No more team building and no more Myers-Briggs

One of the great benefits of being retired is the fact that you need never attend a corporate team-building exercise again. The other – if you are an employee – is not having to be subjected to various personality testing tools such as Myers-Briggs.

The blog’s old firm had regular – well annual anyway – team building exercises which doubled as strategy and training sessions. Like most such efforts they were held off-site and usually employed some form of facilitator – chosen by the management team and not the blog – and dinners and socialising at nights.

One of the worst was when a facilitator broke the staff up into groups, gave them various bits of plywood, string and assorted other materials and tasked them with creating an object although the blog is simply unable to remember what the end object was supposed to be. The group the blog was in quickly decided this was a pointless exercise and spent the time discussing some IT options the firm was considering.

The facilitator arrived to check up on the group and was obviously seriously miffed about our lack of progress – why hadn’t we done anything, was it too difficult, why aren’t you co-operating etc etc? The blog replied that we had seriously considered the issue and – like the proverbial economist on a desert island with a can of food – had decided we would imagine the structure just as the economist had imagined a can opener.

Things got worse the next day when the blog was sitting with the facilitator while one of the senior staff, Rupert Hugh-Jones, was mercilessly sending the blog up in a presentation he was making. The facilitator lent over and portentously whispered to the blog that it obviously had a major morale problem in the company which it needed to do something about. The blog preferred to think that a company which would allow one of the staff to send up the CEO and the CEO’s foibles and idiosyncrasies was actually pretty healthy. Indeed, the only conclusion to be drawn from the episode was that we ought never employ the facilitator again.

But some team building exercises were great – mainly because people got to meet colleagues from other offices, have fun, hear presentations from experts from outside the company and in between time talk about some serious business and client issues.

The same can’t be said about some other innovations which companies have embraced – such as complicated incentives and psychology testing. We have seen how perverse incentives can be – exposed by the Banking Royal Commission and Jerry Muller’s book The Tyranny of Metrics. And then there is the ubiquitous Myers-Briggs personality quiz. A new book, The Personality Brokers: the Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing by Merve Emre, demonstrates that the ubiquitous test is probably junk science.

For those readers fortunate enough to be never subjected to the test it asks a series of questions which allow your personality to be plotted along a number of axes to do with extraversion, introversion and other characteristics. You end up with a four letter summary such as ESTJ (a ‘supervisor’ type) or INTP an ‘architect’ type. It has been the subject of much critical attention over the years but Emre looks at the mother daughter team behind it all in some detail.

Reviewing the book in Nature (13 September 2018) S. Alexander Haslam – psychology professor at University of Queensland – says: “Emre’s careful investigations of the tool’s bizarre origins and alarming impact weave a compelling narrative that recounts the rise of twentieth-century managerialism and personnel-theory science with the gritty wistfulness of a John Steinbeck novel.”

Haslam concludes: “This is story of two remarkable women who founded an enormously successful commercial empire, which has framed the conversation about the contours of personality, as understood by millions of Westerners today. As Emre shows convincingly, the fact that the premises of this conversation are so flimsy makes the examination of its origins and impacts all the more important – and more disturbing.”

Not that the blog is opposed to all psychological testing, particularly when you know enough about the tests to be able to game them (well actually cheat on them – but game sounds better). Indeed, when the blog was called up for National Service a fellow student in the University of Melbourne CMF Psychology unit schooled the blog on how to cope with the tests for the officer training selection process – in particular the Adorno California F scale test measurement of authoritarianism. Unfortunately by the time the blog got to do the test it couldn’t remember whether it was supposed to fail or triumph in terms of orientation to authority.