The Myers Briggs Type Indicator is a fabulous psychometric, and the great aim of Isabel Myers and Katherine Briggs was to help people to be more tolerant of each other’s differences. When used as intended, it works. You can witness people stepping up a level in self-awareness and having the confidence to talk openly and honestly, with less defensiveness, about who they believe themselves to be.
Isabel said I dream that long after I am gone, my work will go on helping people. Sadly, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and unfortunately, they unwittingly laid down a lot of paving.
Fast forward to 2021, and we now have rampant unethical and misguided application of the Myers Briggs Indicator and many other preference indicators that are often fairly lazy rehashes of their original work.
But let’s go back to Katherine Briggs and intentions. Having heard of Jung’s Trait Theory of Personality, Katherine asked the question; was it possible to isolate these traits and test them out in the population to better understand the differences between people. They launched the first version of their indicator in the 1960’s and their hope was that this would be a springboard for conversation. People would simply know a bit more about themselves and how they preferred to think, make decisions, and organise their thoughts. Sixteen broad types of preferences would emerge, and in the opinion of Myers and Briggs, a person must always be free to argue the result and say, ‘that’s not me.’ The indicator was never to be used to anyone’s detriment.
Isabel and Katherine were at pains to remind practitioners to use the word INDICATOR, not Test. A test can be passed or failed, and no-one can fail a preference indicator. What would be the correct Type after all?
Psychometrics do not truly measure differences, intelligence or competence. They can’t predict behaviour, because nothing can, for several reasons.
The most obvious flaw is that I am filling it out myself. My result is not really a surprise because it’s a summary of how I see myself. Human beings are not the greatest assessors of themselves. Our self-image may be at a wide variance with reality. I am not a great judge of whether I will do a job well, or whether I will enjoy a job I haven’t yet started, and neither are you a great judge. And neither is a test. But mostly psychometrics are limited because preferences are not a guide to aptitude. My result is a summation of what I believe my preferences to be. For example, if I believe I prefer to make decisions in a certain way, you are no wiser as to knowing whether those decisions are wise.
I was licensed to use Myers Briggs and warned repeatedly to use it ethically. After a lengthy course and an exam, I signed a piece of paper saying I would never use Myers Briggs in recruitment, to ‘label’ someone against their will or put someone through the experience of filling it out without giving them proper feedback.
That was nearly twenty years ago and since then, I have often lost consulting assignments for refusing to use the test to make decisions between people. But that’s not worth crying over when millions of hopeful job seekers have been corralled into taking psychometrics to make a basic living. This instruction to fill out a test on-line can occur before they have seen a single person or heard a human voice from the companies they are applying to join. They may not be told their results, and they will rarely be given feedback by a qualified practitioner of the test. In a further breach of ethics, they often lose control or oversight of their results. What can we say about the organisations who will point to the test as the reason why the candidate failed to get the job or an interview? Computer says no. It’s not a very brave new world, is it?
This is a stain on modern HR, but especially on those who use psychometrics to sift, decide and block people and then inform a human being by a template rejection email that they are unsuitable. With staggering hypocrisy or a complete want of irony, many large employers will pin up Values Statements saying that people are their greatest resource, while misusing psychometrics and paying for ‘Human Capital Software’ to manage applicants.
There is an industry of testing companies and consultants making good money out of something they know, and they do know, is fundamentally unable to do what they say it can do. But why would those who profit from psychometrics, tell you the truth about them?
Defenders are inclined to say that the tests can predict who will be happy or more comfortable in a role. That is a nonsense. Where else does anyone try to predict your future happiness, except at a sideshow inside a dubious looking tent.
If Katherine and Isabel were around today, they might remind us that the only known predictor of future performance is past performance, and even that’s not a sure thing, because people can change. The environment can change.
A good recruiter builds up a picture. Resumes are read. References are checked. Good recruiters ask about evidence of work completed. Qualifications are checked. Work based tests are known to be good indicators for ‘fit’ and aptitude. We can always do better interviews and ask smarter questions. And then, without perfect information and the ability to see into the future, a decision is made, and a risk is taken. That’s how it works. It takes time and it’s an effort, sure, and mistakes will be made.
It’s not a science, it’s an art. Recruitment revolves around human beings, and you just have to live with all that this implies.
Myers and Briggs wrote a brilliant instrument and in the right and ethical hands, it can be a very useful icebreaker for a team and a great way to talk about the habits and ‘styles’ that can help or hinder us at work and in life. I’ve seen it work as a catalyst for individuals to talk about their blind spots. It can be that ‘springboard’ that Katherine and Isabel talked about, and allow us all to say, ‘this is me – for better or worse. Tell me about you and how we can we work together.’
And this is no bad thing.