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Testing perceptions – Myers-Briggs and false appearances

February 25, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Every morning at around 7.45am, BBC Radio 4 includes a short talk from a religious figure giving listeners a thought to ponder. The daily “Thought for the Day” is given by Christian priests and vicars, Rabbis, Imans and others.

The Last Supper

The Last Supper
(Hans Holbein the Younger, 1524)

This morning’s programme (25 February 2013) featured  Dr Giles Fraser, priest-in-charge of St Mary’s, Newington. Fraser spoke about Jesus and pointed out that the Western World’s perceptions on what he looked like are likely to be wrong. He referred to classical paintings of Jesus and contrasted these to  Judas. Jesus is often blonde while Judas tends to be much more swarthy looking with a longer nose and red or dark hair. Jesus has become an archetypical North European, while Judas reflects stereotypes on how Jews are supposed to look. Of course Jesus was Jewish – and was born and lived in what is now Israel. So did Judas. Both would have had Semitic physiognomies – as both were Jewish.

Fraser’s point however has further implications. There is a tendency to put our own preconceptions and views onto others – and expect others to behave and think like we do. In a business context, this can be fatal as it means we see competitors as just reflections of ourselves. When a competitor comes up with something that appears odd, or that we don’t understand, the inclination is to say that the competitor has it wrong – rather than that we have it wrong, which could just as easily be the situation. This error is a classic type of blind spot.

Myers-Briggs Type Indicators

One part in Fraser’s short talk caught my attention. While he was studying to become a priest, he was taught about Myers-Briggs Type Indicators based on work by Carl Jung.  Fraser commented that both he and his fellow trainee priests were asked to assess the personality type of Jesus based on what they knew and had learned about him. They were then assessed using the Myers-Briggs test. Most found that the personality type they had given to Jesus was actually a reflection of their own type.

The implications for this are that people have a tendency to assign their own expectations and prejudices onto others – and judge them accordingly.

Myers-Briggs test form

The Jungian Briggs Myers 16-Types Personality Test (JBM16) is designed to measure how you like to look at the world and make decisions.

In business recruitment, this can mean choosing a candidate who, rather than bring something fresh to the business, just continues the same old approach. Although this may avoid conflict, it also means that the chance for new, innovative thinking and an ability to change or challenge current norms is also lost. There is a real risk that recruiting clones may lead to the business stultifying and failing to recognise new opportunities and threats.

In research interviewing any attempt to profile an individual remotely is just foolhardy and a key source for interviewer bias, resulting in flawed interviews and erroneous conclusions riddled with misconceptions. Yet there are interviewers who claim to be so expert at such psychometric evaluations that they can assess an interviewee within minutes even though the published tests for Myers Briggs involve dozens of questions  that need to be answered before an assessment can be made.

In business analysis it can lead to a potentially more serious problem. Some analysts pride themselves on their ability to identify the personality type of business or political leaders, without meeting them and with minimal information. Unless there is a vast quantity of information available on another individual – speeches, TV and radio interviews, published articles and opinion pieces, etc. it is risky to extrapolate about another individual and anticipate their behaviour remotely. The danger is that the analyst may project their own typology onto the leader – judging them by reported actions without necessarily understanding the thought processes that lay behind those actions or even the accuracy of the reporting. The risk is that any assessment will be based on prejudices – rather than reality, and so lead to poor decisions.

Business research and analysis should depend on accurate and rigorous methodologies, and not pop-psychology. Myers-Briggs can be useful when backed up by sufficient data. It should be viewed as an analysis tool requiring detailed insight into the subject. Using these, and other similar psychometric approaches, as a basis for complex business decision-making without the full data as demanded by the process is another route to business failure, so treat with care, and treat advocates of these tools even more carefully.

Myers Briggs personality types

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