Self-assessments are not just about you

 March 5, 2014

Earlier this month, I attended the “Enhancing Your Leadership by Understanding Your Personality Type” workshop offered as part of the Graduate School’s Professional Development Series.  During the workshop, career consultant Shelly Hoover-Plonk discussed the characteristics of the sixteen Myers-Briggs Types and the implications of these personality preferences in the workplace.  Career counselors, schools, and employers have been using the Myers-Briggs assessment for decades, so you may already know your type and what this identifier says about you.  But what does your type mean for those around you?

As part of the workshop, we were asked to brainstorm how our personality preferences affect the way we interact with our colleagues and how we might improve communication and cohesiveness with individuals of differing personality preferences.  For example, I have a strong preference for Introversion (I) over Extraversion (E), which means that I get energy from being alone with my thoughts compared to spending time with other people.  As an introvert, frequent, insubstantial interactions such as small talk or group interactions are particularly costly energy-wise.  For me, this means I would rather address minor requests by email than in person, so I can save my energy for requests and activities that aren’t easily addressed over email.  In the same situation, an extraverted colleague might tend to pop-over to my desk for a quick chat to discuss the request.

Along the other Myers-Briggs continuums, a person scoring higher on the Sensing (S) scale orients to the concrete sensory information around them, whereas an individual with a stronger preference for Intuition (N) orients more to the patterns and significance of that information.  Thinking (T) individuals will rely on principles and logic to interpret situations and make decisions, while their Feeling (F) colleagues contemplate the human perspective more readily when making decisions.   Finally, a Judging (J) preference is associated with an outwardly-expressed desire for structure in contrast to a Perceiving (P) preference which is associated with an outwardly-expressed inclination for flexibility and adaptability. (You can fill out this free assessment online to learn your Myers-Briggs type.)

I think the challenge here is to factor in the needs of our colleagues while ensuring our own needs are met.  This is particularly important as we move up the academic chain-of-command and begin to assume positions of leadership (mentoring undergraduate research assistants, leading student groups, teaching, transitioning to a professional position).

As you’ve probably experienced, whenever there is a power disparity between people who work together, the work environment will  tend to align with the leader’s preferences, even if these preferences put undue stress on their colleagues.  So, as we take on leadership roles in graduate school and beyond, we must be increasingly proactive in considering the preferences of those who rely on us as they may not feel comfortable articulating these preferences under the existing power dynamic. For example, an introverted leader may take the lead in setting aside energy for more “face-time” when working with an extraverted colleague.  By contrast, an extraverted leader might proactively consolidate discussion into a limited number of one-on-one or small group meetings when working with an introvert.

In the weeks since the workshop, I’ve been practicing this proactive approach by  re-interpreting people’s behavior through the lens of what their Myers-Briggs preferences might be.   This exercise has led me to appreciate just how many ways one can interpret the meaning or significance of a single behavior.  For example, when someone repeatedly wants to alter a project’s scope to include new information, even after much work has already been completed towards the original vision, they may be acting from a Perceiving preference.  Of course, it’s also possible that this behavior is not the expression of their Myers-Briggs type, but an indication about confusion regarding the project’s timeline for completion.  Unfortunately, this same behavior could also be construed as that individual being indecisive or flaky, which leads me to my most important takeaway from the workshop.

Engage others in conversations regarding their preferences and communicate your preferences as well.  As in the preceding scenario,  a colleague’s behavior (as well as our own) might be interpreted by any number of lenses. Unfortunately, some of these lenses may lead to unnecessary frustration (i.e. thinking your coworker is flaky or indecisive, when they really just aren’t on the same page about the project’s priorities or timeline).  Communicating to learn about the preferences of others can help ensure you are endorsing the most correct explanation for your colleagues’  behavior, which in turn will help you more effectively interact with those around you.  In turn, your colleagues will better understand how to best work with you and will hopefully develop a better appreciation (okay, tolerance) for your quirks as well.

Additional Resources:

1. MBTI Basics  (The Myers & Briggs Foundation)

2. Cain, S. (2013). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. Random House LLC.

3. Susan Cain’s TED Talk: The Power of Introverts

4. Pannapacker, W. A. (2012). Screening out the introverts. Chronicle of Higher Education.


Courtnea Rainey, M.A., is a Ph.D. Candidate in Psychology & Neuroscience and the Graduate Cognitive Neuroscience Admitting Program.