I’m an ENTP, preferring extroversion over introversion, intuition over sensing, thinking over feeling and perceiving over judging. In case you didn’t know, this is my MBTI® score, or Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®. When I first took on my new role in a leadership development group, I heard everyone throwing around these letters “I’m a J, so I’m going to need to get into the details here”, “I’m going to need some time to process this alone because I’m an I”, etc. I had no clue what these people were talking about, but it all seemed to mean something to them and they would talk for hours on end about their interactions with their teams, their families, and with each other using this jargon.
According to the Myers-Briggs organization, “the essence of the theory is that much seemingly random variation in the behavior is actually quite orderly and consistent, being due to basic differences in the ways individuals prefer to use their perception and judgment.” By taking a test, rating preferences of various situations and activities on a sliding scale, the claim is that your underlying personality type and preference can be mapped. “The theory of psychological type was introduced in the 1920s by Carl G. Jung. The MBTI tool was developed in the 1940s by Isabel Briggs Myers.”
I was a total sceptic. As far as I was concerned, the idea that by answering a few questions, my personality type could be reduced to 4 letters (with some granularity of preference under that) was pure mumbo jumbo. Moreover, I was sure that there must be a degree of self-selection; at some level I would guess what the question was trying to measure and would select an answer based on how I wanted to be rated.
And then I took the test and had the results explained to me by a certified MBTI® practitioner. I have to say, I’ve been totally converted. I did the MBTI® II level, which gives the greater granularity and the results were so spot on, and not necessarily what I would have “chosen” to be represented as, thereby undercutting my self-selection theory. As I scanned through my report, I realized that this test had totally nailed who I am and what my preferences are. It was explained to me that it is certainly possible, and often necessary, for someone to act out of preference, for someone who’s a P like me, preferring to plunge into tasks, to force themselves to be more methodical, but that such “out of preference” activity will never be easy or pleasant for me, often putting me “in the grip”, MBTI® terminology for experiencing extreme stress. And it’s so true; I can be methodical and organized, it’s just never natural or pleasant. Similarly with so many of the other preferences.
What was almost more interesting than knowing my own MBTI® type was knowing the types of team members and having them know mine. It changes so many of our work conversations. Instead of saying to me, “I’m going to make you do this detailed work and you just have to be methodical and organized or else”, team members will either say, “you know, we’re going to have someone else do that spreadsheet because we know it’s not your strength as a P and we’re going to have you do the creative work that you do so well”. Or they say, “we know that as a P this work is going to put you in the grip and we’re sorry about that, but it has to get done and we appreciate you doing work that we know is going to be so painful to you and won’t play to your strengths”. This may not sound like a huge change from the first request, but it really feels like it is. The first blames me for being who I am and attempts to force me to change. The second and third come from a strengths-based approach and acknowledges where my strengths lie and don’t lie in a way that has no judgement attached.
Okay, so what? Aren’t we supposed to be thinking about children and things vaguely related to education here? Well yes. But this all got me thinking about my children; I can make a pretty good guess what my daughters’ MBTI® types are. And when I think about who they are and how they deal with school and home in the context of those types, it does help me get a better view of what is reasonable to expect them to succeed at and what may be things to lighten up about. I’m pretty sure that my older daughter, who’s 11, is an ENTP like me. She’s so disorganized and unstructured, but very creative, casual and easygoing. Of course, this isn’t a license for her to be as big a slob as she wants. To be successful in life she’s going to have to learn how to be more methodical and task-oriented than she is, however painful it is for her. But by recognizing that these things do put her in the grip, as they do for me, and don’t play to her strengths, perhaps I can at least manage my own expectations that this is ever anything that she’s just going to get one day and miraculously find natural.
Maybe you’re reading this saying “duh, you’re a slob, your kid’s a slob, why is that a surprise to you?” And of course, to some extent you’re right. But this gave me a new framework to think about my daughter’s strengths and preferences that I find really helpful. It even helps me have a clearer understanding of my marriage as I think about my husband’s strengths and preferences.
So here’s my thought for the day: is there any use for an MBTI-like test in schools? Now, I can already anticipate the barrage of comments I’m going to get for this and let me try to head a few off at the pass. Firstly, I understand that children’s personalities are quite malleable when they are young – even adults can find that their MBTI® type shifts somewhat over time. Given this, the last thing you want to do is to label a child as something and then pigeonhole them based on that type for the rest of their school career. Also, how can you expect children to have a sufficient level of self-awareness that they can even begin to answer these kinds of questions?
There is a modified version of MBTI® specifically aimed at children is grades 2-12 called the MMTIC®. The claim is that “The MMTIC assessment can help children understand themselves better, and give parents and teachers better tools and insights to reach children with different learning styles.” I’m sure that some schools are already using this, though I couldn’t easily find many examples of this online. Many schools seem to spend so much time judging children, often medicating children who don’t “fit in”. Would having a more scientific assessment of these children’s personality types help mitigate some of this? It wouldn’t, or shouldn’t be a get-out-of-jail-free card, just as it isn’t for me at work. When I’m asked to do more detailed oriented work, I’m still expected to do a good job at it. But a recognition that it is painful for me to do that work and attempts by my teammates to play to my strengths whenever possible really helps.
Moreover, would it help children to deal with each other better? Now I know that my boss is an I (an introvert), even though she really seems to act like an extrovert, I understand that being around extroverts for too long is very draining for her – as much as she loves me. I understand that sometimes she just needs to escape to be by herself and I don’t take it at all personally. If children had a better sense of each other’s preferences, could they learn not take it so personally when Johnny doesn’t want to play today and to understand that he just needs his quiet, introvert time to re-energize? Of course, exposing them to each other’s types could be even more fraught than telling them their own – children can be mean to each other for the silliest reasons. But, if these things could be explained to children in an age appropriate way, is there something here that might help children move from a place of being judged by their peers, teachers and families to be accepted for the preferences they have rather than the ones we would like them to have.