Sunday, October 28, 2012


Since coming to Virginia Tech, I haven’t particularly liked the Division of Student Affair's focus on Strengths, but I could not articulate why.  This summer, during an orientation internship I had at Southern Methodist University, I was asked to select a personality assessment for my student employees to take.  I automatically opted for the Myers-Briggs Type Instrument (MBTI).  After reading more in depth to each approach – MBTI and StrengthsQuest – I understand why one was more attractive than the other in that setting.

The MBTI is designed to assess personality based on how one derives energy, gathers information, makes decisions, and acts throughout the day.  While the MBTI has little research to substantiate its validity, it makes more sense to me practically.  Supervising my students at SMU this summer, I recognized the fact that we were operating on a fast-paced, high-energy, structured time frame.  My students needed to jump right into their work and begin planning and implementing the school’s orientation programs.  Each of them was responsible for a specific project; however, there was a high level of collaboration needed among the group to make them successful.  After mapping out everyone’s personality types, they began to understand their differences and similarities in approaching and executing their projects.  One student was particularly methodical and had high levels of Thinking (T) and Judging (J).  She often clashed with another student who often made decisions with no perceived rhyme or reason, getting lost for hours in making a PowerPoint presentation look attractive rather than filling it with the important information needed for the rest of the team.  This student was assessed to have a high level of Perceiving (P).  As the two students worked together, they begin clashing over their expectations and work performance.  In my mediation efforts with them, we were able to talk about their personality types as strengths in approaching problems and finding solutions.  They were able to discuss and understand each other’s ways of thinking and began to find a way to work together.

What I like about the MBTI is its immediate applicability and simplicity.  One does not need to know all 16 types, but it’s easy to follow.  For example, if one scores highly on Extraversion (E) and is trying to relate to or work with someone that identifies as an Introvert (I), then the two individual can easily recognize that they derive energy through opposite approaches.  The four dimensions measured by the MBTI are dichotomous types, making it easy to identify others that fall on the other end of each dimension.  These four dimensions with opposing types pave the way for conversations that can allow individuals working together to identify potential areas of harmony or distinction.  For the students I was working with, the MBTI was useful in allowing them to understand each other and collaborate more effectively.  Orientation moves so quickly during the summer, that thinking about personality types was the most helpful for our needs. 

After reading about the Strengths-Based Leadership approach I see how the use of a strengths can be used to improve teamwork.  However, Strengths-Based Leadership (SBL) provides a list of talents that were generated as themes from an individual’s responses to the assessment questions.  These talents are perhaps naturally derived and inherent to each person’s personality; however for those talents to be turned into legitimate strengths, much time and energy must be given to cultivate them into something useful.  In thinking about how the MBTI and SBL can be used in the development of team dynamics and leadership, I think that SBL may be more effective for a long-term team, or in selecting members to round out the team’s experience and strengths.  I think the MBTI may play more into a task-focused team, especially in a setting with partnerships or a two-way collaborative relationship because it’s easier to spot the dichotomies between the partners’ personality types.  For me, it’s hard to conceptualize what each person brings to the table with strengths.  If I’m looking at a problem and trying to work with my team for a solution, personally I feel that knowing someone’s top strength is Empathy may not be incredibly helpful or directive in moving forward.  With the SBL, the more broad leadership themes – executing, influencing, relationship-building, and strategic thinking – would be extremely more useful in constructing team balance and understanding of approaches to problems and solutions.  

Perhaps the best thing to do for a team is to understand the complexities and variations that occur between each team member.  Every individual brings strengths and perspectives that can both help and hinder a team's progression.  Personally, knowing my Strengthsfinder talent themes has not been helpful as I think about my work style or approach to leadership, but perhaps my strengths can be used more effectively in thinking about the whole.  The profession that I am entering is very relationship-oriented, so taking care to find individuals who enjoy thinking strategically or influencing or executing will help expand the team's potential.  However, the same can be said for the MBTI personality types results: student affairs is comprised of a majority of extroverted (E) individuals, so seeking out those with introversion (I) can help bring balance to the team.  Ultimately, there is no right answer.  Each of these instruments can limit a team by providing too much simplicity to the complex concept of a team.  I believe that each assessment can be used effectively and can offer its participants another way of reflecting and developing their individual talents, which is ultimately the purpose of leadership development. 

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