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The MBTI® Personality Assessment – A Horse of a Different Color

5 Things that Make the MBTI® Unique and Why it Matters

“One consequence of the popularity of the MBTI® is that it has become increasingly detached from psychological type theory – often to the detriment of the individuals whom it is intended to benefit.” – The MBTI® Manual

When it comes to personality instruments, the MBTI® is a “horse of a different color”.  Its unique place among assessments arises from its theoretical underpinnings – C.G. Jung’s psychological types.  Jung’s theory, thus Myers’ instrument, gets to the heart of who we are – how we see and adapt to the world; how our minds function. It does not measure competence, skill level, ability, or aptitude, and we cannot predict how an individual will act or perform based solely on their type. As the theory goes, observable differences in behavior stem from how we use our energy to perceive (take in information) and judge (make decisions) which “…make up a large portion of people’s total mental activity.” [Myers, 1980]. Thus, if we know the theory, we can expect to see different patterns of behavior from people of different types, helping us to accept, navigate and understand ourselves and people different from us.

Despite the elegance of Jung’s theory and the efficacy of the instrument, its rather simplistic “face”, coupled with its popularity, widespread misunderstanding on the internet, and poor interpretation by unknowing practitioners, the MBTI is often presented as a watered-down or misinterpreted version of itself. I see the consequences each time I facilitate an introductory workshop – people that have taken the MBTI before don’t remember their type, what it means, or its usefulness, and unethical uses such as profiling for hiring or placement seem to be all too common.

Katharine Myers (daughter in-law of Isabel Myers) has said, “It’s time to bring the MBTI back to its Jungian roots.” (conversations with Katharine Myers). I agree. Here are 5 key points about the MBTI and psychological type that may surprise you, or re-ignite your interest, if you have taken the Indicator before but found little practical value.

1. Each of the 16 MBTI® types are unique systems of energy and balance

According to Jungian theory, our type is anything BUT static or rigid; it is, “…concerned with the movement of psychic [mental] energy and the way in which one…preferentially orients oneself in the world.” [Daryl Sharp, 1987] Building on this knowledge, Myers provided us with a formula for investigating what lies beneath each of her 16 codes. Encoded within each type is information about the nature and focus of attention of the type, the core motivation of the type, and how each type moves between the inner and outer worlds. Familiarity with the code, or “type hierarchy” as it is called, can inform us about when and how we might be in or out of balance. Once we know our type, we can understand where we might be stuck, and how to choose to direct our energy differently when needed.

2. The Instrument and its theory are neutral and non-judgmental

In the type model, there are no good or bad types, no weak or strong functions, and no normal or abnormal behaviors. Understanding our type can help us grasp that we all have certain shortcomings, or development needs. Looking from the standpoint of type theory, blind spots and the need for development are natural and normal, a part of what it means to be human. We can be absolved of the need to blame or criticize ourselves and can become more compassionate and accepting of differences.  We see that all types struggle with different aspects and areas of the human experience..

3. Psychological type is about personal growth and development

Jung’s theory of psychological types gives us a built-in map, or compass for life long growth and development. The MBTI instrument opens the doorway to that model; to help us explore who we are at a deep level. When de-coded, our type provides us with information for how we use and develop our mental functions – what functions may reside in our conscious mind, and a directional path for what functions may be unconscious but within our reach to access. We can follow this map to differentiate (make more conscious) and use those functions. In this way, type development helps us to identify blind spots and engage in behaviors that are new to us and perhaps more appropriate for the tasks at hand, while working within the context of who we are.

4. Results are confidential and belong to the respondent

Myers encapsulated Jung’s theory into her instrument because she thought it to be the best explanation of human behavior that she had come upon. Myers intent was to help people understand themselves better and appreciate differences, by having an individual validate his or her own type. She wanted people to sort themselves into the type categories to which they belonged according to Jungian theory, so they could use type as a vehicle for self-exploration and awareness. Myers was aware that only the individual taking the assessment would be in the position to judge the accuracy of results for him or herself. Myers did not intend that the indicator should be used by anyone but the person taking the instrument (such as a hiring director, for instance) and whether to share results would be up to the individual.

5. The end goal is not to simply identify your 4-letters

Selecting your 4-letter type should always be administered within the context of an explicit application, even if your goal is to enhance self-awareness. It is a tool to help resolve organizational issues and propel professional (and personal) development. When it comes to application, the MBTI is the “work horse” of psychological instruments. Since the instrument was created to indicate how we see and operate in the world, it stands to reason that we can apply it to how we see and operate in most organizational settings and within the context of most organizational issues. Our type colors how communicate, how we react to each other in conflict and when under stress, and how we make important decisions. It affects our leadership and team style, and points to what excites, motivates and irritates us. Tapping into this information when inter-personal issues arise in the workplace lays the foundation to well-thought out solutions.

So, the next time you hear or read something negative about the MBTI assessment, or question whether or not it will be useful to your organization, teams or leaders, remember these 5 key points. When the MBTI assessment is presented and applied within the context of its Jungian roots, it is sure to bring you closer to your goals than you think.

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Comments (10)

  1. I absolutely agree with this. I have had the same experience of working with those who have forgotten their type, but when discussed in depth they suddenly see the value that might be gained from the insight. They also see how it might be used for their own development, and therefore look at the tool more in depth. This is what excites me abut using MBTI whether in individual development through coaching and mentoring, career development, team development or executive coaching.

    • Yes, Barbara, it really does make a difference when people understand the Indicator as a doorway to Jungian typology. It is especially effective for development, as you say. I have not known anyone to forget their type after engaging the theory and how they relate to it, or when it is used to actually solve a problem. Not to say that there is a lack of value when people simply understand their four letters, but going deeper provides so much more! Thanks for the comment!

  2. What a good blog opening. I was introduced to MBTI in the 1970’s (oops!). I can’t imagine how many complete psychological assessments I’ve done (law enforcement, public safety, U.S. Gov. — thousands but never without a MBTI. This is important because, frankly, maybe a majority (51%) are skilled and understanding the theory behind. Yet many don’t go much beyond the “lexicon” and descriptive words, and don’t integrate other v/good instruments. Now, one of the “Horses of a Different Colors” is right there! As long as MBTI is used responsibly, it can serve the broad-range community as well as personality psychology- professional community. That’s an unusual accomplishment for a single instrument in making it’s contribution. Of course it was never meant to be a “duel-purpose” instrument but it sure is.
    I’m very interested in what anyone has to say about MBTI potentially drifting into that “no return” common little questionnaire status. ? So true Cindy, not just MBTI, no instrument, itself, “sorts” vocational qualifications or DSM-5 diagnosis. Thanks.

    • Thanks for the comment Al. I sometimes think that practitioners believe it to be too complicated to introduce type dynamics in an introductory session; this might be the stumbling block. In my experience, simply defining the dominant and auxiliary as part of the session helps people to understand the balancing and energetic nature of type. I think its important, as Introduction to Type provides us with the “type hierarchy” for each of the 16 types. When people read their descriptions after self-selection, they always have questions. CAPT has some great handouts that provide quick and easy to understand definitions of the eight dominant functions. Thanks again for the comment!

  3. Thank you for the excellent article. The effectiveness of the MBTI is tied directly to the qualifications of the administrator. “Type is an explanation of behavior, not an excuse for it” is one of my stand-by comments. In addition, folks need to be reminded that type does not explain everything. It should be regarded as a “snapshot” which could easily be combined with other instruments to aid us in more fully understanding ourselves.

  4. Thank you for such a concise and easily understood description of MBTI; how it is of use to recipients and importantly, how MBTI should not be used and was not its intended application for recruitment or promotion.
    thank you