Quit Putting People in Boxes

“I have learned throughout my life as a composer chiefly through my mistakes and pursuits of false assumptions, not by my exposure to founts of wisdom and knowledge.”
– Igor Stravinsky

Even though most of the pieces on this site feature tables that compare and contrast ideas or traits while putting them in boxes, I do not, in principle, believe in the practice of categorizing people by putting them in boxes. I know that assigning qualities or attributes to individuals based on things like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is popular with some organizations, but I don’t believe that it is important at all when organizing for change.

I’m not the only one out there who questions the value of such practices. In an article in Psychology Today, titled “Goodbye to MBTI, the Fad That Won’t Die,” Dr. Adam Grant, author of the bestselling book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, writes:

“. . . in the MBTI, thinking and feeling are opposite poles of a continuum. In reality, they’re independent: we have three decades of evidence that if you like ideas and data, you can also like people and emotions. (In fact, more often than not, they go hand in hand: research shows that people with stronger thinking and reasoning skills are also better at recognizing, understanding, and managing emotions.)”

For a fairly concise academic article that looks at the scientific validity of MBTI, see “Measuring the MBTI… And Coming Up Short” by David J. Pittenger. One of the conclusions Pittenger comes to is:

“The MBTI reminds us of the obvious truth that all people are not alike, but then claims that every person can be fit neatly into one of 16 boxes. I believe that MBTI attempts to force the complexities of human personality into an artificial and limiting classification scheme. The focus on the “typing” of people reduces the attention paid to the unique qualities and potential of each individual.”

What does all of this have to do with leadership? Leaders who believe that they can create an effective team by making sure that they have people of every profile “type” are setting themselves up for missed opportunities resulting from the failure to uncover the hidden assets in the people with whom they are collaborating. Thinking that people fit some imaginary profile might lead to limiting expectations.

Preconceived notions of what people can do, and how they can grow and develop will keep things from happening, not make them happen. It is the systematic marginalization of people. This is the opposite of what a leader should do. Leaders see people at the sidelines, and invite them in as full participants in an endeavor.

Asset Mapping: a Better Option

Test-determined categorization should not be confused with asset mapping. Asset mapping is not categorizing and labeling people by “type.” Asset mapping looks at people who may have been told that they have limited value based on their type, and finds the value in their unique contradictions, their failure to fit molds, their creativity, and the exceptional perspectives that they bring to the table.

Since mobilizing people around asset mapping is based on discovery, social capital, and relationship development, it flourishes in a culture of blurred lines. It takes people out of boxes and explores the energy and creativity that emerges from not having to be the type of person you were artificially designated to be.

For more on asset-based approaches and asset mapping see the posts, Asset-Focused Leadership, and Asset-Focused Leadership Part II: the Importance of Associations.

4 thoughts on “Quit Putting People in Boxes

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