If you’re familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality assessment, you know exactly what I mean, and you’re likely to respond with “I’m an INFJ” or one of the 14 other MBTI types. When you do, we each have shorthand for how the other prefers to think about the world.
Those of us who have done project management for any length of time know that many project challenges arise not from some technical or budgetary reason, but because you’re dealing with people. It’s often hard for even people with the best of intentions to communicate effectively. That’s exactly what the MBTI addresses. Knowing what Myers-Briggs type you are — and, crucially, knowing the types of your other team members — can be a great help in getting past those communication roadblocks on your projects.
What is the Myers-Briggs?
The MBTI is a psychometric assessment that was first published in 1962, based on work that Isabel Briggs Myers and her mother, Katharine Cook Briggs, started as far back as the 1940s. These two psychologists worked from the typological theories of Carl Jung to develop four dichotomies with which they tried to capture our psychological preferences:
- Energy source: Extraversion (E) versus Introversion (I)
- Absorbing information: Sensing (S) versus Intuition (N)
- Decision making: Thinking (T) versus Feeling (F)
- Orientation to the outside world: Judging (J) versus Perception (P)
Project manager and organizational development consultant Jennifer Tucker uses the following shorthand phrases to capture what each of these preferences is about:
- Extraversion: “Let’s talk about it”
- Introversion: “Let’s think it through”
- Sensing: “Let’s look at the facts”
- Intuition: “Let’s look at the possibilities”
- Thinking: “Let’s keep this objective”
- Feeling: “Let’s focus on the people”
- Judging: “Let’s get to closure”
- Perception: “Let’s keep our options open”
Many resources explain the four dichotomies in depth. My favorite introduction is the book Do What You Are, which explores the Myers-Briggs assessment from the standpoint of career development.
It’s important to recognize a couple of things here:
- First, these are the preferences we express in our lives, not immutable qualities about us. For instance, just because I’m extroverted doesn’t prevent me from sometimes engaging in the kind of quiet introspection more common to introverts. Similarly, just because my main way of dealing with the world is “Thinking” in MBTI terms, that doesn’t mean that I lack feelings.
- Second, none of these categories is superior to any other category. ISFJ isn’t any better or worse than ENFP, for example — but it is useful to know the differences between those two types if they belong to two members of your team.
How Is the Myers-Briggs Used in Business?
The MBTI has many uses in the business world. You don’t use it to assess someone’s fitness for a job — it’s not an aptitude test. However, you can use it to help yourself or others figure out how best to approach jobs, which careers might be the most enjoyable, and what pitfalls you may face when you work with people of different types. Some organizations administer the MBTI to all of their personnel, from the CEO to the custodians, so they can learn more about how each person prefers to deal with the world.
I was first exposed to the MBTI as a teenager, when my father was running a church with a very large staff. He and his colleagues wanted a better way to understand the roadblocks that they sometimes ran into when they were trying to communicate or work on projects together. Everyone on the staff took the Myers-Briggs assessment and read up on the different dichotomies and types. Doing so helped them to grasp the different psychological styles of the members of the team, which in turn helped them talk to one another more productively.
In my experience, too, that’s what the MBTI is so good at: uncovering the differences between us that aren’t right or wrong, but that sometimes keep us from connecting well in meetings or 1-on-1 conversations.
For example, Intuitive types like me — especially Intuitive Thinking (NT) types — often can grasp the big picture very quickly. Once that happens, new ideas get flowing, and we tend to get bored rather than enlightened by having things explained all over again. Meanwhile, though, Sensing types, who are strongly connected to individual facts, often want to spend more time combing through the details, seeing exactly how everything fits together.
Without the clarity offered by the MBTI, it would be easy for the Sensors to think that the Intuitives are simply being impatient, or for the Intuitives to think that the Sensors are being nitpicky or slow on the uptake. Equipped with the insights from the MBTI, though, it’s much easier for folks on each side of any of these dichotomies to see how other team members process things differently, not “wrong,” and thus better defuse those points of potential frustration.
How the MBTI Can Help Your Team
In her booklet “Introduction to Type and Project Management,” Tucker lays out the idea that not only individuals but also teams and projects themselves have Myers-Briggs types. For example, if most of the team is Introverted, the team as a whole may take on that identity. Similarly, a product-focused team might embody Thinking (by focusing on the technical facts of the product), whereas a customer-focused team might align with Feeling (by focusing on the people using the product).
Tucker proposes a rubric for recognizing project type for each of the four dimensions of the MBTI, though she cautions that making such assignments is “more art than science.” Here are examples for each dimension:
- In Extraverted (E) projects, team members tend to have lots of meetings with each other and with external stakeholders to discuss ideas, but at the risk of wasting time in meetings and over-communicating in a way that creates confusion. By contrast, Introverted (I) projects are more often characterized by quiet hallways and a set of individual contributors who are toiling away on their own parts of the project; for them, under-communication could lead to surprises later on.
- Sensing (S) projects are often characterized by clear benchmarks of success and regular measurements against them, but these teams run the risk of getting lost in the details and missing new possibilities. Meanwhile, Intuitive (N) projects may have teams that come up with bold new ideas — but fail to connect those ideas with the hands-on actions required to meet delivery timelines.
- In Thinking (T) projects, teams often operate on the basis of objective analysis and logical measurement, but sometimes at the expense of paying attention to the needs, interests, and concerns of individual team members or different groups of stakeholders. Feeling (F) projects, conversely, may see teams that value inclusion and consensus, but that fail to make hard-headed assessments about tradeoffs or the completion of unpleasant tasks.
- Judging (J) projects often proceed with a focus on the successful completion of incremental tasks, resulting in a methodical pace and clear evaluations. This can, however, lead to overly rigid adherence to schedules, discouraging innovation. By contrast, Perception (P)-driven projects tend to be flexible and open to ambiguity, but at the cost of chaos, misunderstanding, and missed deadlines.
As you assess a project, you can dig into the strengths and blind spots of each type to help you look for areas to emphasize or watch out for. Some project team types, INFJ for example, are more likely to frame their basic mission in conceptual terms, which can be great for establishing a forward-looking vision of possibilities… but which can also lead to scope creep and an underestimation of the details that will really be required to fulfill the vision. (It’s worth noting that every type is at some risk of scope creep.) By being aware of the potential pluses and minuses of your team, you as a project manager can work to harness the best attributes while steering clear of the negatives that might hamper your project.
The benefits of using MBTI to keep project teams humming were brought home to me by my friend Jeff Johannigman, a human resources pro who coaches organizations on MBTI, but who also began his career as a developer in the video game industry. In his first management role, Johannigman, an Extraverted Feeler, was doing his best to use “management by walking around” (MBWA) to check in on his team members and make sure they had what they needed to get their work done well. His approach backfired because he was managing a team of Introverted Thinkers; the miscommunication was made clear to him one day when an experienced coder snapped at him to “stop micromanaging me.” What Johannigman saw as making himself available to his team, the team saw as intrusive — not because any of them was right or wrong, but simply because they saw the world in different ways.
It all comes back to communication. Successful project management is largely about coordinating streams of work among people with different backgrounds, preferences, and areas of expertise — which means that it’s really about fostering communication that works for the various members of the team. If you’re dealing with a stalled project, or a team that isn’t getting as much out of its talents and resources as it should be, it’s worth trying the MBTI as a tool for cracking the code of the different cognitive worldviews that can so easily divide us.