Myers-Briggs: You either love it or you hate it.
The widely popular personality type test has been used in workplaces across the country since the late 80s, leading to many awkward conversations of half-intrigued employees forgetting their type. Was it INFP? IMHO? ABCD?
While many folks get caught up in the particulars of the different types and how accurate or inaccurate they are, I say they’re missing a larger point.
But before we get into that, let me catch up the people in the back.
What is Myers-Briggs?
If you haven’t had the pleasure of discovering Myers-Briggs, it’s a typing system that categorizes all of humanity into 16 types. Each type is represented by four letters, each letter with two variables. You’re either…
An E or an I (Extravert or Introvert)
An N or an S (iNtuitive or Sensor)
A T or an F (Thinker or Feeler)
A J or a P (Judger or Perceiver)
To put them together, you might be an ESFP, or an INTJ, or any other of the 16 combinations down the list.
Each type has a range of characteristics and decision-making processes that make them different from the other types. (If you’re interested in learning more, I’ve found David Keirsey’s book Please Understand Me to be the most helpful resource.)
These types have led to many a sleepless night of teenagers desperate for something to help them define themselves. In fact, that’s where our story begins.
How Myers-Briggs changed my perspective on humans
It was the spring of my sophomore year at college. Between classes, I worked in my department’s office as a student paper pusher. I mean, office assistant. You know — lots of data entry, processing applications, answering questions from other students, that sort of thing.
But one day, I made a huge mistake.
Part of my job was to send welcome packets to new students, congratulating them on their acceptance to the department with a certificate.
A few days after sending the packets, I realized I had somehow gotten some names switched. Two people had received certificates with the wrong name printed on them.
Naturally, I started to panic
Now let me pause here and say that at that time, I was the biggest goody two-shoes you’d ever seen. I tried hard to never do anything out of line. I cared very deeply about everything. And I desperately needed people to tell me things were going to be okay.
So my first impulse was to run to my boss with a face full of regret, explain what happened, and beg his forgiveness. After all, my mistake would reflect on him, and I knew from past mishaps that these things weren’t taken lightly. I was more concerned with our boss-employee relationship than with the problem itself.
I was headed toward his office when I had this little thought that maybe I should do things differently. See, I had recently discovered Myers-Briggs. After having fun guessing people’s types all week, I realized my boss might be something like an ISTJ. In normal person terms, he was someone who valued order, taking care of business, and moving forward with a plan.
So I paused. Gathered myself. And I walked into his office and explained the situation as simply and emotion-free as possible. Then I told him how I’d fix it.
He looked at me blankly, then said, “Okay, thanks for letting me know,” and turned back to his work.
Little college Jessie walked away in a daze
I hadn’t thought it would actually work
Of course, it makes sense: By presenting information to someone in a way that jived with their natural personality, I had totally defused a situation and moved on without a hitch.
That was the first time I realized this tool was really powerful.
Now, maybe the story above sounds ridiculous to you. “Of COURSE you needed to take out the emotion from the situation!” I can hear you mentally screaming.
But here’s the thing: In my 20 years of existence, that hadn’t occurred to me. As a warm-fuzzy who always took human emotions into account, cold problem solving was something I was utterly unfamiliar with.
And that’s my whole point.
Myers-Briggs is a tool for awareness
Let’s say the whole Myers-Briggs thing is nuts. Well, we’re still left with the side benefits.
First, it makes you more aware of the differences between you and the people around you. This is a good thing — too many of our problems are caused by projecting our beliefs on others. If we understand that there’s a high likelihood that the person next to us operates in some way very differently from us, we’re going to pause before we start making assumptions.
It also helps us navigate interactions. Even if we don’t know all of the Myers-Briggs types, the base mental model of personality types itself helps us begin to discovery others’ preferences — and ultimately, it helps us interact with the people the way they want to be interacted with.
Just as with my boss, some people prefer “just the facts.” Others prefer an emotional connection. Still others want an idea session, or a detailed plan of action.
The bottom line is whether it’s scientifically accurate or not doesn’t matter. It’s based in enough truth to be a useful tool.
When you have a model for understanding differences between people, you learn to appreciate just how different we all are.
And frankly, that’s accurate enough for me.
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