Susan’s complaining about her job. Oh, no, she likes her work — she’s just not crazy about the people she’s working with. She’s in a high-pressure, high-performance field where you “eat what you kill” — in other words, she’s paid a percentage of the contracts she closes.
The more we talk, it’s apparent that Susan’s frustrated because no one in the office is interested in working on projects with anyone else. No one refers Susan clients. No one comes to the parties she throws. People poach each other’s support staff. She’s never worked in a place like this and she’s thinking about leaving.
I recommended Susan take the Myers-Briggs assessment. “But that’s just for teams!” she blurted. “What can it do for an individual?” [note blatant set up here, which neatly introduces the subject I really want to write about!]
Back in the early 1920s, Katharine Cook Briggs discovered the work of pioneering psychologist Carl Jung. Katharine had been doing her own independent research on personality — hoping to devise a tool to identify personality differences so that people could understand themselves and others — and in Jung’s theories found a workable personality type framework.
Katharine, the daughter of a college professor, had been home-schooled, so she home-schooled her own daughter, Isabel, in the same manner. In time, Isabel Briggs Myers — armed with just a bachelor’s degree, her mother’s insights and her own determined curiosity — developed the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).
I love the idea that a mother and her daughter, working together, developed such a useful and insightful tool. They encountered resistance from the academic community who scoffed at their indicator — they had no training, no credentials! Who did these women think they were?!
Katharine and Isabel, mother and daughter, weathered that storm. Eighty-some years after Katharine began her research, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is the the most widely used personality assessment in the world.
You may have taken the MBTI at some point — and found your personality type represented by four letters, E or I, S or N, T or F, P or J. Sound at all familiar? There are sixteen possible combinations. You have a preference for either Extroversion or Introversion. You either Sense or Intuit. You Think or you Feel. You Perceive or you Judge.
“But,” you say with a tiny whimper, “I am both Extroverted and Introverted. It depends on the situation.” You are absolutely right. Jung theorized that, at our best, we know when it’s appropriate to be Introverted and Extroverted, to Sense or to Intuit, and so on. The MBTI gets to what our innate preference is, regardless of which we may use in a particular situation.
Let’s try an example of preference. Cross your arms across your chest. Note which arm is on top. Now, switch your arms so that the top arm is on the bottom. How’s that feel? Awkward? Bet so. You have a marked preference for how you cross your arms, just as you have marked preferences for the way you see the world.
People with particular preferences tend to cluster in the same kind of field. Studies have shown, for instance, that people who choose the military have similar personality types — hierarchical, traditional, practical — and that makes sense, doesn’t it? Similarly, people in the nursing field tend to have similar personality characteristics — concerned with people, empathetic, open to solutions. Each type brings its own strengths and shortcomings, which naturally lend themselves to success or difficulty in particular fields.
After she took the Myers-Briggs assessment, I pointed out to Susan that one of the main problems might be that her type (ESFJ) has a strong preference for belonging. It’s important that she feel part of a team, that she work in a hierarchy with known roles and an objective system for promotion. That means she might not fit in with an organization that values and rewards autonomous lone wolves. To be happier in her career, she can 1) bring more belongingness into her current workplace, or 2) find a workplace that fosters belonging.
Her eyes opened with understanding, and her path forward became a little clearer. And that’s what Myers-Briggs is all about. Understanding yourself, and understanding those around you, so that you can be more effective and clear. Sure, MBTI is great for teams — and [shameless self-plug warning] I’m happy to come into your workplace to deliver a knockout program that will help your team become more efficient, communicate better, solve interpersonal problems and retain employees — but simply knowing and understanding your own personality type, and how it shapes your joys and your struggles, can be an eye-opening experience.