be careful with personality models

Life’s full of interesting coincidences or — depending on your belief system — mysterious synchronicities. As I was preparing a retreat proposal with a range of options for Judy’s executive team (last week’s blog), I came across Laith Al-Shawaf’s provocative article, Should You Trust the Myers-Briggs Personality Test?

Al-Shawaf, a researcher and Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Colorado, writes, “as any psychologist worth their salt will tell you, it’s bullshit.” He details eight reasons:

  1. It Is Based on Carl Jung’s Ideas
  2. The Test Lacks Predictive Validity: It Does Not Predict Outcomes in the Real World
  3. Human Personality Falls Along Continua, Not Into Discrete Categories
  4. The Types Used by the MBTI Have Arbitrary Boundaries
  5. The Myers-Briggs Has Poor Reliability
  6. The Myers-Briggs Misleadingly Implies That There Are Big Differences Between Types and Minimal Differences Within a Type
  7. When You Turn a Continuous Variable Into a Categorical One, You Throw Away Information
  8. The MBTI Doesn’t Measure Neuroticism

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is the world’s most popular and widely used personality tool. It leads a horde of four-quadrant personality models with a wide variety of colors and descriptions. Classifying personality types seems to be deep in human nature. Nearly 2,500 years ago, “the father of medicine,” the Greek physician, Hippocrates, sorted personalities into four types: sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic.

The enduring popularity of personality models appears to come from the same place as horoscopes. We have a deep need to understand people and predict our future. And they both have about the same amount of science behind them! By another coincidence/synchronicity… last week, I read a Toronto Star editor’s apology to their readers for the discovery that an astrologist “whose horoscope writing was syndicated in Torstar papers and dozens of other publications had…a pattern of recycled predictions, in some cases more than once…unsuspecting readers have been duped.” He closed his column with “this unfortunate episode defied prediction.”

The main criticism Laith Al-Shawaf has for trusting MBTI is its poor reliability, validity, omissions like neuroticism, and the many other personality idiosyncrasies that make each of us unique. Personality categorizing type-casts people into confining boxes.

My very first training tool certification was on one of the pioneering personality type models called Social Styles. Facilitating the discovery of personality types for self and others was fun and sometimes insightful for participants. While entertaining (and highly rated on the end-of-workshop “happy sheets”) very little lasting behavior change or practical applications came from these sessions.

The main value I could see came from sensitizing participants to looking for indicators of our own and other’s preferred communication style. This helped to shift from our preferred style to connecting with others as they’d like to be approached. This is a version of “the platinum rule;” do unto others as they’d like to be done unto. Social Styles emphasizes a versatility scale. That’s their key measure of communication effectiveness and the main goal of training on this model.

Leadership development has fallen into the same trap of focusing on what’s popular rather than what works. Numerous studies show abysmal returns on these investments. One of the key reasons we partnered with Zenger Folkman almost 10 years ago is because of their research/evidence-based approach to leadership development.

Like horoscopes, four-quadrant personality models can be quite entertaining. Like watching a good fantasy movie, have fun, give it a high rating, but don’t expect to find many real-life applications.