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.
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:
Project manager and organizational development consultant Jennifer Tucker uses the following shorthand phrases to capture what each of these preferences is about:
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:
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.
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:
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.