The Big Bad MBTI Controversy – what does it mean?

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is one of the most widely used personality instruments in the world. It’s taken by over 2 million people each year, and is a staple tool in coaching. Personality assessment is very important because much coaching work circles round discussing and dealing with how the coachee perceives and reacts to ‘the external world’. And that depends largely on the makeup of the individual’s personality.

Geometric headMost of us take it as read that the MBTI is a bona fide instrument that tells us something about personality which is worth learning. Yet, among psychologists in particular, it’s regarded with outright scepticism. There’s been a controversy raging for years, and here I’m going to take a look at the arguments in order to shed light on whether the MBTI is fit for purpose as far as its use in coaching is concerned.

What is the MBTI?

The MBTI is a general personality assessment based on the work of psychologist Carl Jung. First developed by American mother and daughter Katharine Briggs and Isabel Myers in the first half of the twentieth century, it’s built upon identifying an individual’s preferences in four separate categories of how energy, information and decision-making are managed. In developing the MBTI, Briggs and Myers were aiming to make the insights of type theory accessible to ordinary individuals and groups. And therein lies its attraction. It’s understandable to the ordinary woman or man in the street, and individuals tend to easily identify with the kinds of information it provides.

So what does the test measure? There are four categories, with each category composed of two opposite poles:

  • Where attention is focused – Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I)
  • The way information is taken in – Sensing (S) or Intuition (N)
  • The way decisions are made – Thinking (T) and Feeling (F)
  • How the outer world is dealt with – Judging (J) or Perceiving (P)

This framework provides sixteen possible personality types, expressed via combinations of four letters relating to the four categories, such as ‘ENFP’ or ‘ISFJ’. For a quick resume, click on the graphic below, which summarises the sixteen types and briefly describes the four categories.

MBTI types

(Source: Jake Beech, Wikimedia Commons)

It’s important to remember that anyone who wishes to administer the MBTI tests needs to undertake training. The commonly used four-scale version requires 2-5 days’ training per test. This is the version with which most coaches are familiar. There is also a full MBTI five-scale version (using an advanced scoring system called the Type Differentiation Indicator or TDI, now known as the MBTI® Step III™) which is only available to qualified clinicians.

So what’s the controversy?

Psychologists take issue with the very basis of the MBTI. Why?

As it happens, neither Briggs nor Myers were qualified sociologists. They were ‘amateurs’ with an intense interest in the work of psychologist Karl Jung. His book Psychological Types impressed Briggs so much that it inspired her to write her own survey on personality, which (once developed) became the prototype for the MBTI. In the 1970s, the publishing company Consulting Psychologists Press (CPP) took over the distribution rights to the MBTI test and marketed it heavily to American businesses. From then on its popularity mushroomed until it reached its present status as the most widely used personality instrument in the world.

Global popularity doesn’t automatically mean something is based on scientific proofs. One of the few things psychologists agree on is that there are five basic blocks of personality.

Big 5 Personality Traits

The relationship between the Big 5 Personality Traits (Source: Eganos, Wikipedia Commons)

The ‘Big Five’ theory of personality speaks of five ‘traits’ that operate along five continuums: conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion, openness to experience, and emotional stability (neuroticism). These traits have all been observed by social scientists and tested in the lab and in the field. The popular four-scale MBTI, by contrast, is a ‘type’ instrument based on four categories, each composed of opposite polarities. The world of psychology denies the existence of ‘types’, and suggests that the ‘either/or’ nature of polarities does not reflect human reality.

In addition, trait theory is based on five blocks, whereas the four-scale MBTI we are all familiar with has only four. The missing scale is said to be crucial to inform a rounded view of personality, as it runs from emotional stability to neuroticism (the normal half of the scale) and then on from neuroticism to psychoticism (the abnormal half). Since the four-scale MBTI lacks this scale, according to psychologists it cannot be said to be a comprehensive personality instrument. Therefore psychologists decry its extensive use within the world of business, especially in recruitment or selection processes.

Why use the MBTI?

If the MBTI isn’t up to the job, and it doesn’t qualify as a comprehensive personality instrument, why is it so popular?

  • The MBTI is understandable to non-specialists     Discussing ‘types’ uses language people understand, whereas instruments designed by psychologists are too complex and need expert interpretation. With the MBTI, an individual has to make a choice between, say, E and I or T and F, which produces a ‘best fit’ type that is readily understandable and usable. Some would say traits keep power with the ‘experts’, whereas ‘type’ hands it over to clients.
  • The purpose of the four-scale MBTI was to make information about personality widely available and deliverable by trained lay people  –  and the express intention was to promote greater understanding and harmony between individuals. In fact, the MBTI does have a version available only to qualified clinicians and counsellors (not lay people) which includes the fifth scale described above – the MBTI® Step III™. Clinical psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors already have the kind of training which means they are in a professional position to interpret information which can have serious ramifications for their patients but is not accurately understood by the general public (such as a diagnosis of ‘psychotic’, for example). It stands to reason that unqualified people should not be allowed to label others in such a way, and use of the four-scale MBTI avoids this – whilst at the same time making useful information about personality widely available and deliverable by trained lay people.
  • The MBTI goes to great lengths to be non-judgemental     Each of the sixteen possible types is treated with scrupulous even-handedness, with an equal measure of pros and cons. There is also no reference to one type or another being more suitable for a particular occupation. Everyone, whatever their type, is an individual with something of value to offer. The even-handedness and lack of judgementalism of the MBTI make the results palatable to the subjects of the test, who are able to work with them because they induce positive, constructive feelings.

The MBTI and coaching

Given the reservations of psychologists about the four-scale MBTI, how should we as coaches view it? It’s clearly not fit for purpose as far as selection and recruitment processes are concerned – but it has to be said that this was never a purpose it was intended to fulfil.

2 silhouetted figuresIn the Ethical Guidelines on use of the test drawn up by The Myers & Briggs Foundation in collaboration with other interested groups, it is specifically stated to be unethical to require job applicants to take the test “if the results will be used to screen out applicants,” and that anyone administering the test should “not counsel a person to, or away from, a particular career, personal relationship or activity based solely upon type information.” In addition, MBTI type preferences should be presented as that – preferences. The Guidelines stress that types are “tendencies, preferences, or inclinations” rather than absolutes, because all people have every capacity and function described in the theory of type. Type does not imply “excellence, competence or natural ability, only what is preferred.”

Within the context of coaching, the MBTI can be very useful. How?

  • Coachees are given the opportunity to discuss their preferences and personalities  –  a conversation which is very rarely possible within the workplace. A discussion based on the MBTI opens individuals up to new insights into themselves, and raises awareness of the self in relation to others. Unlike other psychological instruments, the MBTI doesn’t separate people into adaptive vs maladaptive, functioning vs dysfunctional, or stable vs neurotic. This is very positive, and reinforces the ability of coach and coachee to work together in a spirit of non-judgementalism towards programmes of personal development which value what the coachee already does well, and seek to develop or extend the repertoire of her or his existing abilities.
  • Discussion of types enables a conversation about the coachee in the context of other personality types     It’s common for individuals to see the world through the lens of their own personalities, so the realisation that each person is different, with differing but equally valuable strengths, can open up a new perspective for coachees from which they can appreciate and understand others in a more informed manner. Where a coachee may be having problems relating to other individuals, this in itself may catalyse solutions purely related to how the coachee him or herself is able to reframe his or her perception of ‘the other’.
  • The MBTI comes with a detailed set of comprehensive support materials and booklets  –  based on the solid data set built up over the decades from millions of people taking the MBTI each year. For example, Introduction to Type and Coaching sets out detailed guidance on the strengths of each preference, what typically goes wrong for each one, what the research says is the best way of tackling the deficits, and tips on how best to coach that type. There are also booklets on how the different types react to stress, change and conflict, offering tried and tested ways of how to help each type deal with those issues.

So, in the context of coaching, the MBTI does have its value. Whilst we should all understand the limitations of how the four-scale MBTI can be deployed, used with care, it can expand the awareness and insight of coachees into self, as well as into their relationships with ‘the other’.

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