grumpy because I don’t really care about the details and I’m just playing with an idea. And Amanda feels cross because she feels like I’ve made a serious suggestion which she might like and then feels let down when I just completely forget about the idea. It’s a trite rather than a real example but there is a lot of truth in it.
The idea is not that you are firmly one side or the other; merely that one will be preferential – easier, more natural – for you. My own observation is that learning to be happy and competent in both preferences is probably a mark of maturity. Certainly, in my own case the intuition preference is very strong, but 20 years as a lawyer taught me the value of detail and deep respect for high competence in dealing with it. Understanding my preference helped me to focus on detail as a goal at work and see clearly when I was underperforming due to my preference. Knowing that detail is a challenge for me helped me become more competent with it.
Apparently, nearly three quarters of people are sensors, which I think is probably a good thing. My experience is that too many ‘big picture’ people in the room spoils the broth.
According to Personality Max, my intuitive preference can be described as follows:
‘Intuitive people live in the future. They are immersed in the world of possibilities. They process information through patterns and impressions. Intuitive people value inspiration and imagination. They gather knowledge by reading between the lines. Their abstract nature attracts them toward deep ideas, concepts and metaphors. They can see the “big picture”.’
Yup. Guilty as charged. That describes this part of me really well. And it definitely wouldn’t describe Amanda well.
So how does knowing that help me practically? In meetings at work and encounters with friends I now understand how easily distracted I can become and how unnatural it is for me to focus on the detail of the issue at hand. It is much easier for me to always be looking for some deeper truth / bigger idea. But because I know that this is my tendency I can work to avoid it; make myself focus on the ‘here and now’ and the important detail at hand.
One of the most profound impacts is on understanding how different people actually are and how people really do work in different ways. I don’t think I really understood that twenty years ago. Sure, I would have said that I understood that people were different, but I still would have felt frustrated and cross with people who weren’t getting my big picture and kept interrupting my ‘flow’ with annoying detail. I now understand how annoying – and tiring – that ‘flow’ is for most other people and try to limit it as much as possible (that still takes a lot of effort by the way).
In practical terms, one thing I have learned is that caffeine has a huge detrimental impact on my ability to reign in my big picture tendencies. Too much caffeine – or sometimes any caffeine – makes me kind of cerebrally chaotic with a cascade of unstoppable thoughts. This is OK sometimes; but rarely if I’m honest. When I’m in that zone, the effort of controlling my thoughts and focusing makes me tetchy and tired.
If you Google Myers-Briggs you’ll find a lively debate about its efficacy. Take for example this entertaining article from the Spectator on how Myers-Briggs is a con. I don’t know if the writer picked up on the irony of his own cynicism. He discloses his personality type as ‘ENTP’, which 16personalities.com describes as: “the ultimate devil’s advocate thriving on the process of shredding arguments and beliefs and letting the ribbons drift in the wind for all to see.” I must confess a chuckle when I read that. Particularly as this is also my type. It takes one to know one I guess.
Steve Cockram is co-founder of GiANT Worldwide as well as being a motivational speaker and MBTI ‘guru’. He is a firm believer in MBTI, but has concerns about many practitioners: “MBTI applied professionally and sensitively in a team works every time. Sadly, I’ve met a lot of people over the years who’ve paid their money to get “Accredited in MBTI” who actually do more harm than good!” As a result, Steve has developed his own easier-access system www.5voices.com which, he says, takes the power of MBTI but applies it through 5 voices. ‘We all speak all 5, it’s just that some are more natural for us than others. For anyone who loves MBTI but gets frustrated that their people can never remember or use their letters this is the perfect resource. Everyone remembers Voices."
Steve is convinced that such tools deliver powerful results to working groups: "You have to give people tools to help them celebrate diversity and difference in those they share life with. We are wired more differently than anyone would imagine and if you lead others the way you would most like to be led then you will get it wrong about 80% of the time."
There is no doubt that collaborative teams out-perform groups of highly talented individuals. As an MD I’m keen to find any tools that will increase my and my team’s EQ and effectiveness in communication.
Jon Curtis is Managing Director of www.myhrtoolkit.com - simple, powerful and secure human resources software for business.
Written by Jon Curtis
Jon Curtis is Managing Director at myhrtoolkit and previously an employment solicitor. He co-founded myhrtoolkit in 2005 and become full-time MD in 2018.