A long, long time ago, when I was an undergrad student, my university had an innovative (and still far ahead of its time) program where every incoming student was profiled using Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, followed by Strong-Campbell Interest Inventory (for career advice) and, over the years, numerous profiling tools for assistance with career counselling, leadership development and student placement in leadership roles.
Because everyone was profiled using MBTI, my friends and I got very good at profiling people without even using a formal assessment. A few of us could talk with someone for a few minutes and peg their MBTI profile – ENFP, INTJ, ISTF – with about 90% accuracy, if not greater. I once sat down with someone I’d never met before, over lunch, and told her her family history, educational background, personal and sporting interests after chatting with her and her friend for just 2 minutes. (She had challenged me when I said I could tell all about her. I was a young guy, forgive me.) After she picked her jaw up off the ground, I carried on. I viewed this kind of thing as more of a parlour trick than anything else.
This is, unfortunately, the problem with a lot of profiling – it becomes a parlour trick, rather than a sustained method for achieving anything useful. I recently attended a presentation where the speaker had a ‘new model’ for helping determine one’s communication style. The speaker had the group make either/or (binary) choices regarding the way they interact with others or make decisions and then, after just two questions, had separated the group out into quadrants around the room. The choices often presented in these situations become ones of ‘analytical vs creative’, or ‘judging vs performing’, or ‘introverted vs extroverted’. During my undergrad years, I remember discussing this kind of dichotomy with one of my psychology professors over afternoon tea. In formal testing, I often came out on the border of many of these binary choices. He commented to me that instruments such as MBTI were designed to dump someone into a category. That observation has always stuck with me.
Most profiling systems do not deal well with ambiguity. They are usually designed to put a label on people – they’re red, blue, Level 6, D, INFP, an “innovator”, a “Bill Gates” vs a “Steve Jobs”, not on the bus, etc. etc. – and then they prompt us to classify and sort people. But good profiling should accommodate the many shades of grey and different contexts for apparently opposing choices.
Exercises such as the one the presenter engaged in with my group can be fun and interesting. They can help break down barriers, but I worry about the people in the group who are eyeing everyone else and creating their mental checklist – “he’s an instigator, “she’s a judge” – and then acting as though it’s true. Don’t fall for it.
I went along with the presentation and had a bit of fun. I didn’t undermine the speaker – that would have been unfair. But inside I was screaming, “There’s more to it than that!”
I use profiling frequently. Profiling can be a good start to understanding. It may help you to explore different human dimensions, broaden your thinking, instantly gain insight into people, probe past self-deceptions, assist with analysis, predict difficulties and lead to better collaboration. It may also help you to articulate and better understand aspects of yourself. But avoid the simplistic and reductionist notion that you can label someone as a letter or a colour.
To borrow from Mr Spock (in his last outing in the original Star Trek movies), “[Profiling] is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.”