Why I hate MBTI
Why I hate Myer-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)
You’ve probably met them too. You reveal something about yourself as part of getting to know them, and they come back with some version of, “Oh, so you’re a P.” (Or J, I, T, F, E, N or S.) And in that moment they start to either tell you about yourself, or just assume that patronising attitude that they now know who you are.
It is the end of dialogue when someone does this. At this point you disappear and all that is seen is the MBTI model. The other person now relates to the model, and no longer do they even see you. They assume that with this model they can understand you and all dialogue stops.
This is a violent imposition of a model onto a person. That we, in all our uniqueness and individuality, must be squeezed, distorted and judged into a model for the ease of the other person is a violent act. And yet it happens all the time, and when it does I switch off. I know that the person is no longer interested in me and has concluded, on the basis of a model, who I am.
A model is just a model. The map is not the territory, as NLP practitioners are fond of saying. Models and theories are really helpful to us, and can be useful in many situations. But they should never replace, or get in the way of, a real engagement with another human being. The tragedy is that they so often do.
MBTI provides a simple way of understanding personality differences and understanding ourselves, which has become so popular it was the subject of a recent BBC Radio 4 documentary. It was designed to help us understand differences and deal with them more effectively. But no model can capture the full range of humanity. On one programme a leading entomologist declared that he found MBTI too simplistic. This person carried around a taxonomy of insects in his head that very few people would be able to hold. It was a salient reminder that the categorisation of human beings into 16 categories is far too simplistic.
So why do we construct models to understand people in this way. Let’s face it MBTI isn’t the only model used for this purpose. So why do we construct models? There are lots of good reasons why we construct models, but beneath the surface of all these good reasons lies ambiguity. Models provide a clear way to manage the ambiguity we face in navigating the world. It is a modern-day map for the social world.
Ambiguity is not something that we humans are too good at dealing with. We know from neuroscience that ambiguity and uncertainty trigger the threat response in human beings, in the same way in which a genuinely life threatening situation does. Therefore we must acknowledge that behind ambiguity sits fear. This is why people hold on to their models and maps so tightly – to take them away is to sit in the uncertainty and fear.
And, in my view, good leadership development should encourage this. In just about all of the documents I see from organisations who would like a leadership development programme at the moment, there is a requirement to develop leaders who can deal with ambiguity. And in so many of the programmes that are developed, sits MBTI, providing a crutch for dealing with the world, and minimising true ambiguity.
It is only by sitting in the uncertainty and ambiguity, by truly facing our fears, that we can develop leaders who can deal with this gracefully. In that ambiguity, I must face my social anxiety. I must face the uncertainty of dealing with another’s reactions. I must be willing to meet them as a human being, in all the complexity that they are, and just be with them, without trying to predict or control their behaviour, or label it with a model. As a colleague of mine said recently, “The greatest gift we can give someone is the gift of truly listening, truly trying to understand who the other person is.”
When you ask people what they want from leaders in their organisations, one of the key themes that they speak about, is what it feels like to be around that leader. Is the person being authentic with them, and they being human and real with them; as opposed to, are they seeing me through a model and working in a way which the model tells them will influence my behaviour. We all know when someone is being authentic and when someone is ‘techniquing us’. MBTI ultimately moves us away from this authentic state of being in ambiguity, and moves us into seeing the world through a model, and thus is severely limited (and limiting) in leadership development.