HR and Recruiting

Personality testing at work

Who are you question - handwriting on a green sticky noteAre you an introvert or extrovert? Photograph: Alamy

Myers-Briggs is the most prevalent personality test used by British businesses to expose the inner personalities of employees. Its success, many claim, lies in its simplicity.

With 93 questions, loosely formulated from the work of Carl Jung, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) can divide all staff into 16 distinct types, combinations of introverts, extroverts, thinkers, feelers, the judging or perceptive.

There's no doubting the success of the MBTI as a product. Thousands of current and aspiring managers are tested every year and the organisation has an estimated income of more than $20m (£13m) per year. However, the accuracy of the test has often been debated.

Dr Dean Burnett, of the Institute of Psychological Medicine and Clinical Neuroscience at Cardiff university, recently outlined a list of criticisms, including: the test's reliance on binary choices, poor scientific foundations and the suspicion that it is a self-fulfilling phenomenon – the more people take it, the more others feel they have an obligation to do so too.

"The big problem, " Burnett says: "Is that Myers-Briggs gives people a false impression of how psychology works. A false sense of expertise."

Ben Newman, a senior HR business partner at a leading financial services organisation, disagrees. He says that at his company the MBTI is a well-used and popular test. High potentials are tested, he says, and those who are at the top end of their grade are put through in cohorts of 10-15 so that it can be a collective learning experience.

"A big part of leadership is being self-aware, " says Newman. "The Myers-Briggs test really helps to build self-awareness and becomes a great tool for understanding how we interact with the world and the people around us."

For Newman, one of the most useful outcomes of the MBTI is tackling social stigma. Extroversion is the biggest area of misunderstanding in the workplace, Newman explains. He says people often presume extroverts have better social skills than those labelled introverts, but this is not necessarily true.

"The division just shows where people draw their energy from, either from within themselves or from others, " Newman adds. "The MBTI makes it fine to be an introvert."

At Newman's organisation, there is a strong cultural emphasis on EQ, today's shorthand for emotional intelligence. The company uses many different packages for employees at all different grades, from graduates to managing directors. According to Newman, Myers-Briggs is the test people really grasp.

It works, Newman says, because it is so straightforward. On whether it is an oversimplification of a complex topic, he says: "The most useful analogy is that MBTI is like a house with 16 rooms. Anyone can move into any of the rooms at any time. Your preference might be the bedroom, it might be the basement. But it doesn't mean that you can't do the others. Myers-Briggs simply suggests that there will be a room above all the others that suits you and you feel comfortable in. People really get that."

Tom Fortes-Mayer, founder and creative director of the FreeMind project, shares a similar perspective. "When any business invests in any process where employees are encouraged to think about themselves deeply, it is hugely valuable, " he says. "In this sense the Myers-Briggs test is brilliant. It creates an understanding that might not have been there before. It is personal development without any of the weirdness."

But for Fortes-Mayer, the MBTI is only the start of a culture that businesses and future leaders should invest in to help them realise their potential. "Traditionally the workplace has not always been the place to bring out our best. But the aspiring leaders of the future have to understand they need to create spaces for personal and psychological development."

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