Monday, November 30, 2009

Stereo Typing using Personality Type - or Why do we Label Ourselves?

When I was doing some work with a high school class one of the students was very vocal about the fact that she did not like the idea of labeling ourselves. She was referring to the fact that we were working toward finding their "Best-Fit" personality type code. As most of you know this four letter code was developed for the well known MBTI® or Meyers Briggs Type Indicator®.
After I had spent the first day with them, she was much more at ease because I showed her how I get away from the labeling as fast as possible and moved on to the theory. The theory showed how having a basic idea of peoples personality could help us understand how we interact. I also offered to her the ability to challenge what I was telling her. I told her that as we look to understand how we interact we interact with each other, if it ever sounded like I was putting labels on someone she should call me on it.
This is something that I have tried to deal with ever since I have become aware of my own Type preferences. I too have felt that labeling someone with their type code is (for lack of a better term) wrong. Some examples - The Baltimore APT international convention 2 years ago was my first taste of the type community other than what I was taught. It was an eye opening experience. When I registered for the conference I did not include my type preferences so when I arrived I discovered that they were not on name tag like they were for most everyone else. Very quickly I noticed that not only did people look at my nametag to get my name but more importantly they were looking to see what my type was. Since I did not have my preferences displayed several people asked me why and I simply said I did not want people assuming something about me that may or may not be true. This is what that young high school student was having a problem with also.
Near the end of my first day in Baltimore I had my first conversation with someone who, when I finally told her my type, she could not believe it based on what I was telling her about my military career. What she told me rocked me back on my heals since she claimed to have been using the MBTI for 20 plus years and yet her statement told me that she did not understand it. She told me that if I was a helicopter pilot and spent 28 years in the Army there is no way that I could have the type code that I claimed. A couple of days later when discussing again why I did not put my type preference on my name tag, a gentleman with years of experience said virtually the same thing and then when I added that I was an instructor pilot he got pretty adamant that I was not the type that I claimed.
Why are we as "type practitioners" so hooked on four letters. We explain that we should never label or "pigeon-hole" anyone and yet that is all we seem to be able to do. We are told and we tell our customers and clients that we should never use type as an excuse. And yet every speaker at the Dallas APTi convention, this past fall, had their type preferences posted and almost all of the big speakers and even those introducing them, began their speech with some comment about their own type and why some other type in the audience may or may not like something they say or do. They were making an excuse for them self and using a label to do it!
Type is a great tool for understanding but one thing I have figured out more than anything else about using type is that we are working with people. And people will always find ways to prove you wrong. We may be able to put them in general categories but despite our best efforts, labels will never fit perfect, and often times they do not seem to fit at all.
So why do we label then? This is pretty simple really. When discussing communications issues, differences in decision making processes, conflicts, team dynamics and so much more, we need to start at a point where we can look for common ground. Without common ground you might as well be arguing which football team will go to the world series, what flavor of ice cream makes the best concrete or what size knitting needles should I crotchet a leather baby blanket. It won't make sense.
Our type preference code is a starting point only. It gives us a common starting point to discuss our differences so that we can better understand them. Do not jump to any conclusion about what to expect from this individual because you run the risk of being wrong and as type practitioners we need to always remember that the individual is the only one that can put that label on themselves and then it is only a best fit. That individual also has the capability of stepping outside the stereotype at anytime and as much as they like, or need, to be who they are or who they want to be to accomplish their goals.
We are talking about people and people will never fit perfectly into any kind of category.
When I get the energy I will continue this discussion comparing type dynamics to type codes.