Roller-Blading to America

13 09 2011

The subject of Birkman versus MBTI (or sometimes DISC or StrengthsFinder) as an Organizational Development / Talent Management tool comes up with alarming regularity. Alarming because from where I am standing, this seems very like asking whether flying or roller blading is the better option for intercontinental business travel. It isn’t wars of religion – Boeing versus Airbus Industrie or SQ versus QF. It is “tool designed for this purpose” versus “tool designed for a completely different purpose”. Roller blading is a wonderful thing, and so is MBTI.

  1. MBTI (and DISC and even StrengthsFinder) are essentially sorter tools (they sort you into one of predetermined number of boxes; StrengthsFinder just has more boxes). The 90 currently available Birkman scales mean that every Birkman profile is close to unique; so this is more like a fingerprint than a type indicator AND YET it allows you to categorise broadly. So, for example, you can say these people are all Strategic in their organizational perspective, and yet still discriminate between them on the basis of important differences as well. So: MBTI has 16 possible outcomes, Birkman has a million or more (theoretically around 79 million, but there are a lot of null possibilities in there). Birkman is a fine grained tool that captures uniqueness in a usable manner.
  2. MBTI is not calibrated. You and I could both come out with identical scores and yet behave quite differently. One major reason for this is that there is no attempt to calibrate what a particular score means. So, for example, my view of possible ranges of human introversion v extraversion may be quite different from yours. What seems unbearably introverted to me may seem uncomfortably extroverted to you. Birkman on the other hand is normed and calibrated within and across populations, so that a particular combination of scores is always going to produce very similar behaviours in the individuals concerned. With Birkman, apples are always apples.
  3. MBTI is theory driven, Birkman is empirically based. Birkman doesn’t start from a theoretical view of human behaviour, but from 60+ years of observation of actual behaviour and building an instrument that accurately captures and predicts that behaviour. (MBTI is of course based on Jungian Psychology).
  4. MBTI was never designed to be a tool for organizational development or recruitment, and, in my experience, has very low levels of acceptance amongst organizational psychologists (i.e. it is pretty hard to find practicing organizational psychologists who promote its use as an OD or talent tool; I am not suggesting that Org Psychs cannot be found who like MBTI, any more than I am suggesting that no business traveller ever roller blades to his office on a sunny morning). Birkman on the other hand was developed because of Roger Birkman’s fascination with organizational behaviour and especially the impact of perspective upon problem-framing and behaviour. Birkman looks at the individual in their social and organizational context and as such is pretty well unique among psychometric tools.
  5. In order to use MBTI to predict behaviour under stress (for example), the user must work on the assumption that everything in the way of behaviour arises from a person’s own view of her or himself (which is all that MBTI measures); Birkman on the other hand predicts negative or reactive behaviours on the basis of unmet and often unrecognised underlying needs and expectations on the part of the individual, which may have little or no connection to the individual’s conscious view of self.

Or at least that’s why I will keep hopping on a plane to Houston every time there is a Birkman Conference on!

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