I first encountered the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) as a 23-year-old project manager at AT&T Universal Card Services (brief digression: the credit card industry is a great example of how the Hippocratic Oath of Business is violated every day by some of our most trusted brands). Every “manager” in the company was required to complete the test, undergo training on the ideas behind it, and display a graphical representation of their results in a little lucite stand on their desk so anyone who came to meet with them could see their type at a glance. I had way too little experience with organizational behavior at the time to understand why this might be a useful exercise; it struck me as yet another example of the waste and stupidity endemic to the corporate world (and another good reason to get the hell out).
Oddly enough, the MBTI resurfaced in my first significant left turn from corporate America when AT&T bought the Seattle wireless startup I was working for and I fled (again) to take over the “technical” product lines (gear for extreme sports like mountaineering and paddling) at outdoor retailer Patagonia. The culture at Patagonia strongly reflected the personalities of the owners, Yvon and Melinda Chouinard, and the HR folks there had come to the conclusion that management hires whose MBTI profiles were too far at odds with Yvon’s were unlikely to integrate successfully. Luckily for me, Yvon’s also an introvert who tends to makes intuitive judgments based on limited information, and is more often moved by arguments based on reason that those that rely on emotional levers. So I spent two happy years at Patagonia, learning to surf and dragging the decidedly anti-tech Chouinards into the world of online retailing before heading to business school.
Unfortunately, I found classroom education in most business topics to be kind of like like grade school sex ed: conveying the requisite facts while delivering very little useful information about their practical application. One of the few exceptions to this was the coursework on Organizational Behavior. Unlike cases in statistics or decision theory, which typically relied on artificially simplified scenarios to distill and teach key concepts, OB was more like a field research discipline that waded into real people’s interactions and decision-making processes to tease out all the ways we fool ourselves and manipulate others to achieve our ambitions. OB heuristics are delightfully non-obvious (turns out we’re very good at fooling ourselves), and correspondingly powerful in application (ref. the one-eyed man in the land of the blind). Among the useful OB frameworks I’ve encountered, the Meyer-Briggs is perhaps the least subtle, but is also the one I use most often.
Since my first encounter with the MBTI, I have come to appreciate the fact that people and their interactions with each other are the real engine of any organization’s success or failure, and that managing conflict and engineering cooperation among people commands easily 80% of management’s time in almost any enterprise. In this context, the Meyers-Briggs stands out as a flawed but useful framework for identifying risk areas in interpersonal communication and creating a “depersonalized” vocabulary for talking about and resolving interpersonal conflicts (i.e., instead of resorting to personal attacks on their colleague’s behavior, the antagonists can talk about the different patterns in the way they process information and make decisions, and why those patterns might be producing or exacerbating the conflict). If you aren’t familiar with it, and you have a team or organization that’s struggling with a repeat pattern of interpersonal conflict, it’s worth a closer look.