The Limitations for Coaching and Development of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and other Preference-Based Personality Questionnaires

MBTI and Other Personality Questionnaires – Employee Selection and Development

Psychometric assessment has become standard practice for most global organizations and companies with a keen interest in thorough employee selection and development. Today psychometric assessment is used by more than 80% of the Fortune 500 companies in the USA and by over 75% of the Times Top 100 companies in the UK.

Never before has the appropriate selection of effective psychometric assessment tools been more important.

Broadly speaking psychometric assessment can be grouped into two categories:

  • aptitude or ability tests
  • personality questionnaires

Aptitude tests are mainly used for employee selection purposes, and they measure a prospective employee’s skills and potential in various domains of functioning such as verbal, numerical, abstract, mechanical, and spatial reasoning.

Personality questionnaires have the challenging task of defining and “measuring” the more dynamic and interpersonal aspects of human functioning and behaviour. This has resulted in the development of numerous personality questionnaires all with very different takes on what constitutes noteworthy personality differences and typologies. There are reportedly over 2,500 personality questionnaires in the market today, which reveals both the complexity and potential problems related to the measurement and definition of personality.

Despite these complexities personality questionnaires are widely used for the dual purpose of employee selection and employeedevelopment (e.g. personality-based coaching and team-building).

MBTI and other Personality Questionnaires in the Workplace

In the workplace certain personality questionnaires have become more widely used than others (e.g. Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), DISC, 15FQ+, OPQ etc.). Results from these questionnaires aim to describe a person’s dominant and enduring preferences, characteristics and attitudes across a range of contexts. This type of information is useful in the employee selection process where specific personal qualities, work styles and preferences need to be identified in order to suitably position or team up people. The usefulness of knowing personality preferences is also testified to by the wide use of personality questionnaires like the MBTI and 15FQ+ in career choice assessment.

So, in certain areas of organizational functioning a preference-based personality assessment (or PPQ) is needed and suitable.

But have you ever wondered how effective and suitable these popular personality questionnaires really are in the development and coaching of your employees? Have you ever critically examined the fundamental assumptions that PPQ’s (e.g. MBTI) make about human functioning, and about stimulating change and growth in your employees?

A critical consideration of these fundamental assumptions may sound academic and high-brow, but it will help your organization make an informed decision regarding the most appropriate and effective psychometric tools for employee development and coaching.

Preference-based Personality Questionnaires (PPQ’s) and Change

Problems cannot be solved by thinking within the framework in which the problems were created.

– Albert Einstein

When it comes to employee development and coaching the key word is obvious – change. How do we coach and mentor employees towards positive, lasting and deep-level change? In other words, how do we not only solve problems with employee engagement and performance, but ultimately change the frameworks in which obstacles to higher effectiveness have arisen in the first place?

One of the fundamental assumptions of most PPQ’s is that identifying and describing a person’s dominant preferences will in itself stimulate change. It is proposed by PPQ’s that knowing your preferences allows you to capitalize on their strengths, while adapting them to the demands of the situation. In the MBTI, for instance, personality preferences are seen as the fundamental framework for improvement and change.

Consider this excerpt from the Myers Briggs Foundation website regarding the use of the MBTI and personality type for everyday life:

When you understand your type preferences, you can approach your own work in a manner that best suits your style, including how you manage your time, problem solving, best approaches to decision making, and dealing with stress. Knowledge of type can help you deal with the culture of the place you work, the development of new skills, understanding your participation on teams, and coping with change in the workplace.”

It sounds pretty good right? But is it enough? And is there a catch?

What if, like Einstein suggested, your personality preferences – and your personality framework – becomes part of the problem? In other words, what if your attempts to eradicate the behaviours that hamper your performance end up reinforcing the problematic behaviour? Unfortunately this will always happen when we only change surface level behaviours and preferences without addressing and shifting the underlying thought patterns and emotional drivers that motivate those behaviours.

Let’s illustrate this dilemma with a practical example:

Paul, an employee Sally is coaching, is struggling with assertiveness and procrastination. His productivity has been dropping and his colleagues are getting really frustrated with him. Paul is a likable guy, but he’s clearly not performing at his peak. He seems to just “zone out” at work, often taking breaks or playing solitaire on his laptop.

In Sally’s second coaching session with Paul she asks him why he thinks he is struggling with deadlines at work. Paul says that he feels it is part of his personality and that he has tried to change, but that he doesn’t know where to start.

Paul describes how he was once assessed on the MBTI and that he came out as an INFP (Introverted-Intuitive-Feeling-Perceiving Type). He tells Sally that as an INFP he is introverted and prefers not to ‘rock the boat’ or stand up to people in team meetings when he’s not happy with something.

Paul tells Sally how he has always used a feeling-based decision-making style, which makes his decisions and actions seem so complicated. He says that is why he has been avoiding his colleagues and procrastinating so much. Paul goes on to tell Sally that he also avoids his mountains of admin, because INFP’s are more focused on the big picture than on details.

As the coaching session continues, Paul struggles to define his goals for the coaching process. He seems to have a low level of motivation and struggles to stay focused on the specific challenges and questions Sally is posing to help him figure out the way forward.

Sally is an action-oriented person and tries to get the coaching process moving forward. She decides to teach Paul some assertiveness skills, which he seems to respond well to. Sally also uses some cognitive-behavioural techniques to help Paul sift through his usual feeling-orientated approach with some rational thinking. Lastly Sally tries to show him how the details of admin are part of the bigger picture of gaining promotion and achievement. Paul responds well to the intervention and for the first week or two things seem to improve.

But then Paul starts cancelling his weekly coaching appointments. Sally hears from his line manager that he has been absent from work recently and that he has a lot of work overdue. His team are once again frustrated, because he seems to have slipped back into his old mode.

What happened?

First and Second-order Change

Identifying his personality preferences through the MBTI, a preference-based personality questionnaire, had revealed to Paul (and Sally) where his problem areas lay. But knowing this did not in itself lead to any kind of lasting change. To understand better why Paul slipped back into his old negative patterns we need first to distinguish between two kinds of change that can occur in the people development and coaching process.

Mary Bast, co-author of Out the Box Coaching with the Enneagram (2005), differentiates between first-order and second-order change in describing what can happen in the coaching process.

First-Order Change and Personality Preferences

First-order change is generally the level at which personality-preference questionnaires are able to stimulate some kind of awareness.

“First-order change occurs when we solve a problem without examining the framework within which the problem was created; the immediate solution may provide a temporary fix but the habitual patterns of response remain unaltered. Because the system is unchanged, the problem recurs, perhaps in different forms.” (Mary Bast, 2005)

In the case of Paul, his self-defeating personality preference patterns of not stating his agenda strongly, procrastinating, and avoiding details were temporarily “fixed”, but paradoxically reinforced by (and evident in) the coaching process!

How is that?

Paul struggled to define his goals for coaching, but didn’t want to hurt Sally’s feelings or create tension by disagreeing with her intervention. He tried her techniques for a while, but couldn’t sustain them since they were not driven by his own agenda. So he started avoiding her too! Sally’s own preference for a coaching process that moves forward quickly had also unintentionally reinforced Paul’s preference to procrastinate on self-driven and self-motivated action.

The first-order change didn’t last because (even though Paul knew his personality preferences) the coaching process did not examine and shift Paul’s underlying framework of thought patterns, beliefs, and emotional drivers that were reinforcing his self-defeating preferences – even within the coaching relationship!

This is also one of the key limitations of personality preference questionnaires like the MBTI. They tell us what we prefer, but they don’t tell us why.

Second-Order Change and Underlying Worldviews

“Second-order change occurs when we explore the dimensions of the worldview in which the problem arose and create new patterns of thought and new learned experience beyond the customary frame of reference.” (Mary Bast, 2005)

Imagine that both Paul and Sally had greater insight into the worldview or framework of underlying beliefs and motivations that was giving rise to Paul’s self-defeating preferences. Imagine that, instead of merely trying help Paul adapt his behaviour towards the opposite end of the Myers Briggs behavioural spectrum, Sally had been given a way to encourage Paul to fundamentally challenge his beliefs about himself and the world. Furthermore, imagine that Sally had been given specific guidelines for how to manage Paul’s coaching process in a way that would avoid unwittingly reinforcing Paul’s worldview and behaviours.

Imagine that a personality questionnaire existed that could go beyond preferences and characteristics to reveal what truly drivesPaul (and your employees) towards self-defeating cycles, while offering them alternative frames of reference and learned experiences.

The E-scale is an alternative to preference-based personality questionnaires and it is here to radically shift your framework of employee development and coaching. The E-scale Emotional Intelligence profiling process that not only reveals preferences, but goes deeper to uncover the worldviews or frameworks of underlying beliefs and motivations that give rise to patterns that hinder productivity and performance.

If you want to find out how you can move on from preference-based questionnaires (such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), DISC, 15FQ+, OPQ etc.) towards deeper, lasting, second-order change, then please get in touch with us.

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