In part 1 of this series, I gave my take on some of the weaknesses and limitations of MBTI and its underlying Jungian theory of psychological types. In part 2, I tried to reconstruct Jung’s ideas into a rather over-simplified model of how we deal with information and make decisions, leaving out a few of his most troublesome assumptions. Now I will explain how this model influences my work with clients and how I actually use MBTI in practice.
In defence of dynamics
Before I do that though, having criticised the MBTI, I would like to balance things a little.
One of the criticisms levelled at the MBTI is that, compared to other psychometric instruments, it has poor test-retest reliability. This means that if the same person answers the questionnaire on two separate occasions they might come out with different results. This is a fair criticism if what you are trying to measure is a fixed trait which ought not to change over time. Part of this is probably due to the arbitrary allocation of people in the middle of the spectrum to one preference or another, something I have never been comfortable with.
However, if Jung’s model is not really about fixed preferences between opposing traits, but a dynamic balance of complementary functions that depend on the needs of the situation as much as the natural inclinations of the individual, then the low reliability of the MBTI may be giving an insight into the adaptability of our brains.
One way of testing this situational hypothesis might involve getting people to focus on a scenario geared towards a particular mode of thinking before they complete the questionnaire. If you made them think about the same scenario before they did it again then test-retest reliability ought to get better, and if you gave them a different type of scenario it should get worse. If anyone knows of any research along these lines, please let me know.
Even if the above is true and the lower reliability is a feature rather than a bug, this still leaves the question of whether you should be trying to measure something that is, by its nature, changeable. Against that, let me pose another question: why should we assume that relatively stable aspects of personality are more important than the way in which someone’s responses change with different circumstances? If we are helping people to navigate change in their lives, perhaps both the fixed and the changeable aspects of human nature are worthy of attention. You could argue that what you can alter may be more relevant if you are looking at a change of career identity. Perhaps the MBTI is not the best tool to do this, as it was designed with a lot of differential psychology assumptions about static traits. If there are other tools around that specifically examine the dynamic, contextual aspects of personality, I’d be interested in hearing about them.
For an overview and comparison of the dynamic-cognitive and the static-trait approaches to personality see this article:
I have a related general reservation about the use of psychometric instruments in career helping. It’s a common assumption that the more information you have available about a client the better. However, research on the limits of rationality seem to show that, if we have a lot of information we find it hard to distinguish the important from the irrelevant.
My rules of engagement
All of this leads me to my first rule about how I might use MBTI in my work:
I use it with caution and honesty.
Every practitioner who uses MBTI should be fully aware of its weaknesses and limitations. They should also be open with clients about those limitations. I focus more on explaining the underlying theory than using the instrument as a diagnostic tool. In doing this I am giving clients something that they can apply to themselves and experiment with beyond the discussion rather than fostering dependence on me as the person who can use the magic tool.
I also try to get clients to think about their behaviour in particular settings rather than as an overall pattern (When are you more likely to be using extraverted thinking, etc.?). I also encourage clients to think about exceptions to the rule.
Rather than forcing clients to express a black-or-white preference, I express it in terms of percentages or ratios. For example, most of the time I consider myself to be a 70/30 Thinking/Feeling, but this fluctuates between 60/40 and 80/20 depending on the situation.
I use it sparingly and only when the client wants it.
In a lot of my work with clients, MBTI or Jungian functions play no part at all. It just doesn’t come up because it’s not relevant.
In other cases, I might apply it in the background — much as I might apply any theory. It gives me a set of questions to bear in mind when interacting with clients (see ‘What could go wrong?’, ‘Behaviour ranges’ and ‘Rumination and reaction’ in part 2). As with any other theory, I don’t apply it rigidly or indiscriminately, and most of the time it just hovers inthe background suggesting possible lines of enquiry.
I am suspicious of any career consultant who always uses psychometric measures, especially if it’s the first thing they get clients to do. At best, it may be relevant and helpful. It may be harmless, but an irrelevant waste of money. At worst, it could set an inappropriate frame for the subsequent discussions by focusing on information that is available and accurate but not relevant, thus preventing the real issues to emerge.
As far as I’m concerned it’s the client’s choice. If a client requests the actual questionnaire, or I agree with an informed client that it might be useful for them…
I consider how to use it most appropriately for the individual client.
Isabel Briggs Myers and Katherine Briggs initially designed their questionnaire to promote mutual understanding and as a career matching tool. In the latter aim they were misguided and not particularly successful. It’s not suitable for ‘what’ questions (What would I be suited to? What am I good at?). It’s better with ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions (How does my decision making work and why does it sometimes let me down? Why do I keep making the same mistakes and how can I stop?). So, rather than trying to match people to jobs, I tend to use the MBTI to explore the client’s career research and decision making methods.
With their other ambition Myers and Briggs have been more successful. Although MBTI is used to help people understand themselves, it’s even better at helping people to understand and appreciate others. Therefore, I mostly like to use it in team-building and conflict situations. With individuals, I sometimes use it to gain greater understanding of career-related interpersonal issues (Why was I not able to get on with my colleagues?).
I use it on myself
One of the main ways I use Jungian theory is to counterbalance my own natural tendencies. My own MBTI type is INTP (with a good test-retest reliability) and I do tend to have a default approach to problems which is contemplative, abstract, analytical and exploratory. It is very useful to be alert to the times when this is not working with a particular client and to be aware of alternative approaches that I could take. I will be a more versatile coach if I can switch to a more lively, concrete, instinctive, goal-focused approach when necessary.
I use it for reflection
As with other theories, the Jungian model can be applied to reflective practice and review. It helps me to think about:
- The detailed information and the patterns that I noticed or failed to notice (Pe)
- The way I decided what was going on and my impressions of what was important (Ji)
- Which things I remembered to follow up and my awareness of my own internal emotions (Pi)
- The rational and instinctive decisions I made during the discussion about what to do (Je)
OK, David, answer the question!
The title of these three posts is ‘Do I still like MBTI?’ and it’s a bit of a misleading question. Even though I’m a practitioner, I have never been a whole-hearted believer. The MBTI instrument has many flaws (read the articles below for some more – some of which are wholly justified, some unjustified and some irrelevant). I think Jung’s theories were really insightful at the time, but he made too many assumptions that should have been corrected by later developments and discoveries in cognitive science.
Having said that, I think it does have value if used wisely and cautiously. There have been instances when it’s been very useful and times when it’s been completely irrelevant.
On a recent Radio 4 programme about the MBTI, one occupational psychologist rather dismissively described the MBTI as ‘harmless’. I think that what was intended as an insult is in fact one of its strengths. In presenting the potential positive and negative aspects of different types of behaviour, the MBTI is a gentle, non-judgemental way of getting people to engage with and question their own behavioural habits, and to appreciate and accept other people’s habits.
So, do I accept it unquestioningly and unreservedly? No.
Do I think it’s useful? Sometimes.
Do I approach it with the same combination of enthusiasm and skepticism that I apply to other theories? Yes.
Do I still like it? On balance, yes.
- Michael, J. (2003) Using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator as a tool for leadership development? Apply with caution Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 10(1), 68-81. DOI: 10.1177/107179190301000106
- Pettinger, D.J. (1993) Measuring the MBTI…and coming up short. Journal of Career Planning and Employment, 54(1), 48-52.
Over to you…
- If you use MBTI as part of your practice, how do you use it?
- Do you like it?
- If you use something else for similar purposes to those I described, what do you use and how does it work for you?
- What’s your opinion on the use of psychometric tools in general?