It's some of the oldest advice in the world and still some of the best. Knowing what you can do, what you like to do and how you like to do it is the starting point for finding the right spot for yourself. Understanding how your personality and work style affect you can lead you to an understanding of personalities and work styles, making you a more effective manager.
Knowing your own work style and having a vocabulary for thinking and talking about work styles is important. The most widely used tool for identifying your personality type and working style is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. The MBTI was developed by Katherine Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers. They based their work on the theories of Carl Gustav Jung, a Swiss psychologist. In its classical form, the MBTI is a paper-and-pencil exercise that takes about half an hour to complete and must be evaluated by a qualified facilitator.
“It's not a test,” stresses Bob McAlpine. “It's an indicator, a wonderful tool for helping people understand who they are and identifying their primary sources of energy.”
McAlpine is president of Type Resources, a Louisville company that qualifies people to administer the MBTI and similar instruments. McAlpine's knowledge of the MBTI and the supporting research is deep, and his patience in explaining the theory and practice of personality typing is endless.
“Jung's theory identified eight types of mental process,” he says. “Each of us can use them all, but there are those we prefer. If we see other people using those we don't like, we say they're weird. Myers-Briggs lets us say they're not weird, they're just different. Then we can begin to figure out how we can work with them with respect.”
Personality type affects all our interactions with others. “In business, senior managers may not be comfortable talking about values,” McAlpine says. “But if I'm a CEO and I have difficulty telling you what's important to me, how can you be equipped to make the best decisions — decisions I'd be most comfortable with? Or how about a board of directors that has decided the CEO has to go. What brought that about? I wonder how much of it we could bring right back to typology. Turnover rates, retention issues – it might be interesting what organizations might find if they could explore what's here.”
Type – if we know how to decode it – gives us a model, he says, for how we might expect a person to prefer to use those different mental processes. “It's not pigeonholing,” says McAlpine. “It would be unethical for me to give you the MBTI and then say you prefer these processes so you should do this or that. But you can look at the results and say, ‘Yeah, this really fits,' or ‘No, this isn't exactly me.'”
“Any person can be successful at any job,” says McAlpine, “yet some people are more comfortable – have a more positive experience – at one job than another. If we look at the mental processes used in the job and the processes preferred by the person, there's a high correlation. We're not talking skill, but if interests match requirements, people are more successful.”
The Myers-Briggs methodology outlines eight types of mental processes that provide a foundation for a personal work style. If you understand Myers-Briggs, you can use your knowledge to identify this process language, and respond in that process, according to McAlpine. “If we're communicating using one process, we can even move to another process and continue to communicate. But I've got to be careful if I try to move you, because I might pull you out of your comfort zone. There's an energy flow. If I'm in my comfort zone, I'm gaining energy, but if not, I'm losing energy.”
This can be applied to all kinds of communication, says McAlpine — job interviews, building teams, training situations. “When I go for an interview, if I know the language that will be expected, I can prepare myself,” he says. “When I'm coaching with a subordinate, what language is appropriate? What's my preference? Do I need to shift my language and approach to be more effective? If I'm a CEO going into a meeting, what am I attempting to convey, who am I speaking to, what's the appropriate language?”
This means using Myers-Briggs types flexibly, he points out – to consciously choose to work within particular processes to match needs, not to say, “I am me, therefore I speak this way.” If you're working with a team, you need to be prepared to deal with all the associated emotions and resistance that gets so close to who we are.
“The same thing applies to strategic planning,” he says. “At a certain place in the planning process, we need to pull more from some processes than others. We need to understand that some are easier for us to access than others, that what comes from some processes may be easier to share with others, and from other processes more difficult.”
For individuals, he says, what's most important is using your knowledge of your own preferred processes and alternatives so that you take a more holistic approach and you reach a better decision.
Myers-Briggs can be very useful in considering career and job changes. McAlpine points out that most of us have had jobs that are a bad fit. If we had been equipped to analyze the situation going in, we might have been able to say, “It's a great job, but there are things we don't align on, and it's not who I am.”
But there is danger, he says, in treating what we know about our personality type as a given, fixed and unalterable. We change and develop, he says, and we must recognize that in ourselves as well. “Jung identified these processes and said life is about learning to use all of them, about moving toward wholeness,” says McAlpine.
McAlpine stresses that people do change. We can learn other processes, just as we learn other languages, and become comfortable in them. And our understanding can help smooth the transitions: “From a holistic perspective, people might find as they reach mid-career that they want to move to other things. They find that typology gives them a tremendous opportunity to understand what's going on as they see their interest shift.”