Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Leadership and the Myers-Briggs Personality Test

Women of different personality types
In the wake of Kelly Korrick’s post, Becoming a Leader, and my own interest, On Leadership, I took the Myers-Briggs personality test. I know several colleagues, family members, and supervisors who have taken the test as part of their management training. The test is available free on-line. I took this version, which is comprised of 60 yes/no questions. I’ve seen other variations, but they are all similar and take only a few minutes. The final results give you a series of letters indicating your personality types as well as the strength in each of the following categories:
•Extraverted (E) vs. Introverted (I),
•Sensing (S) vs. Intuition (N),
•Thinking (T) vs. Feeling (F)
•Judging (J) vs. Perceiving (P)
I don’t need a test to tell me that I am Introverted (I), but it also told me the strength of this characteristic. The Extravert-Introvert dimension is a continuum:

Extravert [100% - - - 0% - - - 100%] Introvert

I was reasonably, but not overwhelmingly, introverted.
Sensing-Intuition preference represents the method by which one perceives information: Sensing (S) means an individual mainly relies on concrete, actual information. Intuition (N) means a person relies upon their conception about things based on their understanding of the world.
Thinking-Feeling preference indicates the way an individual processes information. Thinking (T) preference means an individual makes decisions based on logical reasoning. Feeling (F) preference means that an individual's base for decisions is mainly feelings and emotions.
Judging-Perceiving preference in more complex and involves both incoming and outgoing information. It is important to understand that Judging (J) is not the same as “judgmental,” which was my own first (incorrect) impression of its meaning.

INFJ: Quiet and mystical, yet very
 inspiring and tireless idealists.
The outcome of my test categorized me as personality type INFJ.
Beyond the obvious Introverted (I) component mentioned about, Intuition (N) is a factor common to most scientists; it governs the ability to understand abstract theory. The Feeling (F) was a surprise; a Feeling (F) scientist rather than a Thinking (T) scientist? However, part of my personality profile (see below) reassured me: although a significant majority of INFJs are drawn to the liberal arts, those who do pursue scientific careers tend to be as successful as their Thinking (T) counterparts. For me, neither the Intuition (N) nor the Feeling (F) characteristic was particularly dominant; I was reasonably balanced in both of these. The Judging (J) characteristic, however, was dominant.
The next step was to put it all together, reading the personality profile based on the test results. Some of the most detailed, free, on-line profiles are here. What I learned taught me a lot about myself and the way I communicate with others. Of course that is why management courses require us to take such tests. Here is a quote from the opening paragraph of the personality profile:
“The INFJ personality type is very rare, making up less than one percent of the population, but they nonetheless leave their mark on the world. As Diplomats (NF), they have an inborn sense of idealism and morality, but what sets them apart is the accompanying Judging (J) trait – INFJs are not idle dreamers, but people capable of taking concrete steps to realize their goals and make a lasting positive impact . . . They are decisive and strong-willed, but will rarely use that energy for personal gain – INFJs will act with creativity, imagination, conviction and sensitivity not to create advantage, but to create balance. Egalitarianism and karma are very attractive ideas to INFJs . . . ”
Before you jump to the conclusion that INFJs are by far and away the best personalities, rest assured that the opening paragraphs of all the types are equally flattering. Think of going to a fortune teller and having your palm read. She is more likely to open with, “You will meet a tall handsome stranger,” than with, “You will suffer from a painful wasting disease.” Both fortune tellers and proponents of the Myers-Briggs Personality Test have a vested interest in making a good first impression.
Putting the flowery language of the opening paragraph aside, the INFJ description certainly feels like it is describing who I am and what I’m about. Reading this, it would probably come as no surprise that I’ve spent 10 years as a member of CSWA, fighting for gender equality in astronomy; but the feelings go deeper than that. I marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in December demanding “Justice for All” because black lives matter. I cheered as the “Defense of Marriage Act” fell because everyone deserves to marry the person they love.
Fall of the Defense of Marriage Act
As a white, straight woman, it is easier for me to fight for gender equality because I have had personal experience with gender discrimination. But gender, race, and sexual identity are only a few of the causes where I would like to see a more egalitarian world. Consider the 1% versus the 99% imbalance, the Acela corridor region versus the flyover states, the legacy kids versus the first generation college students, R1 university researchers versus those in the fourth tier, and the US versus the third world. Part of the INFJ personality type is that you don’t have to be one of the disadvantaged to sympathize with and fight for the disadvantaged group.
Each personality type also comes with a sets of strengths and weaknesses. First the weaknesses.
INFJs are sensitive and will react strongly when someone challenges or criticizes their principles or values. Questioning their motives is the quickest way to their bad side. They are private, and trusting a new friend can be challenging. They are perfectionists, defined by their pursuit of ideals. They always need a cause, and like to know that they are taking concrete steps towards their goals. They can burn out easily if they don’t find a way to balance their ideals with the realities of day-to-day living.
These weaknesses are not so easy to acknowledge, but nevertheless, they ring true. For example, I would make a terrible politician because I don’t have the “thick skin” so essential for running for office. I would make a dreadful accountant because I am always looking for a creative outlet; creative accounting is what led to the financial meltdown. I have few close friends, but those I have are exceedingly dear to me. I often find myself exhausted; I am always thinking about solutions, plans, and improvements, especially when I’m awake in the middle of the night. Now I know this is a part of who I am, which will hopefully lead to more sleep.
Fortunately, the weaknesses of each personality type are balanced by strengths.
INFJs are creative, combining imagination and compassion to solve problems. They are also insightful, seeing through dishonesty and disingenuous motives to get to the heart of the matter. They are also decisive, determined, and passionate, allowing them to follow through on their ideas with conviction, will power, and the planning necessary to see complex projects through to the end. INFJs don’t just see the way things ought to be, they act on those insights. Finally, they are altruistic, using their strengths for good. They act not because they are trying to advance themselves, but because they want to make the world a better place.
Altruism can be a great thing, especially when paired with an ability to plan strategies and achieve goals. Someone told me recently that they wanted to join CSWA because it is a committee that got things done. I had to update my CV last year when I applied for the job at NSF. My “service” category was dominated by CSWA activities, and I had never realized how substantial these accomplishments were until I had to list them all together. As my time on CSWA comes to an end, I realize that this is a legacy that I can be proud of.
So what else have I learned from this exercise? A colleague told me that personality tests were like astrology and tarot cards; they are all ways to learn about yourself. This may be true, but no horoscope or tarot reading ever came close to what I learned after taking this test. Here’s one of my most important takeaways: the egalitarian ideals that so dominate my personality are not shared by everyone. This not only helps me understand the motivations of others, but also makes me realize that when someone challenges me, they are doing so in part because they are so used to questioning the motives of others that they don’t realize that I’m already on their side. My challenge therefore becomes trying to explain more coherently and persuasively who I am and what I’m about.
I encourage you to take this test, especially if you want to be better understand who you are and how you are likely to interact with others. Above all, I know it has helped me better understand the roots of some of the conflicts I have had to confront in my life. Finally, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela are two of the most famous people with INFJ personality type. Could I be in better company? Who shares your type? There’s only one way to find out!

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

Since we are a data-driven field, I think it's worthwhile to remember that the MBTI is not based on any data itself. It's great for entertainment, but not much else.