Is Myers-Briggs any more useful than a Horoscope?

In my very first Team Manager role early in my career, my employer put all of us through the Myers-Briggs personality test (also known as MBTI).

It said I was quite introverted and thinking more than feeling. About a year later, they put us through the test again and I had morphed into a much more extroverted person, who was now more feeling than thinking.

The Call Centre Manager proudly advised me that the dramatic change was due to their investment in me as a ‘leader’ and evidence that the development of my managerial skills was working.

Which is all very nice.

But it turns out, that the Myers-Briggs testing is not really based on any kind of recognizable science. I think we all assume it was, since it’s been so heavily adopted in business but uh uh – not true.

Did you know that it was developed by daughter and mother, Isabel Myers and Katherine Briggs during the second world war with the intention of producing a useful test that would allow women entering the workforce to be assigned jobs that would be best suited to their personalities (oh dear!)?

Yes – they did a great job of building on the work of Jung and probably helped lots of woman (and men) return to the post-war workforce. But the world has moved on. At least, the science world has.

Myers-Briggs is unscientific. It doesn’t recognize other traits and splits everything into black and white (can’t I be both a ‘thinking’ and a ‘feeling’ person?). It’s not repeatable… the same person taking the same test is only around 50% likely to get the same result. So when I completed the test as a young manager, the difference in my results was less to do with my development and more to do with how I felt at the time.

Don’t take my word for it – there are many articles written debunking the validity of it such as this excellent piece from The Guardian. Or the Huff Post. Or Business Insider.

So why has business adopted it so heavily? You’d be hard-pressed to find an experienced manager who hasn’t heard of it, or indeed completed the test at least once…

I call this the horoscope effect. Horoscopes work because they talk about personality traits we all have and they are overwhelmingly positive. We all recognize a little of ourselves in each horoscope:

Horoscope: You, my dear Virgos are compassionate and generous.
Person: I am compassionate and generous! You so get me.

The other reason it prevails is that it is so widely adopted and well known. Over 2 million people take the test each year. It’s the “if everyone is using it – it must be true” adage.

My old Call Centre Manager certainly did develop my management skills. But I’m not sure they needed to pay for the Myers-Briggs testing to prove it.

One thing, I have certainly learned to question everything. Next time someone suggests using Myers-Briggs in your organisation, take a moment to think about what outcome you are looking for and perhaps explore some other ways of getting there.