There is no shortage of stressors for people involved in co-ops today. With challenging economic and political conditions added to the hustle and bustle of modern life, topped off with a seeming deterioration of interpersonal communication and growing polarization of personal beliefs, it’s more important than ever to appreciate differences in others and find ways to work well together to solve our problems.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator™ (or MBTI) is a tool that can help individuals, teams, and organizations see the value in different perspectives and approaches to information gathering and problem-solving. In short, it can help people be more cooperative.

“The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator instrument is a self-report questionnaire designed to make Jung’s theory of psychological types understandable and useful in everyday life. MBTI results identify valuable differences between normal, healthy people, differences that can be the source of much misunderstanding and miscommunication. Taking the MBTI inventory and receiving feedback will help you identify your unique gifts. The information enhances understanding of yourself, your motivations, your natural strengths, and your potential areas for growth. It will also help you appreciate people who differ from you. Understanding your MBTI type is self-affirming and encourages COOPERATION with others.”

—Introduction To Type, by Isabel Briggs Myers

History

Based on Carl Jung’s theory of personality, MBTI was created by Isabel Briggs Myers and her mother Katharine Cook Briggs. The core principle is that people have preferences for how to interact with the world, divided into four different categories. The categories are preference pairs that are dichotomies, meaning the preference is binary: either one or the other. One of the biggest confusions about MBTI concerns the very way that preferences are defined—many people mistakenly see them not as a clear either/or but more as a kind of dimmer switch.

The preference is similar to the sensation most people feel when signing their name: try doing it, then try switching to your non-preferred hand. You’ll likely have to concentrate more and feel awkward or clumsy, and the result won’t be as refined. You could envision practicing and getting better, but it’s hard to believe that it would ever feel as natural and effortless. And if the task at hand were something that took all day, it’s easy to imagine how exhausting that could be. With MBTI preferences, interacting with the world in a non-preferred way can be just as difficult.

Note that while some of the names of the preference pairs are familiar words, within MBTI their meanings may differ from common usage. Extravert does not mean talkative or loud and Introvert does not mean shy or inhibited. Feeling does not mean emotional. Judging does not mean judgmental and Perceiving does not mean perceptive. Also, a person with a Sensing preference doesn’t necessarily lack what we refer to as intuition. A person with a Feeling preference doesn’t fail to think.

The pairs

Extraversion/Introversion (E–I) reflects where you prefer to focus your attention or where you draw energy. People who prefer Extraversion tend to focus outward and receive energy from interacting with people and from taking action. People who prefer Introversion tend to focus inward and receive energy from reflecting their thoughts, memories, and feelings. This preference is probably the one people are most familiar with. Some recent books and articles focus on introverts in the workplace and acknowledge the differences. For example, the open office concept might be very draining for introverts, as they are forced to interact with people all day, making their job more difficult than it would be for an extravert.

Sensing/Intuition (S–N) expresses how you prefer to take in information. People who prefer Sensing focus on practical realities and things that are objective, factual, and concrete. They are oriented to present realities and observe and remember specifics. Their understanding is deeply informed through practical application and experience. People who prefer Intuition see the big picture and focus on relationships and connections between facts. They are oriented to future possibilities and see and remember patterns. They trust creativity and imagination and more deeply explore ideas and theories before putting things into practice. People whose memories are filled with detail tend to prefer Sensing; those whose memories capture the general sense of the experience likely prefer Intuition.

Thinking/Feeling (T–F) reveals how you prefer to make decisions. People who prefer Thinking analyze things from an objective perspective, mentally removing themselves from the situation while looking for logical consequences and using cause-and-effect reasoning. They are reasonable and fair, wanting everyone to be treated equally. People who prefer Feeling in decision-making, analyze things from a perspective of what is important to them and others involved, mentally putting themselves into the situation while looking for values and how the decision will impact people. They are compassionate and empathic, wanting everyone to be treated fairly as an individual.

Judging/Perceiving (J–P) indicates how you prefer to deal with the outer world. People who prefer Judging like structure and order, schedules and organization. They like when decisions are made and closure is reached. They are systematic and like it when plans are made and followed. They like to avoid last-minute stresses. People who prefer Perceiving like flexibility and spontaneity. They are more casual and open-ended, able to adapt and change course. The finality of decisions and structure of detailed plans feels restrictive. They are often seen as procrastinators, not because they lack discipline or drive but because they prefer to keep options open as long as possible.

Preference versus ability

These pairs show preference but not necessarily aptitude. Most of us, to live productively, need to develop a variety of skills. Verbal communication, introspection, details, patterns, logic, empathy, order, and adaptability are not mutually exclusive. And just because we might have a preference for one, it’s possible that skills in the non-preferred area are more developed. Family situation, school, work, and other factors can impact how different abilities become more refined.

You arrive at your type (one of 16) by combining the preferences. Type is indicated with a four-letter designation, such as ESTJ or INFP. There are lots of fun online tests that try to imitate the MBTI questionnaire, but even if these tests copy some of the same questions from the official MBTI Instrument, none of them uses the proprietary weighted scoring system that the MBTI Instrument uses. Certified practitioners provide the appropriate context and accurate assessment results. They also have the knowledge to support deeper understanding and can answer questions on aspects that might seem unclear or contradictory.

Ultimately, you self-select the type that best matches you and your preferences. It’s really about what feels more natural. And sometimes that can be difficult to ascertain, even for the person taking the test. If an Introvert has been working for many years in a job that requires Extravert skills, they likely have adapted over time, and their preference might have been sublimated by habit and rewards. Thus, setting the proper context before taking the instrument is critical—if one is in too much of a “work mode” mindset, it might be hard to consider the questions from a non-biased perspective. This difficulty is another reason why it’s a fool’s errand to try to diagnose another’s type (or assign a type to a fictional or famous person).

Even under ideal circumstances, assessment results sometimes show less-than-definitive results. Again, that’s okay since the individual has final say in selecting their type, and it’s an empowering aspect of the tool. Sometimes results that show less-clear preferences can be made clear by more thorough examination. There are two versions of the assessment, with the second (Step II*) having more questions and more depth.

How knowing your type helps you

Any tool that helps you know yourself better is valuable. Perhaps the little bit of information in this article has already provided some insights for you on why certain tasks or situations feel harder or more awkward than you think they should. The knowledge and insight can certainly help us to realize that different approaches and perspectives are natural and acceptable. To be clear, there is no preference that is “better,” and none is inherently dysfunctional. All have their strengths and potential opportunities for growth. Depending on your situation, you might choose to work on developing your skills in your non-preferred area, or you might look at maximizing your effectiveness within your preferences.

Better understanding our preferences can help us realize what might stress us or drain our energy. Once we know this, we might be able to arrange our workload in a way that provides breaks and time to recuperate from more stressful aspects, or to order things so we aren’t trying to work against preference at times when our reserves might be low.

How knowing types helps teams

Knowledge of self usually leads to better knowledge of others. If I can be less judgmental about myself because of the natural way I prefer to do things, that may transfer to others as well, and I can support them more fully. Those in leadership roles can better understand the needs of teammates and ideally set up work environments and situations that can provide a balance and variety of approaches. Having everyone on the team feel supported in the manner in which we do our work will no doubt improve performance for all.

Beyond the team members as individuals, looking at the combinations of types and preferences can illuminate potential conflicts or blind spots for the team. Assigning a problem to a mixture of Extravert and Introvert preference could result in half of the team wanting to sit around and brainstorm and the other half wanting to do some solo research and reflection before proposing solutions. A team with all Intuition preference might miss some of the details; one with all Sensing might miss the forest for the trees. A plan made by a group with Thinking preference might forget the impact on the individuals. Judging and Perceiving types might have very different views of whether we are rushing to make a decision or are dragging our feet.

Conflicts can easily arise within teams and organizations when different types and preferences interact. The questions and approaches can seem foreign or even pointless to those on differing sides. Building understanding throughout the organization can help emphasize appreciation for diversity, making everyone feel their contribution is valued. While certainly not every interpersonal problem can be traced to type, understanding type can inform our conflict resolution processes to better account for differences.

Again, don’t assume that skills automatically correlate to preference. A person with Intuition preference might be the best person to create the detailed budget. An Introvert preference individual might be the ideal one to give a public presentation. Instead, type should inform our work in a way that helps us make the best use of each team member. We can always reflect on Carl Jung’s own words: “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.”

Doubts versus popularity

There have been some questions about the science or the efficacy of MBTI over the years, but it has remained a popular tool for self-discovery. There is some evidence its popularity may actually be growing, thanks to millennials (http://digiday.com/publishers/millennials-love-myers-briggs/) and the online presence of MBTI. Maybe those silly quizzes are helping people discover personality types and inspiring them to learn more.

Any tool that tries to classify people will have pitfalls. People are infinitely more complex and too delightfully unpredictable to fit into 16,000 categories, much less 16. Labels can become assumptions, and ignorance can be replaced with stereotypes, which isn’t much of an improvement. Some of the descriptions and characteristics won’t match every individual perfectly. I’m reminded again of the quote by George Box: “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

I recommend the tool because I’ve found it insightful for myself and those who I know have used it. I’ve seen it work well in teams. Outpost Natural Foods Co-op has it as part of its leadership development program. The River Market Co-op board is beginning to use it. Currently, 89 of the Fortune 100 companies use it. You too might find some value for yourself, your team, or your organization.

For over 50 years, MBTI has helped people understand themselves better and enabled them to better understand others. Knowledge of type can help you deal with your workplace culture, understanding of your participation on teams, and the development of new skills. In today’s workplace, investments in improving interpersonal communication and teamwork, empowering employees, enhancing team productivity, and reducing conflict could make the difference between an organization that is just getting by and one that is thriving. It can help us acknowledge and appreciate differences and diversity and help us cooperate. Our world could use more of that. ♦

Thanks to MyersBriggs.org and the published works of Isabel Briggs Myers, especially Introduction to Type (6th ed., by I.B. Myers, 1998, Mountain View, CA; CCP, Inc.); to Kari Mitchell at Outpost Natural Foods; and to the CBLD Team at CDS CC.

*Step-III has recently been introduced as well but is designed for one-on-one coaching or counseling.

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