Finding the right career isn't just about your skills and capabilities: it's also about getting a fit between your personal working style and the role that you're in. If you can find a career that suits your preferences, you'll be more satisfied, less frustrated and ultimately more likely to achieve success.
In this article I'll examine the concept of Personality Type as used in the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a tool which can help people to identify their personal style and use that knowledge to be more successful at work.
Learn how you can identify your own personality preferences with reference to this tool, work with your preferences and see how they affect your working style, and then use that understanding to identify a career that's the right fit for you.
Understanding Type and Personality Preference
MBTI uses the concept of Type to explain different personality types and what makes them tick. It also uses the concept of Preference to refer not to what you can do, but to what you prefer to do, or how you prefer to work. This is different from many other psychological and psychometric tools used in the workplace as most of these measure people's capabilities rather than their preferences.
Your personality type is made up of four dimensions, which are based on Carl Jung's theory of personality type. These were used to form the basis of MBTI by Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers in the 1940s and have been developed since then:
- Extraversion versus Introversion
- Sensing versus Intuition
- Thinking versus Feeling
- Judging versus Perceiving
These tend to be referred to as E/I, S/N, T/F and J/P. Your Type consists of your preferences on each of these dimensions (one from each pair). This means that your whole type will have a four-letter descriptor, such as INTP, which is mine.
The Concept of Preference
An important part of MBTI is the idea of preference. Your Myers Briggs Type doesn't describe what you can do, or even what you tend to do, but what you prefer to do. There will always be occasions when you act against your preferences in response to a situation, so that is within your capabilities but isn't your preference.
For example, I was once interviewed for a job by an MBTI practitioner managing a team full of people with a Perceiving preference. She wanted to bring some balance to the team and the fact that I came across as having a Judging preference worked in my favor (I got the job). I later told her that I actually have a Perceiving preference like the rest of her team, it was just that I had learned to behave in a way more consistent with Judging at work (and my Perceiving preference wasn't as marked as the rest of the team!).
Your start to form your preferences from an early age, with the Sensing/Intuition and Thinking/Feeling preferences often emerging first. As you age and have to adapt to whatever circumstances you find yourself in, your preference and how it manifests itself will adapt over time, but just because you behave in a certain way doesn't mean that your underlying preferences have changed very much. I'll explore this in more depth later.
Applications of Personality Type
MBTI is applied in a wide range of contexts in the workplace. It's useful for helping to understand how people interact with each other and in building strong teams, and it can help managers meet the needs of individual members of their team more effectively. I've used it for team building, to help resolve conflict and to help people develop their careers.
But MBTI isn't just about relationships and teams: it's also a great tool to help you understand yourself and identify what makes you tick. If you know what your preferences are, you can avoid situations where you have to act against them, where everything will be a struggle as against something that comes naturally to you. And on the inevitable occasions when you do have to act against your preferences, it can help you understand that your problems aren't related to your abilities but to your personality preferences, and help to avoid feelings of inadequacy.
Identifying Your Type
To identify your Type, you need first to identify what your preferences are on the four dimensions I outlined earlier. This will then give you a Whole Type, which is a combination of the four, and is more than the sum of its parts as the interactions between the dimensions play a part too.
The dimensions themselves can be confusing as the words used sometimes have different meanings in common usage, but in this context their meanings are as follows:
- Extraversion / Introversion - not how outgoing you are but whether you get your energy and motivation from the world about you or from within. If you tend to think before you speak, you probably have a preference for introversion while if you speak first and then think, you may have an Extraverted preference.
- Sensing / Intuition - how you prefer to take in information - based on facts and figures (Sensing) or the 'bigger picture' (Intuition). People with a preference for Intuition tend to think about the future a lot while those with a preference for Sensing are more focused on the here and now.
- Thinking / Feeling - how you decide to act on information - based on rational judgements (Thinking) or feelings (Feeling). If you view fairness as everyone getting the same you probably have a preference for Thinking, while if for you fairness is everyone getting what they need, you probably have a Feeling preference.
- Judging / Perceiving - the way in which you take action. If you work steadily, you probably have a Judging preference, whereas if you prefer to do the work close to a deadline, you may have a Perceiving preference.
It's important to note a couple things:
- Very few people are at one end of the scale for any of the four dimensions, so you will probably have some situations in which you act in one way and others where you act in the opposite way. The important thing is identifying what you prefer most of the time.
- While it's tempting to work out your Type using the description I've given above, if you want an accurate interpretation you should ask a qualified MBTI practitioner to spend time with you identifying your best-fit type. This will consist of a questionnaire followed by a discussion with active involvement from you to help identify your Type.
- An alternative is to take the MBTI assessment online
—although not as thorough as a consultation, it's a good place to start.
Preferences Over Time
As I've already mentioned, personality preferences start to emerge at an early age but are only really established around late adolescence and early adulthood. Young people will tend to display their preferences more obviously than older people who've learned to adapt them, although the education system of different countries can disadvantage children with some preferences (for example the US education system tends to favor children with a preference for Extraversion while other cultures may favor children with an Introverted style).
As you encounter situations where success relies on behaving in a way counter to your preferences, you will learn to adapt your working style and your preferences will become less obvious to people over time. Your underlying preferences won't fundamentally change (although you may find yourself moving away from the end of the scale on one or more of the dimensions), but how obvious they are to the outside world will change.
For most people this is perfectly normal and an essential part of functioning effectively in the workplace and in society. But if you take it too far and find yourself in a career which requires you to constantly or regularly behave in a way that is opposed to your natural preference, you'll wind up frustrated, tense and maybe burnt out. Everything will be much more effort than it would have been if it came naturally to you and the extra effort needed will mean you're less effective.
So if you're doing a job which just doesn't fit your personality preferences, now might be the time to take stock and identify what works better for you.
Matching Your Preference to Careers
Susan Nash of the Type Academy is an internationally recognized expert in MBTI and works with people using the tool to develop their careers: she says, "Understanding your natural type preferences can give great insight into which careers might cater to your natural talents and meet your core needs".
But the thought of rethinking your career plans based on an assessment of your personality type can be scary—after all, you may have plans you've been working on for many years and qualifications you've studied for.
The good news is that you don't have to completely change your plans—sometimes adapting your goals to your preferences is just about setting your sights on a slightly different role in the same industry, or seeking out employers with an organizational culture that works better for you.
- If you want to work in sales but have a preference for Introversion, you could still form a vital part of a sales team, preparing information prior to a sales pitch and ensuring that the Extraverted people making the presentation are far better prepared than they might be without you.
- If your next planned career move is to a strategic role but you worry that a Sensing preference means you can't see the big picture, look for organizations and roles in which a solid understanding of data and evidence informs strategic decision making.
- If you long to be a teacher but worry that a Thinking style will mean you can't relate to the children in your care, you might consider teaching older children or adults or teaching a subject which requires logical analysis and decision making.
- If you have an ambition to be a writer, a Perceiving preference may make you more suited to the tight deadlines of journalism while a Judging preference could work better for the more long-term approach needed for writing novels or textbooks.
There are very few professions or industries without opportunities for people who don't match the perceived industry norm: often the people with the stereotypical personality type in an industry or organisation will be heavily reliant on colleagues with complementary preferences. By understanding what makes you tick, you can better identify opportunities that fit you well and in which you're likely to be more fulfilled and successful.
Note: There is more on personality type and careers on the Myers-Briggs website, including a list of in-depth resources.
So, you've found a career which fits your personality type perfectly, what next? Understanding your Type will help you be even more effective in that career:
- There's a good chance that you'll have to work with people with different preferences from your own. Spotting this can help you understand what's motivating them and identify ways to interact more effectively with them.
- If you work with or manage someone who is under-performing, sometimes working out their Type can help you identify the causes: it may not be that they're not capable, but that they (or the people around them) need to adapt their working style to fit with their Type.
- If you have to manage conflict (or are involved in one), understanding that it's personality preference and not pigheadedness which is preventing the people involved from seeing eye to eye can help you find a way past the immediate problems.
- As your career progresses, you'll know how to spot promotion or development opportunities that will be a good fit for you.
Over time, your working style will adapt to your circumstances but your preferences will stay much the same: being able to adapt will help you be effective but knowing when not to change too much will help you avoid potential problems.
Being successful in a career isn't just about qualifications and skills: if you can find a career that matches the way you feel most comfortable working, everything will come as second nature to you and you won't have to struggle.
Ian Day, MBTI practitioner and author of Challenging Coaching, emphasises this point: "Although I believe that anything is possible with hard work, if you play to your natural strengths much more can be achieved. MBTI raises awareness of preferences and so people can focus on their strengths."
If you can use the techniques and resources I've described to understand your Type and your personality preferences, you'll be in a better position to find a career which will bring you fulfillment and success. Good luck!
Online MBTI Assessment
- Common Careers for Personality Types
- Career Choice and Career Development Using MBTI
- Type and Career Development (e-book)
- Introduction to Type in Organisations (book)
- Please Understand Me II (book)
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