Myers-Briggs and Racism

I taught a leadership seminar on building trusted relationships. A few attendees got impatient. At first, I wasn’t clear why. “This is too simple,” they said; “where’s the tough stuff from the book?”

What they wanted was more categories, patterns of resistance, 2×2 matrices, rules for generating trust in different kinds of roles and situations, with differing backgrounds and personalities.

The material I had been talking about—listening from curiosity, thinking out loud, empathy, understanding before recommending, massively open questions, etc.—felt basic to them.

Where was the advanced course, they wanted to know.

I’ll call this the Myers-Briggs syndrome—the belief that the critical and difficult task is to understand the world. Properly understood, execution is easy.

It’s a lie.

Myers-Briggs itself is fine. It describes four personality types, and how each, as a rule, behaves distinctly. The data are solid, and widely accepted. The point, MB analysts say, is to take tendencies—yours and others’—into account in interactions.

It is useful in aggregative tasks: team-formation, setting recruiting goals. On individual interactions, it’s trickier.

MB analysts caution against flatly applying generalizations to individuals. But—in my experience—users treat that disclaimer as seriously as the fine print on an aspirin bottle.

Categorizing is invaluable for managing inventory turns, strategies, long tails, receivables and production runs.

The power of Myers/Briggs lies in categorizing people. That’s also the charm of stereotypes. When I meet you for the first time and learn you’re from London, I may say, “Ah, so you’re English!” with the self-satisfaction of revealed insight in my voice. Click. It all fits.

But—if you’re the Englishman (or woman), your reaction is, “click—I just got put in a box.” The woman executive asked to get coffee knows the shock of being labeled. So does Jose-Miguel from Spain—when he’s visiting the US. Black Americans know it as a way of life.

Categorization is useful. Unfortunately, we slide easily from categorization to objectification. Some categorizations, like Myers/Briggs are politically correct—-e.g. “You’re such an INTJ, you’re classic!” Others are not. Try substituting “black man” for “INTJ” in that sentence.

Understanding categories is intellectually rewarding, like a rich crossword puzzle.

But categorization rarely creates trust—more often, it destroys it.

Trust is largely personal.
I am not my alma mater, my race, my age, my height, my language, my nationality, my looks. My category doesn’t trust you—I do. Or not.

Treat me as category, and you reduce my trust in you. Apparent compliments—“ooh, you went to Harvard, my, you’re an ENTJ”—are either shallow or not compliments at all. They objectify me. People resist being labeled—we want to be accepted as unique wholes.

The advanced course is not about categorization: it’s about interacting from the heart without labels.

When you give a presentation, the trick is to prepare—then be prepared to throw it all away.

In advance of meeting someone, it’s respectful to do some homework on them. But the meaning of the homework has to be discovered anew in the meeting.

To interact with freshness, curiosity and genuine interest, instead of resentment, fear, disgust, anger, expectations, manipulation, hidden agendas, pre-set outcomes, stereotypes or labels—that’s the advanced course.

Trust comes from the heart, not the brain. Heart work is a lot tougher.

And they don’t teach it at Harvard Business School.