The Magic of the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator – The Technological Panaceas of Hiring that aren’t.

Hiring is scary.

Hiring is a risky process that we all know can do irreparable damage if we get it wrong.  There are countless studies that all make the case that a false positive is more damaging that a false negative.  It’s hard to “undo” a bad hire.  So how do we mitigate against this?

In the world of hiring there is an anti-pattern that the answer to the question of “how to hire?” is always answered better elsewhere.  We tell ourselves there exists a panacea for hiring.  There is a strategy to beat all others.  A technology so advanced that it alone is enabling a rival to mop up all that talent that’s spilling all over the place.  In effect, in making strategic decisions about technology in hiring we have outsourced our facility for critical thought.

We believe the purveyors of these advances because they come with the trappings of authority. They quote statistics in polished powerpoint presentations, wield certificates with pseudo-scientific credentials or a hat.  So much of the decision making for strategy in recruitment has become about copying our competitors.  We assume that if something is working elsewhere it will work for us. Often this is based on information that is outdated and organisations don’t change their processes to fit in with the new thinking.  Take for example the role of those “impossible to answer questions” pioneered by Microsoft and later Google.  It is now industry wide common knowledge that there is no correlation between the ability to answer these brainteaser questions and the ability to perform well in the role you are interviewing for.  Yet how many organisations are still asking them because they think they should be?  When was the last time you ran an audit of the questions asked at interview in your organisation?

Ever since companies have needed to hire people there have been providers offering them magic-bullet future predicting insights into their candidates.  With just a few answers to a test you can predict the suitability of a candidate for your company.  The granddaddy of these magical tests is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

The test sorts it’s takers into one of 16 different types each with a description that have now been misappropriated by HR departments to make wide ranging judgments about the suitability of prospective employees.  There have been many more erudite take downs of the lack of use of the MBTI this is a great place to start.

Here, as a primer, are a few reasons why the MBTI shouldn’t be used in decision making when hiring –

  • The test is based on the work of Carl Jung and uses his “types” in a way he said they shouldn’t be used “Every individual is an exception to the rule,” Jung wrote.
  • Jung’s principles were later adapted into a test by Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers, who had no formal training in psychology.
  • The test uses false, limited binaries that force the taker into a either/or choice often on measurements where a better representation is that we are all somewhere on a spectrum.  Jung himself wrote “there is no such thing as a pure extravert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.”
  • As much as 50 percent of people arrive at a different result the second time they take a test, even if it’s just five weeks later.

Lastly and perhaps the best first step to make when evaluating the claims of any HR holy grail is to look at who stands to benefit from the introduction of any new test, technology or methodology.  More often than not this benefit is either financial or one of prestige.  In the case of the Myers-Briggs there is a self supporting industry of those that pay for the licensing to become testers and then propagate the test’s worth within their organisations thus increasing the need for their own services.  The real winner in the “success” of the MBTI is it’s producer.

This is a truism for any of the latest crazes and bandwagon technologies that present themselves in the hiring space.  If someone stands to benefit then they will tell everyone that it’s the best thing ever and will change the face of recruitment as we know it.  Be wary of that hyperbole for that way lies a trail a misspent dollars.

The hard truth that we all face is of course that there is no one perfect system.  There is no solution that can be purchased that will solve all your hiring ills.  There are organisations that make great strides in their own hiring and those stories have worth.  However, as an industry we shouldn’t seek to become an inferior copy of another’s success.  Instead we should ask ourselves what are those aspects that seem to work for others that we could trial and adopt at our own companies.  Listen to the stories of others but know that the stories themselves are not the path to knowledge. Knowing something requires research.

We should think critically about both the message and the messenger before going ahead with those decisions that will shape our ability to attract and retain talent for years to come (or at least until the next bandwagon we jump on).

So the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator isn’t magic. It’s that magical thinking that is a failure of critical thinking. Not thinking critically about a testing framework that you later use as a reference point to inform your decision making is an act of sabotage against your employer… but then I would say that I’m an ENTJ.

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