The Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator (MBTI) is a powerful component in an executive coach’s toolkit. Originally developed in 1943 by Katharine Cooks Briggs and her daughter Isabelle Briggs, and based on the work of Swiss psychologist Dr Carl Jung, MBTI provides a framework through which to understand the differences between healthy, normal personalities. As with any psychometric instrument, MBTI is not something that should be used all the time. But in certain coaching contexts it can be very effective indeed. Specifically:

  1. When an aspect of an executive’s personality is negatively impacting his/her performance
  2. Where personality differences between colleagues is impacting team performance

1. When an executive’s personality is negatively impacting performance  

When a talented leader identifies an unhelpful theme recurring again and again in his career, it can often be useful to look at this in terms personality preferences using MBTI.  Some common examples include executives who:

  • Are great at delivering work but struggle to build strong, trusting relationships with some colleagues (or conversely, are great with people, but struggle with task) ;
  • Find it challenging to manage their time effectively and consistently over-commit (though ironically, are often at their best under deadline pressure);
  • Are prone to making decisions too hastily without sufficiently examining the data or thinking through possible consequences; or conversely, spend too much time ruminating over data and are not sufficiently decisive;
  • Have a naturally introverted style and find themselves ‘talked over’ in meetings.

The MBTI framework can be a useful way for these leaders to understand how their natural personality preferences show up in their day-to-day behaviours. This then enables a coaching conversation to come up with  strategies to help them lean into strengths, while mitigating unhelpful behaviours.

2. When personality differences impact team performance

Another situation where the Myers Briggs Types can be of great value is where there is unhelpful tension amongst team members. For example, when a CEO is experiencing behavioural issues with a direct report, the actual source of the conflict can often be that the two individuals have quite different personality preferences. People tend to assume that others see the world in the same way that they do, and so make incorrect assumptions about others’ motivations.

To an extravert, an introvert may seem withdrawn and stand-offish; whereas in reality, the introvert is simply processing data internally (as is their preference) and is quietly giving the extravert’s opinion the considered attention it deserves. A leader who naturally prefers to focus on tasks  may be frustrated by a colleague who is a natural ‘people person’. In reality, task and relationship are equally important, and effective executives pay attention to both, even though they likely have a natural preference for one over the other. A CEO who prefers to look at the ‘big picture’ may find it frustrating working with a CFO who is very detail oriented. Someone who thinks that fairness entails treating everyone exactly the same way may have issues working with a colleague who feels fairness means that everyone should be treated as an individual.

In each of these examples, the differences in personality between the two executives actually represents a wonderful opportunity for them to learn from one another and become more effective leaders as a result. There are no ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ personality types (assuming the individual does not have a personality disorder). To quote the title of Isobel Myers Briggs’ seminal book, each personality type brings ‘Gifts Differing’, and the MBTI is an effective way of understanding what these gifts are.

Issues with the MBTI

Critics of MBTI point to the fact that people sometimes get different results when they retake the instrument multiple times (in technical terms it has ‘low test-retest reliability’). When this happens, it is typically either because the instrument wasn’t administered properly, or because the person doesn’t have a strong preference between one or more of the sets of pairs in the instrument, and so can sometimes show up as one type, and sometimes as another.

The bottom line is that the MBTI is not the right tool for all situations. I only use it when a significant issue comes up that I feel is particularly well suited to being explored through an MBTI lens. Often, I won’t administer the instrument at all, but will simply explain the relevant element of the MBTI model and invite my client to think about how this might explain what they are dealing with. This almost always leads to an ‘ah-ha’ moment for the coachee.

Other instruments to consider

MBTI is just one of a seemingly endless range of psychometric instruments and tools, and selecting which of these is the most appropriate to use is part science and part art. Professional coaches should have a wide range of instruments and models upon which to draw, and are then able to select the right tool for the situation they face.  For example, when working with teams (rather than individuals or pairs) I tend to prefer the DiSC personality instrument to MBTI. DiSC can be thought of as a simplified version of MBTI, which makes it easier for people to grasp and apply, and so is more practical when working with groups.

The Hogan suite of diagnostics provides wonderfully rich and nuanced insights into the way an individual behaves, thinks and feels in different situations, and what motivates them. After a two hour Hogan debrief, a coachee once exclaimed “That was like an x-ray into my soul!” Hogan is a superb product, and is widely used both in Australia and around the world. It also has one of the strongest academic evidence bases behind it of any instrument, and is highly recommended. When building coaching or leadership development programs involving large numbers of executives, Hogan – along with The Leadership Circle – would be right at the top of instruments I’d consider using.

Three sixty feedback instruments such as The Leadership Circle (TLC) and Human Synergistics’ products are great for understanding how individuals shows up as leaders based on how they view themselves, how their colleagues view them, and how this compares to other leaders around the world. The Leadership Circle is built on a theoretical base that includes some of the most relevant and influential work in the world of human performance available today, including Harvard Professor Robert Kegan’s Stages of Adult Development and Zenger & Folkman’s Extraordinary Leader research.  TLC is particularly effective in helping executives evolve their leadership capabilities to  thrive in a fast-changing and complex world. I see it as the ‘Tesla Model S’ of 360 instruments, and it is widely respected in the market. That said, Human Synergistics’ products are also strongly evidence-based, have a long track record, and have underpinned some exceptionally effective leadership and culture programs in the Australian market.

When working with a CEO’s or C-Suite executive, the Gold Standard is the Third Party Interview process, which allows senior executives to gain granular insights into how they are perceived by key stakeholders. This is where the coach interviews 12-15+ of the leader’s key stakeholders and then produces a detailed report – often more than ten pages long – that captures the key themes that emerge. Obviously, this approach requires a skilled and experienced coach, and a high degree of trust between them and the coachee, but when done well, it offers unparalleled insights.

Conclusion

MBTI is a powerful tool for any coach to include in his or her toolkit. It explains the differences between normal, healthy human personalities, and is particularly useful in exploring personality-based conflicts and issues. As with any instrument, MBTI results should never be treated as ‘gospel’: humans are infinitely complex beings, and no one is going to fit perfectly into a specific box on a four by four matrix. Also, MBTI  is not the right tool for every situation. That said, the Myers Briggs Personality Instrument is ‘an oldie but a goodie’, and when applied in the appropriate situation, it enables profoundly positive changes in both interpersonal relationships and executive performance.

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