Research indicates that personality testing is a $400 million industry, and it’s growing by nearly 10 percent a year. Of more than 2,500 personality tests, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is certainly the granddaddy. According to Annie Murphy Paul, author of “The Cult of Personality,” more than 2.5 million people will take the MBTI and 89 percent of Fortune 100 companies will use it this year. Is this a positive signal for your learning agenda? As a development professional, should you be in front of this parade?
A tenet of development holds that you must first know yourself to be effective with others. The self is the primary tool that managers must use in order to lead. Effectiveness as a leader depends on the ability to listen, to be influential, to delegate, to build trust, to drive change, to synthesize information, to engage the enthusiasm of others and a host of other soft skills. Yet, we seem consistently poor at knowing ourselves and how others perceive us. Poet Robert Burns wrote, “If I but had the eyes to see myself as others see me.” When it comes to seeing ourselves, we are vision-impaired and often miscalculate our personality wiring.
Almost every management development program contains tests, surveys or analyses that provide participants with feedback regarding their thinking styles, preferences, cognitive approaches, creative tendencies, impact on others and so on. Some of this information, when used in the right context with the right expertise, can bring significant insight. In the wrong setting, it can be disastrous. The darkest side of type instruments appears when they are used as simplistic methods to confirm prejudices or as the basis for manipulation. Understanding people requires objectivity, sensitivity, experience, open-mindedness and time. Most people think of themselves as expert judges of people and are eager to demonstrate their skill. Personality tests that label people as combinations of letters, colors, signs or numbers can become loaded guns in the hands of those who aim to “nail” people quickly, so they can exert their power and extract what they want. This is blatant disrespect for the dignity of marvelously complex human beings.
I particularly object to asking people to wear name cards announcing their label. When I’m at a party and asked for my sign, I get some interesting looks when I respond that I am a “vegitarious.” Labeling may be fun for a parlor game, but it can leave people with grossly simplistic notions of human beings as nothing more than their tag. Psychologists joke about this when they say that there are two types of people in the world: those who think there are two types of people and those who don’t.
Humans seem to possess something that wants to reduce differences to formulas. We seem to be comforted by simple labels and brief descriptions of complex matters that are largely inexplicable. Labels provide us with the feeling that we can understand and master unfamiliar people or things if we name them. I call it the Rumpelstiltskin effect. We may not understand a medical condition, but merely having a name for it somehow helps give us the perception of control. It is amusing to ask people in acronym-rich environments to tell you what the acronyms stand for. Oftentimes, they are at a loss.
Don’t get me wrong, I have sponsored and led development processes that used instruments with positive results. The primary value of using instruments in these cases was to get a rich dialogue going. Even the most venerated type indicators show relatively unimpressive test-retest reliability scores and a high degree of situational sensitivity. The usefulness of type indicators is less about defining who one is and more about identifying the benefits and liabilities of specific behavioral tendencies in different settings. Sophisticated development practitioners respect the complexity of the human personality. They recognize that people can grow and change. They take the veracity of type instruments lightly, knowing that it is merely one point of information. They guard against creating the conditions in which people take on labels that may become self-fulfilling or self-limiting.
Like most of us, I have a tendency to size people up and categorize them in ways that are consistent with my conception of who they are. It simplifies things. I loved the sports enthusiast in the MBTI training who declared, “I’m an ESPN. What type are you?” But richer and more meaningful interactions occur when I suspend the constraints of superficial labels, engage in constructive discovery and help create an environment in which people can use the full expression of their capabilities. Isn’t that what development is all about?
Fred Harburg is senior vice president of leadership & management development at Fidelity Investments Company, and has held numerous international leadership roles with IBM, General Motors, Disney, AT&T and Motorola. Fred can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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