There are many different psychometric instruments in use, not just in leadership or management development, but also in the recruitment and personal development fields and others. As it occurred to me that very rarely do you get to read a first-hand account of the process of completing some of these questionnaires and receiving feedback on them, I took the opportunity to follow up a fascinating session by an ASK colleague during Adult Learning Week by completing a range of the most commonly used tools and receiving facilitated feedback on them. In this first post in a series, I’ll cover MBTI (later posts will cover FIRO-B and instruments from the Hogan stable), and I hope they will provide not just interesting reading, but an insight into the psychometric experience for those who have yet to undergo it or are apprehensive about doing so.
Like many other organisations, ASK frequently deploys a range of psychometric instruments. As we value professionalism, client confidentiality and well-being, we only do so where those administering the instrument in question are licensed to do so, and all feedback is facilitated by trained professionals: while we can’t claim to be unique in this, many individuals each year receive feedback from the use of psychometric tests that is unmediated, unsupported and unfacilitated. (Given that any psychometric tool is a form of mirror to be held up to the person completing its questionnaire, this is never something that we would recommend.)
Our advice on how to complete a questionnaire remains unchanged: choose a calm, unpressured point in time, and focus on giving the most honest answers rather than those you feel someone else would most like to see. The benefit to the individual lies in gaining insights into themselves, not discovering how successfully they can impersonate the outlook of a mythical version of themselves that they feel some inexplicable need to create. While the route by which you find yourself facing a blank questionnaire may provide a context – team-building, management development, etc.– attempting to ‘second guess’ the ‘right’ answer is unlikely to be helpful. Dishonest input means inaccurate feedback – and ineffectual developmental insight.
For the purposes of this article (your circumstances might differ, of course), I also found it valuable to be open about my own agenda – having first been reassured that all discussions were entirely confidential – as I was aware that my own responses (both to the questionnaire and to the feedback processes) might be coloured by it. (Being open about my own agenda was valuable to me too, of course, but bear in mind that most people completing MBTI don’t then blog about it.) I had come to the MBTI and FIRO-B questionnaires after a challenging long-term period in my family life that had recently come to a conclusion with the death of a parent. Finding myself in a situation where the thought of having ‘options’ was a novelty in itself: providing on-going care and managing the affairs of a parent with severe mental health issues for a number of years doesn’t leave a lot of room for manoeuvre. I saw the process as an opportunity to take steps to make sure I had a good understanding of myself before leaping to decisions. If “frying-pan to fire” didn’t appeal as an option, the psychometric experience presented itself as an opportunity to explore Plan B: “frying pan to side of cooker” – from which vantage point to focus on the shapes of the flames while decision-making slowly becomes clearer.
The administrative processes were smoothly and professionally completed: clear instructions on how to log on and complete the questionnaire arrived by email, with supportive and non-threatening instructions on how to approach doing so. In the event, I found both the MBTI and FIRO-B questionnaires surprisingly difficult to complete. Many participants comment that a lot of the questions are repetitious: some are very subtle variations on each other. Those subtleties are important, however, and subtlety also lay behind my difficulty in answering some of the other questions: asked to pick between two abstract nouns and asked which I considered the most important or attractive quality, the editor/writer in me – and, no doubt, the behavioural preferences that motivated me to pursue writing and editing – went into overdrive.
While I answered most of the questions in about 20 minutes, the remaining dozen or so took me about another hour as I ummed, ahhed, boiled kettles, kicked leaves round the garden and generally thought myself into a corner. In most cases, I eventually decided that something couldn’t be a) if it wasn’t also b), but not vice versa, and therefore a) was more important. [If they’d made cloning commercially available by now, I could have made a whole series of BBC4 programmes interviewing myself about some of the questions. Although possibly not one with a huge audience.] I eventually declared the process complete when I reached a point where I’d decided that I had answered an honestly as I could – probably the right point, but one that others might reach more quickly depending on their own individual reactions to the questions.
The feedback process, provided by an ASK colleague who I won’t name (out of respect for the confidentiality of the process – although I have given that colleague a right of anonymised first reply to this post), was – I am glad to say – rather less torturous.
MBTI – The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
My colleague was painstaking in setting the scene for the feedback session, in underlining some of the precepts of MBTI: that there are no right answers, that no individual type is seen as better or worse than any other, and that the four scales of the instrument indicate preferences and the strength of clarity of (rather than ability in) these preferences. It was also underlined that the ‘results’ are for interpretation: if, in facilitated discussion, I found myself identifying more strongly with another of the 16 types, more weight should be given to my identification – provided that I ‘make a reasonable case for doing so’, as a barrister might put.
Feedback was provided one scale at a time, and in each case I was invited – after an explanation of the poles of the scale – to guess the score the instrument had indicated. My reported type – INFP – did not come as a surprise, although the clarity or otherwise of some of the scale preferences was interesting or unexpected. On the S – N (Sensing – Intuition) scale, the instrument recorded me right at the N end of the scale when I would have guessed rather lower, given a long history of IT and information management related roles. While my position on the T – F (Thinking – Feeling) scale did not surprise (speaking as someone conscious of a ‘head vs heart’ divide on many occasions), the explanation did: the distribution curve for this scale is more slanted than the others, and my apparently slight preference for Feeling places me further towards the F end of the scale that might be apparent. But with the J – P (Judging – Perceiving scale), the result came through as less clearly a P preference than I had anticipated (although a preference for P-ness was still quite noticeable.) While the word-play loving wit in me smiled at the memory of my favourite ever blog post title and I congratulated myself on having taken Michael Shoemakes’ advice, I was also mindful that my recognition of my own judgemental streak might not always be as thorough as I’d previously thought or hoped.
There are interesting points to be made here about learned type vs true type. It’s possible, for example, that the many years in which I’ve worked in heavily IT-flavoured environments have ‘conditioned’ my preferences on the S – N scale through the repeated stress on the value of accurate, validated data. It’s also possible that I have ‘learned’ an amended preference in this way as I have felt – possibly unconsciously – that this was a behaviour or outlook that was expected of me.
But MBTI is not prescriptive: a type is an indication, not a behavioural straightjacket. It provides an indication of our preferred approaches to issues and to the world around us, but recognises that we have ancillary preferences and may react and behave differently in different circumstances. It helps to think of it as a tool for reflection, rather than as a snapshot of yourself from another angle. (It much less a pigeonhole that something loosely woven that we can influence the momentary shape of.) The value that I saw in it was that it provides ways of thinking about yourself – for example, about the tendencies that may help or hinder you, the types of situation in which you are likely to flourish or founder, the other aspects of your personality that you might explore deploying more often and more consciously.
I am conscious that this response to MBTI may partly be explained by my reported type: one tendency of my own profile might be a desire to understand myself – which might predispose me to value the process in itself. (There’s also a possible link to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where self-actualisation forms the apex: a desire for fulfilment, if not a driving force. That Maslow’s model sees this as assuming that lower levels needs have been satisfactorily met doesn’t necessarily sit with my personal reality in every sense, but I mention the link as further food for thought.) This tendency need not turn into an excuse for a mythical journey up the eternal river of the self (as I think a Biff cartoon had it once in the 1980s): the self-learning has applications too. The accompanying booklet that ASK provides to those who complete the MBTI process with its coaches or facilitators – Jenny Rogers Sixteen Personality Types At Work In Organisations – has provided me not just with food for thought (always one of my favourite items, even as a raving foodie), but clues – and cues – for action too.
While the norms used in MBTI, and the supporting narratives – as with most psychometric tools when used in a workplace setting – refer to our potential as a manager or leader, the content and scope of the report and booklet are broader. The feedback that they – and a skilled and sensitive facilitator – can provide gives insights not just into your use of your preferences in your current context that may impress, irritate, puzzle, support or confuse others, but also into contexts and settings that may provide optimum satisfaction. In the context of my specific agenda – to continue (I sincerely hope) my work with ASK while looking to identify the most satisfying and personally rewarding use of the rest of my working week – MBTI proved the first part in a series of illuminating conversations that arose from exploring a range of psychometric instruments. Not least among these was the report’s comment that:
INFPs can sometimes find that their endless quest for personal perfection stands in the way of achieving the outcomes they want.”
Among the things that the MBTI process reminded me was that one response to the impact of what MacMillan summed up as “events, dear boy, events” was to recognise the potential of “action, sweetness: action”. While my P-preference means that I tend to take my own inscrutable (ok, meandering) route from A to B, I need to remind myself that the point is to actually make it as far as B. Unless C – or even F – becomes more attractive en route, of course.
Last time that we wrote about MBTI in any depth here, it was in response to a Radio 4 programme hosted by Mariella Frostrup. While scepticism is no stranger to my make-up (more of which in the forthcoming articles about the different Hogan instruments), it seems I’m less cynical about the process. MBTI is an opportunity for self-learning, and the process of pausing to reflect was in its own way as much an input as the questionnaire’s results. It’s also a prompt: in reviewing my own situation – essentially, finding ways of identifying future scenarios that are most likely to be personally satisfying (and yes, I realise that sounds very self-centred) – it reminded me that I can’t overlook the possibly inconvenient question about how much I might appeal to the situation, rather than vice versa. Recognising how I work (in more senses than one) is a valuable and useful step in making intelligent choices about where I work, but like any other learning this needs to be taken on board and acted on before it can show its real worth.