Thursday, February 08, 2007

Myers: visionary genius. But Briggs? No-talent hack.

I went on a staff retreat (so-called, but training class would describe it better) this week built on the Myers-Briggs inventory. We all filled the thing out, got our results, and discussed the various types, their implications, their interactions.

While some of my co-workers seem to find Myers-Briggs to be a key to self-understanding, I’m skeptical. To tell the truth I was a little bothered by some of my results (I am too compassionate! Sometimes, a little! And I don’t fear intimacy that much!). Yet the seminar concluded with some exercises that seemed to hold promise for handling certain work-related situations better. If I’m an introvert and my boss is an extrovert, that suggests some strategies for relating to him better. It’s something to grab onto, as if any paradigm for figuring out relationships is better than no paradigm.

My college had all incoming freshmen take the Myers-Briggs; the housing office claimed that it used the test to match us up with roommates. This method seemed to work okay; most people got along pretty well with their assigned roommates. One pair of guys was a particularly bad match—one roommate bullied the other mercilessly—but I came to learn that the bully guy had blown off the Myers-Briggs, he had his little brother fill it out for him. So that certainly looked like the exception that proves the rule. I had some problems with my roommate (a gung-ho ROTC kid, currently a career Army officer) but I figured maybe we were just at the tail end of the matching process; we thrown together more potluck style than others. I used to console myself that although ROTC Kid bugged me sometimes, it was a plus that we were the same height and build, so at least we could borrow each other’s clothes on occasion. Then when I looked around at other people in the dorm, I noticed that a LOT of sets of roommates were about the same size. So maybe height and weight were the key traits and the college was just shining us on about the MBTI.

One doubt about the Myers-Briggs test that I can never shake is that its theoretical pedigree is dubious. It’s based on Jungian psychology, which nobody in academic psychology thinks much of. Yet lots of organizations use it, and I can’t help but think that the MBTI works in certain practical applications.

A lot of people nowadays bash Freud, and with a lot of good reasons, but while I wouldn’t go for treatment to a Freudian analyst, I would never try to deny that Freud was major. He had some fundamental insights: People behave irrationally. Childhood experiences imprint us and stay with us forever. Sex is a powerful force in our lives, and hard to control. Somewhat similarly, I could quibble with the Myers-Briggs test all day, but if nothing else it highlights some simple but useful truths: People are different from one another. You should take different tacks in approaching different people. A group or organization (especially a large one with complex goals) benefits from involving diverse people with diverse perspectives.

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