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The MBTI and strengths

Isabel Briggs Myers was keen for the preferences to be seen as a source of strength for people. In Psychological Types Jung describes the preferences in somewhat negative terms. In recent years there has been a developing interest in strengths and a strengths based approach. For example:

  1. Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton have produced an international best-selling self-help book called Now Discover Your Strengths. They argue that each individual has a number of fixed personal/character attributes which allows them to develop certain types of skills more easily than others.  They identify 34 talents  which are directly tied to a Gallup assessment tool called 'Strengths Finder'.  Buckingham was particularly keen to start what he called  a 'strengths revolution'.
  2. The Positive Psychology movement is generally keen to promote the idea of strengths. Professor Martin Seligman is one of the co-authors of Character Strengths and Virtues (CSV).  In the same way that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders attempts to categorise what can go  wrong with the human brain and personality this schema attempts to list what is right. The CSV lists six classes of virtue and twenty four character strengths.
  3. The Centre for Applied Positive Psychology,  based in Warwick in the UK,  has a strengths assessment tool which claims to assess 'realised strengths, unrealised strengths, learned behaviours and weaknesses.

Although the Centre has done a great deal to promote Positive Psychology we have generally been wary of adopting a whole-hearted strength based approach. We believe that while it may be helpful to move away from a deficit focus and encourage individuals to think in terms of having strengths if this becomes extremely fashionable and continually reinforced – and seen as a particular approach - it may well back-fire. There are a number of reasons for our concern:

What the self-esteem movement showed is that there is a huge gap between what the leaders of a movement say (and how they define their ideas) and how this is translated into schools or parenting practices. Those promoting the idea of strengths can qualify their approach but this may well be ignored in practice.

Reinforcing the idea of strengths could easily lead to stereotyping and encourage what Professor Carol Dweck calls a 'fixed mindset'. In other words, it hands people the opportunity to say they can't do things because they believe skills and abilities are fixed rather than developable through hard work, practice and good teaching. Stereotyping is a major issue in education. Various psychological research projects have shown that stereotypes such as girls can't do maths or black students are not as clever as whites impedes performance in exams.

Much of the idea behind the modern strengths movement (not Seligman and Petersen's CSV, however) is about talent and effectively performance. It is about being good at something and getting good results. This emphasis can then easily translate into the idea that we shouldn't bother doing something unless we are good at it. This can then retard learning and impede well-being. I might not be good at salsa dancing, for example, but it may be good for my health and my sociability. G. K. Chesterton reputedly remarked: 'Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.'

Rather than a strengths based approach which majors on performance we would prefer to stress energy, motivation, passion and finding a sense of purpose. This is what we think the MBTI™ does. After all Isabel Briggs Myers always recognised that knowing someone's preferences did not mean that you could tell how good they would be at completing certain tasks. This is why she insisted that the MBTI was not to be used for recruitment purposes.


© Carol Craig

MBTI, Myers-Briggs, and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator are registered trademarks or trademarks of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Trust in the United States and other countries; OPP Ltd. has exclusive rights to these trademarks in the U.K.

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