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Don’t Take This the Wrong Way: Using the Myers-Briggs Personality Types to Avoid Conflict
2008, Q1 (June 18, 2008)
By Andrea Wenger, Carolina Chapter Member

Communication in the workplace, portrait by Boromir Aragorn
Communication in the workplace, portrait by Boromir Aragorn
During the February membership meeting, I shared a presentation titled, “Using the Myers-Briggs Personality Types to Facilitate Communication and Teamwork” (read the meeting recap here). The presentation focused on understanding personality types and the roles they naturally play on teams. To supplement the presentation, this article looks at how the Myers-Briggs types can help us identify potential conflicts in the workplace, as well as strategies to help avoid or resolve them.

According to CPP, Inc., the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) is the most widely used personality assessment tool in the world, with over two million assessments administered annually in the U.S. The MBTI was originally developed to match individuals to vocations. Myers-Briggs style tests measure four dimensions of personality, based on how we prefer to receive and process information:
  • Extraversion vs. Introversion (E/I preference)
  • Sensation vs. iNtuition (S/N preference)
  • Thinking vs. Feeling (T/F preference)
  • Judging vs. Perceiving (J/P preference)

The preferences on these four dimensions results in sixteen personality types, each described by a four-letter abbreviation, such as the following:
  • ESTJ = Extraverted Sensing Thinking Judging
  • INFP = Introverted iNtuitive Feeling Perceiving

Note that these terms are jargon and mean something very specific in this context. Introverted doesn’t mean shy, Feeling doesn’t mean emotional, and Judging doesn’t mean judgmental. The specific meanings are elaborated below.

Differences in the preferences people exhibit for these dimensions of personality can lead to misunderstanding. To avoid conflict, it isn’t necessary for you to know another person’s type; if you know your own type, you can work to avoid miscues in your interactions.

The following free test is available online, although it isn’t the true MBTI:

The accuracy rate isn’t 100%, so if you find that the description of the type doesn’t sound quite right for you, try reading the description for a closely related type to see if it’s a better fit. For instance, if you score as an INFJ, you might find that the INFP description sounds more accurate.

Below are some tips for avoiding conflict based on your preference for each dimension. Note that the descriptions are generalizations; some traits of your preference may not apply to you.

Interacting with the World: Extraversion vs. Introversion

Extraverts focus their mental activity on the outside world of people and things. They tend to think out loud, and they learn best through action. Introverts, on the other hand, focus their mental activity on the inner world of thoughts and ideas. They tend to consider their words carefully, and they learn best through reflection.
To avoid conflict, the following tips may be helpful.

Tips for Extraverts:
  • Don’t interrupt when people hesitate in the middle of a sentence. They may be mentally focused on finding the most precise way to express their thoughts.
  • When speaking, pause frequently to give others the opportunity to comment.
  • When introducing a new idea to co-workers, don’t expect an immediate response. Give them time to think it over, then schedule a meeting to discuss it.
  • When assigning new tasks to team members, understand that they may need time to develop an approach before acting.
  • Respect the needs of Introverts for quiet time alone to reflect and recharge. They’re drained by social activity.

Tips for Introverts:
  • Be patient with people who try to finish your sentences. Gently point out that you need a moment to think. If you feel put on the spot, think out loud to avoid the pressure of an awkward silence.
  • Don't assume that people who seem to be dominating a conversation aren’t interested in your input. They may be working through an idea by talking about it, or they may expect you to jump in when you have something to say.
  • Maintain eye contact with someone who’s speaking, and use other non-verbal cues to signal that you’re engaged by what they’re saying.
  • Recognize that sometimes, the only way to understand a new situation is to jump into it and learn from experience. If you make a mistake, most people won’t care or even notice (unless you’re Britney Spears).
  • Remember that Extraverts are energized by social interaction. They may want to meet face-to-face to make sure everyone’s on the same page, even if you don’t consider a meeting necessary.

Gathering Information: Sensation vs. iNtuition

Sensation is direct perception through the five senses, while iNtuition is indirect perception through the unconscious mind—what we call inspiration. Sensing and Intuiting types both use both methods, but Sensing types trust the facts while Intuiting types trust their instincts. They gather information in equal but opposite ways: Sensing types start with the details, then pan out to the big picture; Intuiting types start with the big picture, then zoom in on the details.

In my experience, the majority of technical communicators are Intuiting types. If you’re a Sensing type, you may sometimes feel out of step with the rest of the team. But remember, you have valuable insights your peers may lack.

Tips for Sensing Types:
  • Tolerate the need of others to brainstorm; but if the discussion goes off topic, gently bring it back to the task at hand.
  • If you believe that a proposed change isn’t in the best interest of the team, express your reasons. Sensing types are more realistic about the chances of failure than Intuitive types.
  • Remember that when people propose change, they’re not trying to turn your world upside-down. Intuitive types think in terms of possibility and may not understand your focus on actuality.
  • If you need more details when the rest of the participants in a discussion are ready to move on, plan a follow-up discussion with just the involved parties so you can get the information you need.
  • Strive to achieve the proper balance between work and play.

Tips for Intuiting Types:
  • Stay on task while discussing specific, concrete issues. Don’t indulge in flights of fancy about tangential topics and how they might relate to the current situation. Do that on your own time, then discuss your conclusions with the team.
  • If you believe a procedure isn’t working as well as it could, evaluate whether the benefit of change outweighs the cost. Remember that small changes are easier to implement than big ones. When formulating your battle plan, make sure you know what’s going on in the trenches.
  • If others seem resistant to change, assume that they have valid concerns, and encourage them to express those concerns. During the change process, look for ways to build on existing expertise.
  • Make sure you provide enough detail for Sensing types on the team to understand and feel comfortable with their tasks. Be patient with their need to have details stated explicitly.
  • Indulge your senses. Take time to appreciate what is, not just what could be.

Drawing Conclusions: Thinking vs. Feeling

Thinking is the rational process of making decisions based on logic. Feeling is the rational process of making decisions while considering personal context. Thinking types focus on truth and tend to be skeptical. Feeling types focus on values and tend to give others the benefit of the doubt.

Tips for Thinking Types:
  • Avoid blunt communication unless the situation requires it. Express the positives before expressing the negatives.
  • When approached with a new idea, discuss the potential benefits before raising potential pitfalls. Otherwise, Feeling types may think you’re unreceptive and may disengage.
  • When making an argument, be sure to include subjective data along with the objective data. Feeling types are more likely to be persuaded by arguments that consider the effect on people.
  • Remember that Feeling reasoning is a rational process, and that Feeling types tend to make better decisions when they consider personal values.
  • Don’t disregard your own Feeling reasoning. Use it to supplement your Thinking reasoning, especially when making decisions affecting people. (But don’t pull a Paul McCartney and marry Heather Mills without a pre-nup.)

Tips for Feeling Types:
  • Watch for a tendency to communicate indirectly—for instance, saying “Don’t you think” when you really mean “I think.” If you say “Don’t you think” to Thinking types, they’re likely to believe that you’re soliciting their viewpoint, and answer based on their logical conclusions. You may feel as if they’re dismissing your opinion, but technically, you didn’t express your opinion—you asked for theirs.
  • If someone challenges your ideas, don’t interpret this as rejection. It’s simply part of the evaluation process.
  • When making an argument, present objective data before subjective data. If you start with subjective data, Thinking types may tune out.
  • Remember that Thinking types are skeptical of emotion because it tends to cloud their judgment. They may not understand that it tends to clarify yours (though not always).
  • In areas outside your expertise, don’t make a choice simply because it’s appealing. Be sure to think things through, considering objective as well as subjective data.

Structuring Life: Judging vs. Perceiving

Judging refers to the process of making decisions using Thinking and Feeling. Perceiving refers to the process of gathering information using Sensing and Intuition. Judging types like things settled, while Perceiving types like to keep their options open.

Judging types prefer order, while Perceiving types like to improvise. However, these preferences are influenced by an individual’s focus of mental activity. For example, INFJs and INFPs, as Introverts with iNtuition, are strongly focused on their internal processes. So INFJs may not mind a little clutter in their external environment as long as their internal processes are organized. INFPs, conversely, may rely on organization in their external environment to give their internal processes the freedom to explore.

Tips for Judging Types:
  • Remember that your way isn’t the only good way.
  • Don’t let your desire for closure lead you to make a decision before you’ve gathered sufficient information.
  • Tolerate the need of Perceiving types to experiment. They don’t mind making mistakes as long as they learn something.
  • Offer to take on tasks at the end of a project to tie up loose ends after the Perceiving types on the team may have run out of energy.
  • Don’t become so attached to your plans that you miss out on new opportunities.

Tips for Perceiving Types:
  • Remember that others may be less tolerant of clutter than you are. Help keep shared spaces neat.
  • Don’t let your desire to gather information keep you from making a timely decision.
  • Understand that your drive for experimentation can overwhelm Judging types. Give them time to organize and process the information you present to them.
  • Offer to take on tasks at the beginning of a project, when your level of enthusiasm is at its peak.
  • Don’t rely on improvisation to the point that you fail to plan ahead. Remember, Judging types take deadlines seriously. Be realistic about the time required to complete a task. (Or take your best guess, then double it.)

All individuals are unique, and balanced individuals can adapt as situations require. Knowledge of personality type can’t help us predict behavior, but it can increase our understanding and make us more tolerant of differences. By drawing on each other’s strengths, we build more effective teams and foster a cooperative workplace.

Andrea can be reached at andrea dot wenger at us dot schneider-electric dot com. End of article.

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