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Personal Styles -- Time-Waster or Useful - Should You Join The MBTI Shuffle?

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Personal Styles -- Time-Waster or Useful - Should You Join The MBTI Shuffle?

You can find them almost everywhere.  Myers-Briggs, Enneagrams,  leadership styles, learning styles, communication styles,  teaching styles, conflict management styles...all designed to  classify or label people so they can better understand themselves  and others.  More and more training vendors are using style  questionnaires as a basis for training and development.  The  question is:  are they really useful, or are they just fun  exercises akin to astrology? 


Style questionnaires usually consist of a number of items.  Format may vary.  In some, you may be asked to choose one of two  activities (forced choice), while in others you may choose one  option from a set of four or five.  After you have completed all  of the questions, you tally up your scores to determine which  category of style is your most dominant. If it's a decision-  making/leadership style instrument, you may fall into one of the  following categories:  autocratic, consultative, participative or  laissez faire.  If it's a conflict management style instrument,  you may fall into the following:  avoider, confronter,  compromiser, or cooperator.  Generally, your results will give  you a "reading" of your preferred style, a secondary style, and  your least preferred style. 

Advocates for the use of these kinds of instruments claim that  they will help you: 

. understand yourself better 
. understand how other people see you 
. develop style flexibility (eg. situational behaviour) 
. understand others with different styles, and become more 
tolerant of stylistic differences 
. build better teams 

Things You Should Know 

1. Psychological research indicates that people's behaviour is  not very consistent.  It is naturally situationally specific.  For example, you may use one conflict management style with a  subordinate, and an entirely different one with your boss,  regardless of what your "preferred style" might be.  Your  behaviour, in any given situation, is largely determined by the  situation, NOT your preferred style.  So, style questionnaires  are a relatively poor predictor of what you (or someone else)  will do in the real world. 

2. There is a tendency for people completing these types of  questionnaires to respond in a way that is consistent with how  they would like to be, rather than they way they actually behave.  For example, few people want to see themselves as wimpy conflict  avoiders, so it isn't surprising that you don't come across too  many people that fall into this category.  Since many instruments  are pretty easy to "figure out", there is a tendency for people  to respond in ways that they feel will present themselves in a  positive light. 

3. In many cases, the descriptions you receive as part of the  interpretation of your score(s) are sufficiently general as to  fit almost anyone.  At least some of it is going to fit, much  like the astrology predictions one finds in the newspaper. 

4. Many trainers, or test administrators know that people are  interested in themselves, and will become highly motivated when  they are given the opportunity to "find out about themselves".  Taking a test about oneself is fun, and exciting, and often this  excitement will obscure the fact that the instrument is poor, and  the interpretations overly general. 

5. Many trainers or test administrators have had little  training in the use of instruments.  Almost anyone can purchase  questionnaires and offer them to clients.  As a result trainers  may not be aware of the limitations of the instruments or the  interpretations, having had little or no education in test  theory, or psychology.   

On The Negative Side 

The negative side of training based on these instruments is that  things appear scientific.  The limitations of the approach are  not always explained, and it is possible to take the enterprise  far too seriously.  In the hands of an unqualified trainer or  consultant, the process becomes more of a fun parlour game,  rather than a useful one. 

The primary danger here is that we will take the results far too  seriously.  Human behaviour is so complicated that a quick style  assessment instrument simply cannot do justice to human  complexity.  In the hands of trainers with a limited background  in testing or psychology, the results can be "oversold". 

Finally, there is no guarantee that a person's behaviour will  change as a result of taking one of these courses, or  instruments.  There is no guarantee that they will become better  team members, more tolerant, or more effective.  What they will  be able to do is label themselves or others as being of a  particular style.  They may learn to explain a person's behaviour  (or their own) as being a result of a style preference, and that  explanation will almost always be overly simplistic. 

On The Positive Side 

Besides being fun, these kinds of instruments have one primary  benefit.  They encourage people to be reflective about themselves  and others.  Even if the results of these instruments are totally  bogus, and have no relationship with real world behaviour, people  tend to look at themselves a bit more carefully.  This is good.  Whenever people think about themselves and their own behaviour,  there is a chance that they will find better, or different ways  to behave. 


1. Approach test results as suggestive at best.  Be aware that  your behaviour is determined by many factors, and that most tests  are very general. 

2. If you are contemplating attending a training course based  on style identification, inquire as to where the trainer learned  to administer the test.  If they "learned it from a book", then  it is likely that they will have insufficient background to use  the test properly.  Look for people that have some form of formal  training or certification.  This is no guarantee that they will  have the breadth of knowledge to point out the test limitations,  but at least they will understand the instrument they are using. 

3. If you think that having your team identify their particular  styles is going to increase tolerance and team effectiveness,  think again.  On its own, it can create as many problems as it  solves.  It is possible that people will understand each other,  but it is just as likely that they will use style labels to  justify their intolerance. 

4. Find out how the particular test was developed.  Ask how the  validity of the test was determined, and whether it is reliable.  Validity and reliability of tests are very technical topics.  However, if the trainer can't answer your questions, or doesn't  understand them, then you can pretty much assume that he or she  is not competent to use the instrument. 

5. Finally, approach these forms of tests as fun exercises that  may encourage reflection.  Don't get fooled by the appearance of  science here unless the instrument has been thoroughly tested,  and take the interpretations with a grain of salt.  They should  be seen as suggestive, not absolute, and can be used to stimulate  discussion and thinking.  Remember that no test can capture the  complexity and flexibility of human behaviour.   

Note:  We invite comments, and letters on this topic.  If you are  a proponent of this type of assessment, please feel free to  present your position on the benefits of style assessment  instruments.  We will attempt to provide you with a forum to  rebut these comments. 

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Bacal & Associates was founded in 1992. Since then Robert has trained thousands of employees to deal with angry, hostile, abusive and potentially violent customers. He has authored over 20 books on various subjects, many published by McGraw-Hill.


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