How would you describe your personality? Are you an introvert? An S (DISC)? A Gryffindor (Harry Potter)?
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), based on Carl Jung’s theory of psychological types, is the most prevalent personality inventory in the world. It’s administered more than three million times each year to help people determine their combination of four letters – i.e., their type. Top-ranked universities such as Princeton, Brown, and Columbia offer the MBTI to students and it is used by 89 of the companies comprising the Fortune 100. Described by the Myers-Briggs Company as a tool for self-awareness and improvement, this test has given many people a language they can use to better understand themselves and one another. You may have heard someone describe themselves as an ENTJ, ISFP, or another four-letter label. What do these letters mean and can they really help improve team performance?
The women behind the MBTI
Katharine Briggs went off to college at age 14 and graduated first in her class. As Merve Emre explains in her book The Personality Brokers, Briggs was then expected to devote herself solely to marriage and motherhood. So she focused her intellect on studying children and how personality testing might be used to improve education. In the 1920s she discovered psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s seminal book Psychological Types and began communicating with him, asking questions about his categories and how these might help someone be the best person they can be.
In the 1940s, Briggs’s daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, wasn’t satisfied with the personality tests which labeled some workers as bad or abnormal. She was familiar with her mother’s thoughts on psychological type and she envisioned an assessment with types that were all equal – an assessment that would allow people to find the right jobs and ultimately happiness. Companies such as GE and Standard Oil began buying the indicators and eventually, in the 1980s, the framework’s popularity skyrocketed.
What’s your type? The four pairs of Myers-Briggs preferences:
The MBTI identifies four pairs of preferences. The dimension you prefer within each pair forms one of the four letters that make up your MBTI type – one of sixteen possible types. To get an idea of your MBTI type you can evaluate each dichotomy for yourself and choose the one that seems more comfortable and natural to you. You might consider how each dimension shows up in your life and at work. Visit the MBTI website for more information on each type or to get your full MBTI results.
Energy: Where do you get your energy and focus your attention?
Extraversion: You get your energy from the outer world. Since you feel energized by being with people and participating in many different activities, you might be at your best when speaking in front of others and enjoy networking. Generally, extraverts have many friends and you may be seen as a “people person.” Talking through a problem with others often helps you understand it better. You focus attention outward by taking action – sometimes before you’ve really taken the time to think it through. Extraverts might prefer a fast pace and excel at multitasking.
Introversion: As an introvert, you get your energy from your inner world. You feel comfortable being alone and like doing things on your own or in small groups rather than large groups. Introverts are reflective, focusing their attention inward. You might wait too long to take action because you like to carefully consider actions before you begin and to focus on one task at a time. You may prefer written communication and solo projects.
Information: How do you absorb information?
Sensing: People who prefer sensing pay more attention to input from their five senses. An “S” in your test results reflects your preference for focusing on what is current and real, including facts and important details. You’re realistic and come up with practical solutions to problems. On the other hand, you may not see future possibilities as easily because you are so focused on past or present facts. Being perceptive of people and the world around you can support your relationships at work.
iNtuition: If you favor intuition, then you prefer information you get through associations, paying attention to its meaning and patterns. You look for the big picture before the facts. Valuing innovation, you like looking to the future and possibilities more than to the past. You may sometimes underemphasize making these possibilities a reality.
Decisions: How do you make decisions?
Thinking: You like to look at situations from the outside, analyzing them and making objective, logical decisions. Honesty and fairness are very important to you, which can support you in a leadership role. It may help to become aware of whether at times you come across as uncaring or insensitive and work to develop more empathy.
Feeling: Preferring the feeling dimension means that you like stepping into situations and making decisions based on people’s feelings, values, and perspectives. You come across as warm and caring, placing great importance on maintaining harmony. Sometimes you might be seen as too idealistic or indirect. While you prefer to avoid conflict, you may need to make decisions that don’t please everyone.
Structure: How do you organize your outer world?
Judging: You prefer a planned and organized way of living your life, feeling more comfortable when decisions have been made. You appear to be task-oriented and prefer order and control. While you’re often well-prepared, you might not be as aware of new information because you’re so focused on your goal. Others might consider you to be a rule-follower, which can be advantageous at work. Sometimes, however, you may need to practice being more flexible.
Perceiving: If your preference is perceiving, you seem to enjoy more spontaneity in your life, staying open to a variety of possibilities. You are driven to appear flexible, so you may help your team by offering a new approach or leading a change at work. Because you like staying open to new information, you may need to work on sticking to deadlines and making decisions when necessary.
Identifying your MBTI type might feel like you’ve discovered a key to self-understanding that promises to transform your perspective and guide you onto a more fulfilling life path. You might also see your friends, family, and coworkers reflected in these descriptions and imagine how better understanding them might improve your relationships. However, to make the most of this test, it’s important to embrace its benefits while being aware of its limitations.
Avoid putting people into boxes based on their type
The MBTI remains widely used in many settings, including successful businesses and Ivy League universities, so its limitations are easily overlooked. However, the test is often criticized for having limited scientific validity and for being unreliable. Many people get different results when they retake the assessment. Being a self-report assessment, it is also entirely dependent on you to portray yourself accurately. Briggs and Myers were college-educated, highly intelligent women, however they had no formal training in psychological assessment and that is another common criticism of their indicator.
Your results may be helpful in certain ways, but can easily be misused. For example, many organizations use the MBTI when hiring. However, psychologist Ronald Riggio and others warn against using it in hiring decisions, explaining that there is no evidence to support its accuracy in that area. The types are not known to be very good predictors of job outcomes. That said, understanding a bit about personality and how it’s assessed can help you benefit from the test.
Keep an open mind
Psychologist Benjamin Hardy points out that when you receive a label, such as “ISFJ,” it can become a significant part of your identity. You might come to think of yourself as “an ISFJ” and focus on all of the times this label fits your personality while ignoring the times when it doesn’t. Having accepted this label, you’ll likely set goals and make decisions that align with it. In other words, identifying with a label can be limiting. It’s important to stay flexible in how you view yourself and understand that your personality is not set in stone. Instead, cultivating a growth mindset – a belief that you can grow and learn, gaining new skills – is valuable for you as an individual and also critical for improving your team’s performance.
Brian Little, author of Who Are You, Really?: The Surprising Puzzle of Personality, explains that personality psychologists generally agree that there are five basic personality dimensions – the “Big Five” traits of openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism – along which we can distinguish people from one another. A Big Five personality test shows how high or low a person ranks for each trait, with most people falling near the middle of the range.
Tests such as the MBTI, which place people into categories rather than on continuums, are necessarily oversimplified. You may have scored just slightly higher in extraversion compared to introversion – or the difference could be massive – and an “E” would appear just the same, ignoring this distinction.
Our “three natures,” according to Little, are: our biogenic nature (neurophysiology), our sociogenic nature (cultural and social factors), and our idiogenic nature (individuality). He explains that it’s important to be aware of our traits, but that they’re not all we are.
What makes us different, Little claims, are our personal projects. We have free traits “where we enact a script in order to advance a core project in our lives” and these traits are what really matter. Sometimes we act out of character because of what’s important to us, although we need to take care of ourselves and not overdo it. So, Little says, “Don’t ask people what type you are; ask them, ‘What are your core projects in your life?’”
How can the MBTI help teams improve their performance?
Elena Bajic, the founder of the curated career community Ivy Exec, suggests that knowing their MBTI type often helps an employee understand how to approach common work-related issues such as time- and stress management, decision making, and problem solving. Bajic also posits that organizations can grow stronger by using MBTI data to improve communication, motivate employees, and reduce conflict. (The increase in remote work over the last year-plus has also prompted psychologists to advise how remote teams can use an awareness of MBTI type to capitalize on each person’s preferences.)
The MBTI assessment offers a vocabulary that people can use to better understand themselves and others, and has long been a useful tool for self-reflection. It may facilitate conversations about differences in personality and perspective, increasing awareness of and appreciation for diversity within a team. Alison Reynolds and David Lewis found that teams with more variety in their thinking styles – known as cognitive diversity – performed better. After identifying the MBTI types of your team members, you might see that a dimension is missing on the team. If that’s the case, Doug Wilde suggests that the team consider appointing someone to take on this missing perspective or that team members take turns ensuring that this dimension is included in their work.
Whether or not you have identified your type, you might use this framework to try looking at situations from both sides of the dichotomies. For example, when you are trying to solve a problem, you might intentionally strive to draw on the strengths of both sensing and intuition preferences. The MBTI’s positive approach to defining different preferences – where no type is considered better or worse than another – may support psychological safety within your team, helping team members feel valued. This may allow them to feel more comfortable sharing their ideas or speaking up when they have a concern, which can be enormously beneficial to the team.
Leading a team discussion about your MBTI types may facilitate better communication and an appreciation for different personalities within your team. If you choose to use the MBTI framework, help your team understand its strengths and limitations as well as the importance of a growth mindset. This tool may encourage your team to develop awareness and value diverse perspectives, cultivating the sense of connection that is key for high-performance teams.