There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who divide everybody into two kinds of people, and those who don’t. Mother and daughter team Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers were both.
Their Myers-Briggs personality test (or “type indicator”) uses binary choices: “Do you prefer to focus on the outer world or on your own inner world?” for example. Choose the former and you’re an extravert; the latter, you’re an introvert. Even if the answers are scaled (so you’re asked how strongly you agree or disagree) you’re ultimately one thing or another.
But Myers-Briggs has four sets of questions to explore different parts of people’s personalities. That actually gives us 16 possible different personality types – and a lot of abbreviations.
At one end of the spectrum you’ve got your ESTJ (Extraversion, Sensing, Thinking, Judging) types – fun at parties, practical, plain speaking and organised; at the other the INFPs (Introversion, Intuition, Feeling and Perceiving) – reserved, artistic, sensitive and perhaps indecisive. Then there’s everyone in between.
The split is pretty similar to the old left brain/right brain divide: logic vs creativity; analysis vs imagination; facts vs intuition; thinking vs feeling; words vs pictures. Consultants and many employers love it, and businesses all over the world use the Myers-Briggs test or versions of it when hiring and for management training to help organisations work more effectively.
If only it were that simple.
There’s a lot of criticisms you can make about the Myers Briggs test. It’s too binary, for one. No one’s purely an introvert or extrovert; it often depends on the situation. It’s also a question of scale: You might be slightly introverted or cripplingly shy. The test is a self-assessment, too, so people can lie if they want to, giving employers the answer they think they want to hear.
Even if people try to be honest, responses are always going to be affected by the person’s mood, and the answer to just one question could be enough to push them into a completely different category. You might put them down as an introvert, when they’ve just had a bad week. And people can change.
In fact, there’s not much hard data to back it up at all. Myers and Myers Briggs weren’t formally trained in psychology, and as one psychology professor says: “There is no obvious evidence that there are 16 unique categories in which all people can be placed.”
Fittingly, though, the Myers Briggs test isn’t all bad; and it’s not all good. It’s a bit of both.
On the one hand, there probably aren’t just 16 distinct personalities in the world and our workplaces. And people aren’t just introverts or extraverts, thinkers or feelers.
But, on the other hand, Myers Briggs’ central insight – that we all have different preferences and ways of working – is a good one. Used to encourage diversity rather than pigeon-hole employees, it’s a useful tool. If we recognise these differences in ourselves and others and help people work in ways that suit them, everyone can win. Because one thing does unite us: We’re all individuals.