Expert psychologists warn about the unreliability of Myers-Briggs personality tests. So why are companies using an inaccurate form of personality measurement on employees and what are the consequences on corporate life?
The allure of categorising staff into types has made the Myers-Briggs type indicator (MBTI) the most popular personality test. Commissioned by consulting firms, government departments and start-ups, more than 3.5 million assessments are administered to organisations who accumulate combined letters to shape corporate life and optimise business outcomes. However, relying on unreliable forms of science to make crucial decisions about staff, implies that money ought to be redirected to more accurate alternatives.
The pseudo-science of MBTI evolved from a mother, Katharine Cook Briggs, and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers adopted the conceptual theory of Carl Jung in 1945 and transformed it into type indicators predicting how individuals respond to their environment and make decisions.
After completing an online assessment, MBTI narrows down personalities of individuals as falling into one or the other of the following dichotomies: introversion (I) or extraversion (E), sensing (S) or intuition (N), thinking (T) or feeling (F), judging (J) or perceiving (P). Individuals are then scored into categories and conceptualised into 1 of 16 possible personality types.
These distinctive and discontinuous typologies, originally developed for self-awareness and self-development, have shamelessly infiltrated corporations
A spokesperson from marketing company, Blue Digital, who uses a similar test to MBTI said: “We use personality tests to inform the business decisions that we make. We understand that successful businesses need employees with a range of different skillsets, so we use the tests to inform our hiring decisions.
“We also use the tests to build successful teams from the employees that we already have” she added.
The MBTI prides itself as a reliable predictor that can analyse job applicants, determine training schemes, and shape productive teams. It’s no wonder businesses are tempted into simplified measures of personality.
Although well-intentioned, however, psychologists raise an eyebrow to such typologies and worry that organisations are turning a blind eye to their glaring inaccuracies.
Dr Mark Batey, a global academic and consultant to leading organisations such as the BBC, JC Decaux and Tesco, said: “That's how most personality psychologists sadly feel about the MBTI and why nobody does any research, because it's debunked.”
The MBTI, and other personality test spin-offs have been exposed to lack internal consistency, test-retest reliability, and predictive validity. Research undertaken by Batey himself, warns that organisations treat typologies with caution in all organisational contexts, and under no circumstances should be used for recruitment.
Pointing to the damaging misuse of personality tests, the recent HBO documentary, ‘Persona’, reveals how US organisations wrongly apply the tests in ways that are racist, sexist, ableist and classist. For Batey, “Organisations are at risk of getting uncomfortably close to resting a large proportion of the decision-making power on such tests.”
So despite being inaccurate, why do businesses continue to use them? Batey said: “MBTI really filled that role of being simple, easy to interpret, puts people into a nice, neat category that don't actually exist. There's an enormous marketing machine around the whole thing where HR people and people who work in learning and development, will often be coming across sales agents.” This explains why in America, the company administering tests yields around $20 million each year.
The success of MBTI also relies on its cleverly marketed wraparound of support, such as slides, exercises and activities that employers can readily lift to run learning and development workshops.
But even if well marketed, the lack of reliability should be enough to convince employers to redirect their resources elsewhere, especially given that as many as 50 percent of people obtain different results the second time they take a test, even within a five week period.
So, whilst MBTI could provide a fruitful conversation for staff to learn about each other, it is based on something as reliable as a horoscope or tarot card. Starting a conversation based on mysterious office astrology of an MBTI type is, for Dr David Hughes, Lecturer in Organisational Psychology at the University of Manchester, useless.
Hughes said: “Why would we ever want to start that conversation with a tool that is wrong? The important bit of all of this is measurement accuracy and reliability, whether the test is consistent.
“You will switch from an extravert to introvert, so how should you lead and manage?
“The measurement of personality is not an issue of belief but one of evidence and let me be super clear, there is zero good evidence supporting the MBTI.”
MBTI’s so-called ability to improve organisational teamwork, develop leaders and foster diversity is therefore nothing more than a cleverly marketed empty promise. The risk now is that organisations will continue rolling out tests and further complicate the very complexities they are on a quest to iron out.
There are, however, tests available to employers which are proven to be grounded in predictive validity based on the ‘Big Five’: Openness (O), conscientiousness (C), extraversion (E), agreeableness (A) and neuroticism (N). They are simply waiting in the wings as they simply fall short of a fifty-year head start on marketing.
Batey urges organisations that “If you're going to spend lots of money and make perhaps quite key decisions about how people think, feel and behave, I think I'd rather invest my time and energy into scientifically proven, validated effective measures that we know relate to performance.”
When asked about the future of personality testing, Batey pointed to Augmented and Virtual Reality: “I suspect the way we will assess people's personality is rather than asking you about a scenario, I'll put you in a scenario and avatars and actors will interact with you.”
So unless employers redirect their resources to more accurate personality tests, it won’t be until then that the marketing power of MBTI is knocked off its pedestal.