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THE WORK ISSUE | Benjamin Winterhalter

ISTJ? ENFP? Careers hinge on a dubious personality test

Philip Giordano for the Boston Globe

New jobs always begin with new hopes. You put on your best outfit, show up 10 minutes early, and smile brightly when chatting around the coffee machine. You try, that is, to be the best version of yourself, to conceal the chinks in your armor (at least as long as you can). Increasingly, however, employers are taking extra effort to break down new employees’ facades, to learn about people’s “real” personalities early on. The problem, though, is that they’re doing it by requiring new hires to take a psychological test on the Internet.

For the past decade, around 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies (and 89 of the Fortune 100) have used a psychometric test called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator — a version of which is available for free online — to study the personalities of entering employees. The Myers-Briggs uses a series of yes-no questions to break down personalities along four dichotomies: Introversion (I) vs. Extroversion (E); Sensing (S) vs. Intuitive (N); Thinking (T) vs. Feeling (F); and Perceiving (P) vs. Judging (J). These dichotomies generate a four-letter combination that (supposedly) represents one’s psychological “type” (an idea that traces its origins to Carl Jung). Corporate managers, for example, are often ISTJs, while writers and artists are often ENFPs. Each person fits only one of the 16 possible types and is supposedly that type from cradle to grave.

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Companies typically pay outside consultants between $150 and $200 per head to administer Myers-Briggs workshops. For instance, Kelsey Connard, a consultant at KPMG (one of the largest consulting firms in the world), recently administered the Myers-Briggs to a group of new hires at Verizon. She had participants take the test online and then, without knowing their results, try to guess their types. About four out of five got it completely right.

The problem lies in that, as a scientific measure of personality, the Myers-Briggs is mostly vacuous. As critics have pointed out, if dichotomous types were real, we would expect the test results to show clear divisions between, for example, introverts and extroverts. In reality, however, Myers-Briggs takers fit a bell curve whose mean falls exactly in the middle between I and E. Without that sharp divide, however, the line appears arbitrary, especially for those test-takers near the mean. In addition, psychologists have pointed out that, although the test assumes that one’s type is immutable, as many as 50 percent of people get different results if they retake the test as soon as five weeks later.

And finally, the test is highly susceptible to what psychologists call the “Forer Effect” — that is, our natural tendency to rate personality tests as highly accurate when they tell us nice things about ourselves.

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All these scientific shortcomings suggest that perhaps there’s no such thing as an underlying psychological type after all. Myers-Briggs starts to look, instead, like a very sophisticated horoscope, where your answers to the questions tautologically imply what type you are.

Which, in fairness to the test’s proponents, doesn’t mean that Myers-Briggs can’t be useful. David Kiel, a management consultant who’s been relying on the test for more than 40 years, said that, regardless of whether the test is valid, it tends to get people thinking about the role of personality in the workplace. “It helps you understand where people’s strengths and weaknesses lie,” Kiel said. “And it gives people a way to analyze conflict in the office without assigning blame.”

Nonetheless, Kiel also told me that the test sometimes backfires: “You can have the upper managers saying, ‘Oh, you guys are all INFPs, that’s why we’re not getting anything done.’ And the middle managers saying, ‘Well, you guys are all ESTJs, that’s why you never listen to our ideas.’”

Myers-Briggs’ ambiguity, in other words, is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness. And that open-endedness may be exactly why managers love it. “I think one reason managers are drawn to test,” Connard added, “is that it lets them off the hook. With Myers-Briggs, you are what you think you are.”

But this also implies that, for employees, it is possible to fail the test. Get the wrong type on Myers-Briggs, and you may suddenly find that your boss is much less interested in you. Connard observed, for instance, that certain managers tended to hire and retain groups of people with the same type. And some of the test’s critics have pointed out that managers frequently misunderstand the results, believing that there is a causal relationship between Myers-Briggs type and career success. “After learning about type,” wrote David Pittenger, a professor of psychology at Marietta College, “a manager may incorrectly conclude that only ISTJs make good accountants, whereas the best people for the sales force will be the ESFJs.”

Thinking about how your emotional disposition affects your work is, to be sure, a valuable exercise. But it’s another thing entirely to be graded on whether you have the “right” psychological profile for the career you want to pursue. To use such a shoddy instrument to determine an employee’s future is not just bad science, it’s bad business — a quick-and-dirty substitute for really getting to know your employees.

After all, most people can correctly tell you their type if you just ask them. And even if they’re wrong, there’s no guarantee that the written test will be more accurate. It’s time to put the test booklets away.

Benjamin Winterhalter is an attorney and writer based in Cambridge.
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