I wrote this essay in 2016 as part of my coaching training with Meyler Campbell.
My relationship with Myers-Briggs has undergone a transformation. Since my first exposure to it over 15 years ago, I have gone from being a true believer to sceptic, and from sceptic to seeing it as irrelevant. Jung himself said that every individual is an exception to the rule and that sticking labels on people was “…nothing but a childish parlour game.” However, I’ve stopped seeing it as irrelevant and now think of it as dangerous. It is often seriously misused and is, in my view, potentially harming the coaching profession. In one respect, my journey feels a bit like joining and then leaving a cult. The multi-million pound Myers-Briggs industry is built on shaky ground and it needs its true believers to sustain it. However, once you’re out and can see it for what it is, then there’s probably no way back.
But to begin at the beginning. I had taken similar tests before Myers-Briggs, but they had only given me a name. Myers-Briggs was a revelation. It gave me a whole new understanding of who I was and how I thought. It seemed to confirm my status as a rare and special maverick, fundamentally different from the run-of-the-mill mortals who tended to work in businesses. It took on a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy: I needn’t be concerned with my inability to concentrate, or to be bored with detail. My personality (brain wiring?) didn’t need to worry with the minutiae of life; my destiny was to bigger and better things. I now understood, and perhaps had an excuse for, my inability to ever open a bank statement. I exaggerate, of course, but nevertheless I wore my four letters with pride.
Scepticism came later. The first chink in the armour appeared when I started to work globally. As I travelled and spent more time working with groups in different countries I found that I was less able to predict the M-B types of other people. More importantly, I realised that these types were of little use in understanding either behaviours or attitudes. This was especially the case in the Middle East and Asia. Culture and custom seemed to be the key drivers. Inclinations, temperament, perspectives, and mind sets all seemed to be hugely influenced by the context in which people were operating. Indeed, there seemed fewer correlations between M-B types.
The second revelation came when I re-took the test, under different circumstances, a decade or so after my first attempt. My results were similar but different. They were similar enough in that my four letters hadn’t changed but they were significantly different in the weightings. Most strikingly, I seemed to have gone from being an out-and-out extrovert to a closet introvert. At this point, I merely filed the information away, stopped evangelising about Myers-Briggs, and became a sceptic. Over time my scepticism evolved and I started to see it as irrelevant. I had no more need for it and so gave it little thought. And then I started coaching.
It quickly became apparent that for nearly all coaches in nearly all circumstances, Myers-Briggs is an essential service. My indifference and scepticism were being challenged, and so I had to start to think properly about the role it played in coaching.
Researching Myers-Briggs raises the problem of confirmation bias. All the research in favour tends to be published by organisations, such as the Journal of Psychological Type, which is basically the Myers-Briggs house magazine. Research which raises concerns tend to appear everywhere else. Nevertheless, one has to be on guard against merely seeking information that confirms one’s own position. So before I set out why I think Myers-Briggs is dangerous for the coaching profession, here are some specific points:
Myers-Briggs is not a scientific test. To be scientific it has to be replicable over time. It isn’t. In fact, research shows that as much as 50% of people find that they have different results after retaking the tests. It also has to be the same across the world. It isn’t. For instance, cultural influences and religious beliefs play a significant role in affecting people’s attitudes and behaviours. And it has to be based on scientific research based on controlled experiments and data. Again, it isn’t. In fact, even Jung himself warned that his personality types were no more than approximate tendencies that he’d observed rather than scientifically tested classifications. By contrast, the speed of light is based on consistently repeatable tests, provable data, is replicable over time, and is the same in different parts of the world. The speed of light, therefore, is a scientific fact.
Myers-Briggs also uses false binaries. Real data shows that most people are not “either” “or” but show characteristics of both. As Jung said: “There is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.” The fact is that most people are in or around the middle of the bell curve; few are on the extremes. Dan Pink, in To Sell is Human, says that we are basically ambiverts. Yet the labelling is absolute. In discussing the standard error of measurement, David Pittenger said: “…the differences between the two-letter categories are not as sharp and clear cut as it would appear. Because the MBTI uses an absolute classification scheme for people, it is possible for people with relatively similar scores to be labelled with much different personalities.” (1)
The test claims that it measures how people perceive the world and make decisions. Yet it does not explore how the key drivers of such attitudes and behaviours are formed. There is no distinction for gender or age, yet our observation of workplace behaviours would suggest that there can be fundamental differences along these lines. There is no attempt to understand values or beliefs; and yet a belief in, for instance, destiny or God can hugely influence decision making (When Arab businessmen, for instance, say God willing about a decision they really mean it).
Psychology and other disciplines including behavioural economics, are finding the unconscious to be a fascinating area for research. Freud, it seems, is making a comeback. Humans tend to make a significant number of decisions without understanding why. This is not the same as the SvN, TvF, and JvP distinction. The self-scoring method of Myers-Briggs means that the results are what the person taking the test likes to think is the case rather than the reality. Decision making is far more complex and is subject to a greater degree of both unconscious and external factors than can be covered in a 93-question test. Social norms, corporate culture, and even day-to-day events greatly influence how we think and process information whether we are consciously aware of it or not. In organisations, peer pressure, group behaviour and flow, and emotional contagion and the need for a sense of belonging and conformity can all play a significant role, regardless of anybody’s particular four letter score. [Solomon Asch’s famous 1951 experiment, on the length of a line, is a great example of the unconscious need to conform on our behaviour].
The transformation from merely seeing Myers-Briggs as irrelevant to seeing it as dangerous began with my coaching course. Its sheer ubiquity in the sector and the inappropriate use to which it was being used made it impossible to ignore. Of course, it is never entirely fair to criticise a movement merely because of the uses to which it has been put. There are many die-hard Marxists who complain bitterly that the revolutions in Russia and China, for instance, don’t reflect the true thinking of communists and that we shouldn’t judge Marxism by what was done in his name. Similarly, Myers-Briggs enthusiasts will say that only properly trained and paid-up members of the club can be relied upon to interpret effectively the true implications of any one person’s results. The reality is somewhat different. Companies are hiring for specific behaviour traits. Recruiters ask for people’s type and write it down in ink. Organisations are creating teams that reflect the whole spread of characteristics. People are being promoted on the basis of their scores. This is all madness and the coaching industry must stop being complicit in such nonsense. IQ, EQ, experience, values, attitudes, global views, are all, for instance, what makes someone the right person for the right role at the right time. It is a curious blend of hard and soft, tangible and intangible attributes that allow different people to make different contributions at different times. Type casting is of no value whatever.
Coaching, perhaps in a desperate attempt to find an empirical underpinning for its role, has grabbed onto Myers-Briggs for the scientific certainty that it purports to bring. Coaching, curiously, seems to want to have a tangible way of measuring the intangible. In the same way, many coaches are turning to neuroscience as a way of explaining behaviour and attitudes. There is a proliferation of neurological terms entering the sector when the reality is that although scientists can see “how” we make decisions or “show” emotions (principally through observing which neural pathway light up under certain stimuli) neuroscience is a long way from understanding “why” let alone of even beginning to understand consciousness or put their finger on it. And yet coaching is prone to grabbing hold of the latest piece of scientific data and absorbing it into its lexicon. Rather than set coaching apart from the self-help psychologists, talking pseudoscience actually weakens our position. As David Semple said in the Oxford Handbook of Psychiatry: “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and most popular psychology is from Uranus.” (2)
The real reason that I feel that Myers-Briggs is dangerous for the coaching industry is not so much that it is unscientific (although that does potentially put it in the same class as snake oil salesmen and astrologers) but because of what it forces coaches to do. Coaches who use Myers-Briggs tend to judge their clients. They may not do so pejoratively, but by seeing them as a type they make certain assumptions. In fact, many turn to a reference book which indicates how to “coach” the various types of person. No ambiguity, no uncertainty, merely a four letter approach to painting by numbers. Of course, the rejoinder is that Myers-Briggs is merely one tool that helps clients towards a sense of self. However, the reality is that it leaves many with the mark of Cain on their forehead and few people, including the client, can see beyond it.
Coaching is about listening and questioning to find the true person, and helping that true person to be comfortable in owning who they are. It is about helping them to understand their values and motivations. It is about challenging their assumptions and helping them to reframe their context and their place in it. Clients today live complex lives with pressures from many competing areas. The coaches role is help clients understand those competing pressures and to find a pathway that enables them to navigate their way through that ambiguity. Self-knowledge is critical, but self-knowledge is a journey. It cannot be something that is arrived at after having merely taken a 15-minute test.
All tools can be both helpful and unhelpful. Coaches need to be aware that Myers-Briggs has the potential to make them both judgemental and closed. Listening and questioning can only be effective if they come from a place with no assumptions. Real change comes from the client finding out who they really are and how they can make sense of and thrive in their place in the world. Coaches need to work on helping to uncover the roots rather than focus on the leaves and branches. Telling people how they think and process information can close down more than it opens. True self-awareness comes from challenging one’s own thoughts, values and assumptions, and in learning to be comfortable with who you are. Labelling should not form part of that process. As Carl Jung said himself in The Undiscovered Self: “There can be no self-knowledge based on theoretical assumptions.” (3)