Who’s afraid of the MBTI?

Dtcwee posted this video along with an interesting set of questions in response to the previous post on Temperaments and the MBTI:

I think this is the first time you’ve touched on both the Four Temperaments and the MBTI.
The poetic way the Temperaments are described makes the MBTI dry and pseudo-scientific in comparison.
You may find it interesting that Briggs originally had four types (meditative/thoughtful, spontaneous, executive, and social) which she mashed up with Jung’s four cognitive types (thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition).
This raises for me the following questions:
Do Temperaments appeal to different people than MBTI? And if so, then to who and how?
What is it with the number four? Don’t they know it’s super-unlucky? Can’t they just, like the Yi Jing, have inferior and superior?

Do Temperaments appeal to different people than MBTI? And if so, then to who and how?

It’s hard to say. The Temperaments are not as widely known as the MBTI. They’re popular in different circles, partly indeed because the MBTI can be presented in a pseudoscientific form, whereas the Four Temperaments are an anachronistic protoscience.

The Four Temperaments are named after bodily humours, a remnant of their origins in Galenic medicine: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile.

The MBTI types are presented in quasi-binary digital form, as acronyms reminiscent of modern medical, governmental, and technological contexts, like how the NSA could tell I have ADHD simply by monitoring my ADSL.

If you read much of the press on the MBTI, you’ll soon discover that it is extremely popular in the corporate world, and almost equally unpopular in the academic world. That is, no one takes it seriously in academic (or clinical) psychology, yet Human Resources departments love the stuff.

Why? It’s hard to say. Maybe it’s because corporations are intrinsically fascist, and love the idea of being able to administer a test to find out your intrinsic suitability for any given role? It reminds me of Brave New World:

Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m really awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse.

Or maybe the MBTI was just in the right place at the right time to become the reigning personality theory of the corporate world? It must have seemed very scientific and objective when it first appeared, and to be honest there’s not really anything more robust to replace it.

In terms of genuine psychology, the Big Five are robust, but don’t operate in the same way…they might be reliable markers of personality, but what people really want from the MBTI and the Temperaments is a deeper understanding of themselves and others. They want a theory or a model that lets you extrapolate from the observable, rather than merely measure the observable.

I find the MBTI exhausting at a certain point, and I can’t quite tell if it’s because the model overreaches itself  making predictions or deductions it can’t support, or (in MBTI terms) if it’s because the system and its presentation are so counter-intuitive.

That’s one way of interpreting the ‘dry’ aspect you noted: for an Intuitive type, the MBTI has some glaring faults in its presentation…or at least the way it is usually presented by enthusiasts online or in grueling HR glad-handling sessions.

Can you pick, for example, the irony implicit in arranging a whole-day team meeting to learn about the MBTI and discover your and your colleagues’ types? It doesn’t matter how earnestly you assert that all the 16 types are equally special, when the organisation itself is heavily slated toward particular types.

We introverts did manage to get the highly extroverted HR lady to admit that the organisation itself favours an EST perspective: extroverted, sensing, and thinking.

Likewise, the presentation and systemisation of the MBTI do not seem to sit well with the Intuitive function. There’s a disjoint between the presentation and the underlying principles that is either arcane or just clumsy.

Ideally, the four letters in the acronym would have equal weighting, right? But the I/E is about your overall orientation, the S/N and T/F are about cognitive functions, and the P/J is about the orientation of those functions.

That’s why rationalist (NT) types online will encourage people to forget about the labels and instead focus on understanding the functions.  Because if you just study the labels and their descriptions you’ll only get a superficial understanding of the whole system.

To be continued…

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Cynical and amoral: the dark side of the mindfulness fad

My latest piece at MercatorNet looks at the dark side of mainstreaming mindfulness meditation:

I’ve met and worked with people who are deeply into this kind of meditation and promote it at the middle-management level. The scary thing is that they aren’t even completely cynical; they genuinely believe in the near-magical benefits of meditation, and see no problem in advancing Google-inspired programs in their own corporate territory. They see mindfulness and meditation in uncritically elevated terms, and are equally uncritical of the corporate structures of which they are a part. Meditation will save the world, but it turns out there’s nothing bad to save it from.

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/cynical-and-amoral-the-dark-side-of-the-mindfulness-fad

Who moved my brain?

Throwcase casts aside the satirical mantle to passionately implore us all to stop sharing stupid memes. If only the article could be turned into a handy, brain-infesting image or slogan, so we needn’t have to actually read the whole thing or even really understand what is being said!

It is supposed to describe a real scientific experiment that was performed on a group of monkeys, and it is supposed to raise profound questions about our tendency to unquestioningly follow the herd. Unfortunately it is complete and utter nonsense, because no such experiment ever happened. However, so many people are sharing this unverified crock of shit that it really does reveal our tendency to unthinkingly follow the herd; after all, why would you bother verifying an article about monkeys that literally has the tag line “think before you follow”?

http://throwcase.com/2014/12/21/that-five-monkeys-and-a-banana-story-is-rubbish/

Incidentally, I’ve never come across the ‘five monkeys’ thing before today, but I’m sure we’ve all seen the likes of it before. It reminds me of a particular class of corporate management/self-help literature such as the “Who moved my cheese?” book and video.

In other words, it’s the kind of thing that people in positions of minor authority like to use to ‘inspire’ and ‘challenge’ their subordinates or charges; the kind of message that is immediately undermined and made violently intolerable by the context and medium in which it is presented. Look children, I have a cartoon about rats in a maze, a story about monkeys in a cage, and you will learn so much from it!

Clearly I’m not the intended audience for this kind of demeaning tripe, but I can’t help but wonder why these stories are not immediately seen to be deeply insulting. You in your work environment are a tiny humanoid rat lost in a maze, chasing after cheese. Your life, your struggles, your motives and your goals are ultimately absurd. You are an animal, and not even a noble one but the kind commonly used in experiments for their convenience, ease of manipulation, and close relationship to real humans – but not so close that we feel bad when we have to ‘sacrifice’ them.

I think I should write a little book about a plough-horse that slaves away for many years to benefit its owner, and after making its owner rich is replaced with a tractor and sold for dog-meat. The moral is “you’re lucky you got to work as long as you did.”

Does anyone feel inspired yet?

The moral betrayal of corporate dysfunction

Embed from Getty Images

The previous post on careerism sparked some thoughts about my past employment.

My own recent employment was as a researcher within a corporation that did not understand research, but wanted at least to feel like it was doing research, or failing that, wanted to be seen to be doing research.  By the time my employers decided to make their entire research staff redundant, they had, by my estimation, achieved merely the even lesser goal of being seen to want to be involved in someone else’s research.

In the previous post I quoted Jacob from Early Retirement Extreme, suggesting that careerism takes hold when an employer cannot tell the difference between work that is good enough and work that is better.  In my experience this problem was magnified a hundred fold as what was considered ‘good enough research’ from a business perspective would not have been considered ‘good enough’ in a genuine research context.  To be perfectly honest, it wouldn’t even have been considered ‘research’, and I joked with my colleagues that at best it could merely be described as ‘search‘.

It reminds me of an excerpt I read from a book about PTSD: ‘Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character‘ by Dr Jonathan Shay.  In it he explains that the roots of trauma lie in the subversion of the soldier’s moral world, as when in the Illiad “Agamemnon, Achilles’ commander, wrongfully seizes the prize of honor voted to Achilles by the troops.” Shay illustrates his point through the story of a patrol team during the Vietnam War that opened fire on three boats that were suspected of unloading weapons.  When morning came, they found that the boats were merely fishing vessels, and in one veteran’s words: “we found out we killed a lot of fishermen and kids.”

What got us thoroughly fucking confused is, at that time you turn to the team and you say to the team, “Don’t worry about it. Everything’s fucking fine.” Because that’s what you’re getting from upstairs. The fucking colonel says, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of it.” Y’know, uh, “We got body count!” “We have body count!” So it starts working on your head.

[…] So you know in your heart it’s wrong, but at the time, here’s your superiors telling you that it was okay. So, I mean, that’s okay then, right? This is part of war. Y’know?

[…] They wanted to give us a fucking Unit Citation – them fucking maggots. A lot of medals came down from it. The lieutenants got medals, and I know the colonel got his fucking medal. And they would have award ceremonies, y’know, I’d be standing like a fucking jerk and they’d be handing out fucking medals for killing civilians.

The circumstances could not be more different, but the underlying psycho-social dynamics are remarkably similar.  In my case, I and my fellow researchers were given tasks that turned out to be dismally below standard in research terms, but we were told by our manager and senior colleagues “this is part of business”, “we’re kicking goals”, “we’re putting runs on the board”.

Despite knowing on a deeper level that this was not the way to do serious research, it is true that such talk from one’s superiors starts working on one’s head.  Maybe they have different standards? Maybe this is good enough on a business level?  Maybe we really are doing a good job from their point of view?  And in the end, you find yourself standing there like an idiot while the CEO or some other senior executive offers a glowing endorsement of all the ‘ground-breaking research’ our team had been involved in.

By that stage, I think it’s quite reasonable to feel – as I did at the time – that an organisation which rewards such incompetence is beyond help.  In particular it is beyond, and would most likely be antagonistic to, correction by a junior member of staff who just happens to bear the misfortune of knowing what real research looks like.  Like the veteran in Shay’s book, these experiences of moral dysfunction within an organisational hierarchy leave many subordinates bitter, cynical and disenfranchised, while less scrupulous employees choose to cling to the facade of success and achievement for their own ends.

The more I learn of others’ experiences, the more I am inclined to appreciate the peculiarities of my corporate experience: being a specialist in an organisation incapable and perhaps even unwilling to make use of my specialist skills.  It’s like a person who signs up for an expensive gym membership, uses it once or twice ineffectually, and then lets it lapse.

No doubt it’s bad enough being a corporate stooge in a dysfunctional corporate world, but being a philosopher and researcher – a veritable fish out of water – made the dysfunctional corporate experience all the more painful.  While my colleagues and I have each lamented the lost opportunity and squandered potential of our prior employment, I’m increasingly sure that in terms of corporate culture and dysfunction our experience was, to borrow from World War II military slang, SNAFU: situation normal, all fucked up.

The pitfalls of careerism

Some time ago friend dtcwee pointed me towards the website of Jacob Lund Fisker, the author of Early Retirement Extreme. Jacob is a nuclear astrophysicist by training, who achieved financial independence at the age of 30, rejecting careerism and consumerism in favour of a simpler yet more satisfying life.  His philosophy of life is well worth examining, even if it isn’t entirely suited to your present circumstances.  As Jacob writes:

It is not unusual for people to discover this blog and proceed to read through it from the beginning to the end spending several hours (people have written me and told me how they plowed through a backlog of 900 posts) as if they have been intellectually or culturally starved and finally found the answer to something that had been bugging them for some time without knowing what it was.

For independent thinkers and creative radicals, this blog feels like the red pill of the Matrix movie. Some people have grown up having seen or heard nothing else about how to live than consumerism and careerism and yet it never felt quite right to them. ERE is a completely different philosophy and so it’s refreshing or eye-opening to learn that an alternative exists.

This certainly reflects my experience, and I’ve returned to his site more recently for further inspiration and enjoyment.  In a recent post, Jacob describes the pitfalls of careerism in a way that reassures me my two years in a corporate environment were, sadly, not unusual:

It should be clear that marketing and trying to manage other people’s impression of one’s work becomes much more important than the work itself once few people can tell the difference between work that is good enough and work that is better. Of course, those doing better work can tell. Interestingly enough those who just do work that is good enough are either successfully deluding themselves or they have simply become very cynical. Both are good survival mechanisms preventing people from going nuts. Conversely, if your work or if the system ever meant something to you for its own sake rather than simply a career in the sense of titles, salaries, and baubles, you may just decide to leave it disgusted with what it has become.

Last I read, Jacob and his wife were living on an annual expenditure of US$14,000 per year.  If nothing else, his way of life provides a much-needed reproach to our consumer-driven society.

 

I can’t handle being useful

My latest piece at MercatorNet.com brings together my love of etymology and my deep, seething contempt for the language and culture of management:

Once we start giving people names and titles that reflect what they really do, it will no longer be possible to hide behind pomp and presentation. It’s one thing to say “I’m the manager of this team” and quite another to say “I handle these people”. The latter lacks pretence. It is a statement of action, and it has implications and repercussions that the softer title of ‘manager’ avoids. It’s the same rationale that led North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il to style himself “Dear Leader, who is a perfect incarnation of the appearance that a leader should have”.

 

A richer life on a lower income

Step 1: My home-roasted coffee

I’ve often thought about becoming a professional freelance writer, but never thought I could earn enough to replace or even approach my previous income.

But what if I didn’t need to replace my previous income? What if I was to reject the financial imperative that says “make as much money as you can for as long as you can regardless of the cost”?

Because the cost has been pretty high. My experience of business has shown it to be a surprisingly shallow, unaccountable, egotistical and dysfunctional place, with an ethos inimical to the values and ideals I’ve cultivated for much of my life. Anecdotal evidence suggests my experience has not been unusual.

The cost of finding a similar role, of enduring further wasting of my skills and my time, makes the higher income look like a pretty bad deal. By contrast, the freedom and integrity of being a writer makes my much diminished income seem much more attractive.

I’m currently a part-time Phd Student, a part-time writer, and a part-time stay-at-home dad; and I’m adding to the mix a theme I’m calling ‘Richer on a lower income’: an idea that encompasses not only the sheer relief in transitioning from a pointless office job – one of David Graeber’s ‘Bullshit Jobs‘ – to a far more meaningful career, but also the various ways in which a lower income lifestyle turns out to be far richer than a higher income one that is constrained by the limitations of working life and the ultimately unsatisfying distractions of consumer culture.

In practice it means pushing back against a strictly consumerist way of life, producing more and consuming less. It means learning to live on a significantly smaller income, but being open to different streams of income rather than being tied to a single wage.

As time goes on I’ll be updating you on the experiences and data, the sacrifices and the achievements as we see what life can look like when we step away from pointless conventions and follow our ideals.

Inefficiencies of the labour market

My friend dtcwee has posted a side-by-side comparison of the labour market and the share market, with regard to their relative efficiencies. Why, for example, is applying for a job so much murkier and more mysterious than purchasing shares? Who benefits from such opacity?

http://dtcwee.blogspot.com.au/2014/10/take-this-job-and-commoditise-it.html

When dtcwee first told me his idea, I thought the comparison might not be apt because in the share market example we are the buyer, while in the labour market we’re both the seller and, in a sense, the product. But I readily cede to his superior economic knowledge, and on reflection I wonder if it has more to do with psychology than anything else. People invest themselves in their careers and shape their sense of worth and identity around it. Perhaps the opacity of the labour market reflects a reluctance to reduce our precious and very important identities down to a dollar value? How would your workplace change if everyone knew each other’s salaries?

Psychology complicates the system in another way: while employment is supposedly about skills and experience, we’re yet to find a way to quarantine these useful parts from the messy confusion of humanity in which they currently reside. While it would be nice to hire just the skills and knowledge of, say, a marketing manager, unfortunately there’s a good chance that you’ll get a whole lot of unwanted neediness, passive aggression, politics, and other unexpected troubles as part of the whole package. The same goes for prospective employees looking to join a new company. What might ideally be an efficient business transaction is instead more like being adopted into a dysfunctional family. Not only are these factors difficult to measure and communicate, they may well be so prevalent that the entire system has a vested interest in resisting transparency.

None of which should be taken as a defense of the current system.

The ethics of management: hypocrisy

Hypocrisy is defined as:

the practice of claiming to have higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case.

In ‘The Prince’ Machiavelli argues that it is much better to be seen to be virtuous than to actually have virtue”

Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

In my experience, a corporate environment encourages the same duplicity. The values may differ – more popular keywords like ‘communication’, ‘connectedness’, and ‘creativity’ replacing traditional ones – but the pressure to keep up appearances is as real in business as it is in politics. It is not necessary for a manager to have these corporate qualities, but it is necessary for a manager to appear to have them.

Sometimes there’s an aspect of ‘the emperor’s new clothes’ at play. No one has the courage (or rather, the disregard for their own career prospects) to tell a seemingly enthusiastic superior “I have no idea what you’re talking about”. But the difference is that the emperor believed in his clothes, whereas a hypocritical manager merely pays them lip-service.

Nonetheless, lip-service is powerful. Studies such as the Asch Conformity Experiment have shown that most people will change either their belief or their external behaviour to conform with majority opinion; how much more so when majority opinion is reinforced with financial and career considerations and the authority of a corporate hierarchy?

Hypocrisy in a superior is demoralising. The problem with a manager who is adept at “claiming to have higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case”, is not that such a facade actually convinces people, but that it hides the truth, coerces conformity, and prohibits genuine communication. A manager who likes to gush gratuitously about how “I love my team!” is either a simpleton, on the verge of a mental breakdown, or very clearly demonstrating the tone of discourse she expects from her subordinates.

I once had a manager who was put in charge of a research department despite having no research qualifications or experience. In this context, hypocrisy translated into publicly talking up the supposed research goals and achievements, with liberal use of terms such as “world’s best practice”, “evidence based”, “rigorous”, and “validated”, while at the same time lowering the bar in terms of actual standards of evidence and methodologies employed, under the guise of ‘business priorities’ and the need to ‘kick some goals’.

Such was the magnitude of this hypocrisy that we, the researchers, mistook it for ignorance. Surely no one in their right mind would falsely claim such objective research standards? Surely the manager was just naive or confused? It took a long time, given our minimal one-way communication with our manager, to confirm that she had never intended for us to do real research in the first place, and though ignorance of research had clearly played a role in claiming such high standards, the gap between PR and reality was seemingly of no real consequence to our manager, the business, or the supposed mission of the ‘research’ enterprise of which we were a part.

By the time we confirmed this, no less than the Chairman of the Board had already publicly described as ‘ground breaking research’ a piece of work so hamstrung and hobbled by a ‘business’ mindset that it hardly warranted the label ‘research’, let alone the embarrassing hyperbole of ‘ground breaking’.

Yet this vindicates management hypocrisy: it was indeed beneficial for our manager to be seen to have presided over ‘ground breaking research’ without the uncomfortable necessity of having to actually facilitate such research, with its impractically indefinite timeframes, dangerously uncertain outcomes, and awkwardly un-businesslike ethos. Much safer to initiate a project with predetermined outcomes and just tell everyone how ground-breaking it was. The Chairman of the Board might be right at the top of the corporate pecking-order, but when it comes to assessing the merits of alleged research he was, ironically, as susceptible to the hypocrisy of middle-management as we, the researchers.

Last I heard, our former manager was still in charge of a research department with dedicated admin support and business development personnel, but no actual researchers. The irony is delightful, and entirely appropriate to the business ethos of style over substance.

In the end Machiavelli was right, hypocrisy is indeed of great advantage to the Prince. But in embracing hypocrisy the Prince becomes a contemptible creature without moral or intellectual integrity.

The ethics of management: honesty

Two readers have asked me to elaborate on the earlier post in which I touched on the issue of ethics in management.

Ethics in management is a subset of ‘business ethics’ or ‘corporate ethics’ in general.  As someone with a great deal of experience in bio-ethics, I have to admit that business ethics never struck me as particularly complicated.  Whatever challenges business may face, they pale alongside the complexity of issues such as human cloning, xenotransplantation, or ectogenesis, to name a few.

I assume (let’s call it an educated guess) that ‘business ethics’ is just a matter of applying regular ethics in a business context – the kind of problems that could be resolved merely by not ceasing to act like a good person during your day-job.  So let’s start small and see if we can devise some applications for ethics in the realm of business.

Honesty

In a previous role with a corporate not-for-profit aged-care provider, the manager once emailed our team of eight to organise a meeting with the director of our department.  The email included the time and date, noting in advance that two of our colleagues would be busy and unable to make it, with ‘apologies’ suitably noted. It was unusual for our director to want to see us, so I emailed the manager to ask what the meeting was about. “Just a catch up” she replied.

On the day of the meeting the director and an HR manager arrived at the office where I worked with two of my colleagues.  The HR manager’s presence was slightly ominous, as was the non-appearance of our own manager, or any of our other colleagues.  As it turned out, the email setting up a ‘team meeting’ was a ploy to ensure the three of us could be made redundant without any fuss, awkwardness, or opportunity for difficult questions.

To identify this as an ethical lapse would sound naive in a business context.  No one would be losing any sleep over the fact that our manager told us a blatant lie.  Anyone we might complain to would see the complaint as merely a reflection of our bitterness over having being made redundant, and would interpret the ethical critique as a churlish attempt to throw mud at our former manager.

So perhaps the need for ‘business ethics’ is real after all – not because business throws up unique ethical challenges, but because people acting under the auspices of professional authority need a specific reminder that ethics still applies.

In a business context the fact that our manager so obviously lied to us would not be viewed as an ethical failure, but simply as how she chose to deal with this particular management scenario.  She could potentially be criticised for her management style, but even then the lie would be viewed merely as a tactical failure, not a moral one.

If we were friends or relatives instead of subordinates, the lie would take center-stage.  No one would critique her ‘friend management style’ as though there are a number of techniques and tactics for controlling and manipulating one’s friends; they would immediately recognise that the moral issue of honesty was the point of concern.

The Ideal

Why is it wrong for a manager to lie to her subordinates?  We could spend all day looking at a number of contentious ethical theories, but let us confine ourselves to the understanding that honesty is a virtue.  As a virtue, honesty is the habitual inclination toward the truth.  An honest person prefers truth over lies and acts in accord with that preference.  Lying is a breach of that virtue, and an unrepentant lie suggests a dishonest character. Naturally, a dishonest person cultivates distrust in those around her.  Looking back through the two years we worked with that manager, it is now unclear if anything she ever said to us was worthy of trust.

In this sense, a dishonest person is bad for subordinates and colleagues who cannot trust her, and bad for superiors who cannot rely on her.  Distrust and unreliability are bad for morale and undermine the culture of the organisation.

But more importantly, dishonesty is bad for the individual herself.  Dishonesty means routinely putting other motives ahead of the truth. It is a sign of a disordered soul that does not value the truth and can no longer preserve a sense of reverence or even obligation to the truth.  It also signifies a lack of respect for others, a callousness towards colleagues, subordinates, and superiors that ultimately implies a deeply egoistic individual.  Whatever her deepest motives, a manager who lies is simply a person who lies; and a person who lies has a disordered soul.

An organisation that encourages its employees to lie – either tacitly or overtly – is itself disordered.  But the reality is that any ‘organisation’ is, in ethical terms, no more than the sum of its parts.  That means a director who encourages a manager to lie, or a colleague who turns a blind eye to it, are increasingly complicit in the dishonesty at play.  It is not possible to hide behind the organisation any more than it is a viable excuse to be a passive bystander to some kind of group violence.  We cannot look at others being lied to or otherwise deceived by a colleague, say “glad it’s not me!”, and then move on with ‘business as usual’.

Ultimately we too are culpable for making ourselves accomplices to such deeds.  A dishonest manager wreaks havoc on her own character; colleagues who excuse or rationalise such behaviour as ‘just business’ damage themselves in the process.  At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves who and what we wish to align ourselves with: powerful people who have forged careers with scant regard for the truth and respect for others?  Or do we prefer truth and respect over money and influence?

What price do you put on your own good character?  And do you truly recognise the price you are already paying for your dishonesty?  These are hard questions, and they are meant to be.  Ethics is not about basic rules or protocols, but about the substance of your own life – what kind of person you are, and what kind of person you are becoming.  The problem with business ethics in general is that when money is involved we lose our normal sense of priorities.  We act as though the organisation shields us from culpability. But this sense of being ‘shielded’ is already a kind of damage to your psyche.  It’s an unsubstantiated dissociation from one’s own moral sense.  It is what allows dishonest people to thrive, and honest people to let them.  Can you imagine what would happen if every employee of an organisation took personal moral responsibility for their actions?

More to come…