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Do You Really Know—and Use!—Your 4-Letter MBTI® Code?

Adam Grant’s recent post Goodbye to the MBTI® has gathered forces both for and against personality type theory. The comments are full of people who agree with him. Rich Thompson’s post nicely outlines the research behind this instrument. Hile Rutledge’s calm response The MBTI®–My Most Valid Tool highlights the benefits of the instrument and the framework. And Jennifer Selby Long adds info on the MBTI/Big 5 debate.

I’ll take a different direction here. As I read all the comments to these blogs, I wondered, “Did they really take the MBTI® and was it properly administered?”

For group adminstrations, I often first ask, “How many of you have taken the MBTI before?” As many as ¾ of the participants raise hands. “How many of you remember your four-letter code?” Perhaps 20 percent of the hands stay up. I remind them that ESPN is a network, not a type, and then ask, “How many of you had the chance to apply the framework of type to your team, or career, or marriage, or parenting, or personal development, or any of the other deep applications?” And only a few hands remain in the air. When asked, these people willingly share stories of the differences understanding these basic differences among people can make.

So how do you know if you really know your type? Most people who find the theory a waste of time haven’t been through an ethical interpretation. Here’s a quick guide to finding out:

Did you receive an interpretation?

If you were handed results and told, “This is your type,” I’m so sorry. That isn’t ethical, nor is it how the MBTI was ever intended to be used.

Isabel Myers, who began work on the instrument in the 1940s—work that continues in revisions today—didn’t think people would want to be told who they were, so she created the instrument to work within a specific process for interpreting the results. Here’s what is supposed to happen:

  • Did you first hear about the theory of preferences (All normal people can use all the preferences, but just as we have a preferred hand to write with, we have preferred mental preferences…)
  • Was each of the preference pairs then described to you so that you could self-select which one seemed to fit best? Here are the essentials.
  • Did you then receive your results? And have a chance to ask questions and clarify your best-fit type if MBTI results differed from what you just chose?
    • When your self-selection and report results are different, realize…you’re having an argument with yourself! You answered both!
    • Discrepancies  are often sources of major insights. Ones I’ve heard include, “That’s what my mother wanted me to be, but this is who I really am…and that’s okay?” “I HAVE to be that way at work…no wonder I’m so stressed!” “Oh, my father taught me to value that, and I learned great skills from him, but I’m really…” Isn’t that better than being told who you are??
  • Did you get to read full type descriptions, underlining what fit and didn’t fit, as a way of confirming whether you’d found your “best fit type?”

Unfortunately, this process doesn’t always happen. According to the MBTI manual, about 2/3 of responders agree with their results; 90 percent agree on 3 of 4 letters. That leaves a lot of people being handed inaccurate results and thus not benefitting from them. Spread the word: Explanation, then results, then interpretation to find best-fit type. 

Did it cost you something?

There is no free online MBTI (although commenters in the above-mentioned posts claim to have taken one), nor are any of the other well-researched personality type instruments free. There are several free online type assessments, but their accuracy is lower than for the commercial ones–you’ll need even more help from an expert to find that best-fit type! I’d recommend checking out a really good book from the library on the subject, like LifeTypes, TypeTalk, or People Types and Tiger Stripes rather than relying on the results of an unvalidated quiz.

Validated instruments are only available through people who have been trained to use them. Why? So you receive accurate interpretation. Check out the MBTI Referral Network to find someone. Or, many local community education programs offer low-cost programs. Online, you can take MBTI Complete®, but it isn’t free because it includes an interpretation.

Did you learn how to apply the information?

The MBTI codes have little use in and of themselves. The instrument was created to give you access to the framework and the rich learnings of how other people with your preferences improved communication, leadership, teaching, spirituality, personal development, relationships, their workout routines and more.

Often I receive requests such as, “Can you do a 90-minute MBTI session to improve our team’s communication skills?” The real answer is “No; in 90 minutes, I can barely help each person confirm his or her best-fit type.” I clarify the person’s goals and then estimate the investment of time required to meet those goals. A morning to really understand the framework. Add the afternoon to understand the team’s makeup. Another day to get into applying it to collaboration, communication, etc. Ongoing follow-up until the team can continue on its own.

Yep, the theory provides that deep of a well—I’ve been working with it for 20 years and am still gaining new insights.

Did you learn that all types are equally valuable?

Type is useful for exploring differences and deepening understanding. No preferences are better than others, so it makes no sense to try and change your type. On the other hand, maturity is about using the right preferences in a situation. It’s actually a guide for development, which is why it is so useful for coaching.

Type isn’t to be used to limit people’s choices. For example, it shouldn’t be used for:

  • Hiring. It indicates preferences. It doesn’t measure skills. An atypical team member or leader sometimes provides just the unique take on things that you need.
  • Team selection. Choose the best people. Then use type to help them improve their collaborative efforts.
  • Limiting someone else’s career searches. Yes, we know lots about the careers different types naturally seek, but type predicts patterns, not individual success. “Not many people with your type preferences pursue that career. What attracts you? What motivates you?” is very different from “People with your preferences aren’t good at that…”

Did type theory fit your purposes or is another instrument better?

The Big Five model that Adam Grant advocates for is a great tool. Four of the five scales on the NEO-PI correlate highly with the MBTI type preferences (check the MBTI manual to see it) so in many ways they measure the same things. Cool! Validity for both instruments, that when people modeled personality in two very different ways they got similar results! What’s the fifth in the Big Five model? Neuroticism. That’s definitely a key component of personality, but when I’m working with teams, people aren’t going to want others to know how neurotic they are!!

Other instruments such as DISC work really well if you only have a limited time to explore the framework. Better to use a simpler model than only partially explain one that is more complex!

Big point: Instruments need to fit purpose and audience. They also need to be reliable and valid. Check Roger Pearman’s great white paper on this topic for insights.

So. do you know your four-letter type code? If so, is it useful? If not, I urge you to learn more. You see, you can assume that each of the world’s 7 1/2 billion people are unique, or you can tap into the wealth of knowledge Jung’s framework provides about basic, observable differences in how we are energized, gather information, make decisions, and organize our lives. Useful stuff, eh!

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Jane Kise is a consultant and executive coach. The founder of Differentiated Coaching Associates and author of over 20 books, she works with schools and businesses worldwide to help create environments where everyone can flourish.

This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. I enjoyed your article. I’ve been a fan of Psychological Type Theory #ENFP for many years. However, I confess to taking the free Jung Typology Test at Humanmetrics because of currently low socio-economic status. Recently, I took a webinar on CPP called, “Exploring MBTI Type Dynamics and Relationships,” with Judith Grutler.

    1. Hi Joffre,
      Judith Grutter knows the tools inside and out, so I’m glad you had the opportunity to explore type further in her webinar. Most libraries have copies of two of the best books on type as well–TypeTalk by Otto Kroeger and LifeTypes by Hirsh and Kummerow. Often, these volumes can help clarify type and definitely lead to deeper application and understanding. Thanks!

  2. Thanks Jane for your article. I am always amazed at how much criticism the MBTI as an instrument gets, when it’s just a short-cut tool to help people find their true type. It might be CPP’s business to sell the MBTI but for practitioners the important thing surely is the underlying theory and its use. We could stop all the criticism of the MBTI by not using it or other instruments and letting people self-assess against the theory and find their type in a book of detailed descriptions. So why don’t the critics criticise the theory, which is surely the important issue? Presumably because they couldn’t do it successfully.

  3. Hi Jane- thank you for a great article. I was fortunate to be trained by Peter Gyer many years ago as well, and have used MBTI in my work ever since. I have always had very positive feedback from the participants. I see many people who have absolutely no training in MBTI, but use it boldly in their work with clients with no ethical regards what so ever.

  4. Jane, I appreciate the point of view you took in this discussion, looking at the most fundamental aspect of MBTI, how it was administered and interpreted. As always, you can cut through complex information with laser like focus leaving the rest of us in awe and better for it!

  5. What a thoughtful, and comprehensive response, Jane. From all of us who have used MBTI successfully with leaders and teams, I THANK YOU! I have many testimonials on the value of MBTI and how it is applied in the lives of people every day. Self awareness, as well as the ability to interact with others in ways that motivate, inspire, and just bring clarity to a situation, are so important. MBTI is a proven tool, yet like most things of value, it requires an investment of time. I just recently was involved in a program that used MBTI, and also used interpreters in a coaching setting who were not trained and qualified. As long as this occurs, MBTI will have detractors. Always enlightening to have the dialogue!

  6. Thanks Jane (was sent this by Peter Geyer who trained me) and you have articulated very well what I have continued to tell people about Type and the importance of having the results interpreted by a qualified MBTI Practitioner. Although, I say I am an out of practice MBTI practitioner (and now getting back into it) I am glad I have stood by and communicated many of things you outline in your article. Thank you! 🙂

  7. Thanks so much, Jane. MBTI does not equal OCEAN. Type does not equal trait. Apples are not oranges. I may not be the best to offer this [I am assuming the results came from a valid and legitimate MBTI assessment], but I would offer to help the author of the recent round of critiques verify his elusive “code” in the way and manner consistent with my certification training and the Manual. Dan DeFoe JD MS, certified Steps I,II,III.

  8. As always, Jane, you are spot on and articulate.
    It’s a delight to read pretty much anything you write.

    1. Thanks, Sharon. Sharon is an expert on type and leadership; exec coaches who use type well know that it serves to neutralize critique in ways that increase awareness of blind spots and willingness to engage In the hard work of working around them.

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