By Kent Noel, Ph.D.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) was originally developed by Katherine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers and first published in 1962. It is based on Carl Jung’s work on typological theories. The MBTI looks at personality across four dimensions: Extraversion/Introversion (E/I), Sensing/Intuiting (S/N), Thinking/Feeling (T/F), and Judging/Perceiving (J/P) resulting in sixteen possible combinations or types.
It is an excellent instrument when used properly. However, many who do elect to use it know just enough about psychological testing and assessment to be dangerous. Understanding what it can and cannot do is, therefore, vital prior to administering it.
A senior colleague of mine attended a conference a few years back in which he heard what is in my opinion the best take on the MBTI to date. At the event, a presenter stated that if personality were a location, the Myers-Briggs would give you the zip code, but not the street address. In other words, it is very much a general “30,000 feet flyover” view of personality.
On the plus side, it can be extremely useful in helping improve group dynamics. For instance, thinking and feeling types do, in fact, react and relate quite differently from one another and being aware of this can help minimize conflict and heighten communication in a job setting. Such differences, if not acknowledged and worked through, can both reduce productivity and chip away at overall morale.
However, there is a dark side that many devotees (I use the word devotee, because it often has an almost cult-like following) to the instrument seem to gloss over or ignore altogether. Most notably, the MBTI is simply not reliable enough to use, with confidence, for the purposes of employment selection or career planning.
Multiple studies have found that fewer than 50% of test takers have the same type from one testing session to the next. For example, when I have taken the MBTI on multiple occasions, I have been typed as an INTJ, ENTJ, and INTP. Thus, using it to make critical decisions with regard to hirings, promotions, and career transitions is a very dicey endeavor at best.
In light of such concerns, the MBTI, like many assessment instruments, needs to be treated like a “loaded gun” and handled with care to avoid accidents. When utilized properly, for limited scope communication enhancement, it has much to offer.
However, when HR folks, psychologists, counselors, and others try to apply it too broadly and too deeply, it can border on the unethical and result in much unintended harm. More thoroughly and fairly evaluating individuals for the purposes of selection, advancement, or career planning entails utilizing multiple valid and reliable instruments to identify characteristics such as assertiveness, influence, planning, conscientiousness, drive, honesty, objectivity, problem solving, and intelligence in order to arrive at comprehensive, not “cookie cutter,” interpretations and conclusions.