MBTI in careers work: Not just a binary argument

During my many years as a careers practitioner I’ve come to the conclusion there is an artistry in how each of our interactions with clients makes that moment of discussion unique. Hypothetically, all the qualified career practitioners in the world could all see the same client at the same moment in time and I am confident the outcomes and conversation would all be different – many of them widely – perhaps that is part of the allure for me of practice. Just like the brush marks of a painting can never truly be replicated again or the slightly mind-blowing fact that the order of a randomly shuffled deck of cards has never been seen before and will never be seen again (you can look that one up). Maybe this is a result of the varying and degree of success in which we use intuition [1], but I’ll save that for another time.

Even though I value the artistry the adage ‘theory without practice is empty; practice without theory is blind‘ also holds truth for me. Without being drawn into an historical examination of careers theory and practice, it’s a fair generalisation to say careers practice has evolved from a dominant matching (differentialist) approach to guidance which incorporates a multiplicity of practice that draws far more from constructivism, narrative, social learning, complexity and chaos.  That said, I’ve picked up before in my mythbusting post on the danger of learning styles in careers work that as a profession we have to make sure our practice is evidence based and defensible which can mean challenging the status quo and our own beliefs or those held by others.  For this reason, I wanted to focus my attention on the popular MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Model).

Whilst I painted a picture of guidance practice that has evolved from its positivist roots there still persists a real appetite with practitioners and clients for differentialist trait and factor approaches that categorise personality. 

 I also wanted to explore this further both evidentially and from an empirical practitioner viewpoint to try and mitigate my own confirmation bias (which in a nutshell naturally rejects the rigidity and simplicity of MBTI). 

(We like to put ourselves in boxes. Photo by SHVETS production on Pexels.com)

That said, I wanted to avoid an entire ‘hit piece’, as this has been done before rather well already and there’s two examples below worth a read through to garner the general critique. 

Why the Myers-Briggs test is totally meaningless

Say Goodbye to MBTI, the Fad That Won’t Die

But if you didn’t want to click on those links the central arguments will often cite that MBTI:  

  1. Uses false, limited binaries.
  2. Provides inconsistent, inaccurate results (reliability issue).
  3. Lacks robust peer reviewed evidence/efficacy (validity issue).

I’ve discussed my deep reservations about MBTI with other careers colleagues over the years and whilst some share my views there have been plenty that do not! Positions have ranged from MBTI evangelist (certified practitioners) to amateur enthusiasts.  The most common argument I found for MBTI tended to be exonerative of its scientific basis and focus instead on its ability to offer a very good starting point for further exploration and discussion.  That certainly has some truth but a central tenant to this approach are all activities to increase self-awareness are good. However, the scientific community take a different view in believing that a scientific theory such as MBTI can and should accordingly be held to account.  A recent paper [2] concluded:

“Because the purpose of taking the MBTI is to learn useful and presumably true things about oneself and others, the MBTI theory is in fact an attempt at a scientific theory. Therefore, we can and should evaluate it as such”.

The arguments found in this research do not radically differ from the opinion pieces I highlighted earlier.  A question that did interest me was why its popularity and usage persists over time?  One reason offered by my reading is the notion we are living more and more in a post-truth world and psychologically there is recent research to suggest some people are guided by ‘deep unobservable essences’.  When something feels like it intuitively correct that perhaps explains some of the allure of an intuitive model like MBTI or indeed learning styles.

Another reason is the guru effect when even if there are masses of contradictory evidence against an intuitive theory, people have a tendency to reframe the utility of the theory, even if that leads to further theoretical issues.  I’ll leave you to decide whether the MBTI Foundation are guilty themselves at this attempt to ‘reframe’ in their own riposte to common criticisms.  

The reframing effect is an interesting one because it leads back to the earlier argument I hear for MBTI as a ‘discussion starter’.  Even articles for MBTI would assert the need for radical shifts away from how MBTI scoring is conducted as pre-conditions to real world contexts.   For instance, ‘type’ alone should not exclude acknowledgement of traits and discussion of preference. Therefore, a key argument for MBTI would be its popularity and simplicity enables access to real world conversations.      

Summary

The evidence base for MBTI and its use in work with clients raises important questions for careers professionals, after all, there’s a lot at stake here e.g.  There are innumerable websites advising how to choose your career path based on your personality type so its intended use can go far beyond the reach of developing our emotional intelligence.   

To remain defensible I’m wondering now whether careers professionals who are proponents of MBTI talk about the criticisms and offer full disclosure to their clients or is informed choice taken away?  Equally, have careers professionals who use MBTI in their discussion rejected or still use other taxonomic personality representations such as the Big 5 or HEXACO [3]?  Finally, if an argument for MBTI is it acts as a muse for discussion about personality rather than just ‘type’ then why not just talk about traits instead?

There are clearly other vested interests at stake so the careers profession still needs to encourage the debate and critique of widespread practices rather than appealing to tradition.  In that spirit it would be great to read your thoughts. 

Sources

[1] Sheldon, C., 2018. Trust your gut, listen to reason: How experienced coaches work with intuition in their practice. International Coaching Psychology Review, 13(1), pp.6-20.

[2] Stein, R., & Swan, A. B. (2019). Evaluating the validity of Myers-Briggs Type Indicator theory: A teaching tool and window into intuitive psychology. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 13(2). https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12434

[3] Anglim & O’connor (2019) Measurement and research using the Big Five, HEXACO, and narrow traits: A primer for researchers and practitioners, Australian Journal of Psychology, 71:1, 16-25, DOI: 10.1111/ajpy.12202

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