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29 October 2007

Critiquing Myers Briggs for the (new) intelligence workforce

Not so very long ago, it seemed that the Myers Briggs Type Indicator was all the rage within a certain segment of the intelligence community. It was imagined that one’s personality could be pinned neatly to cardboard, and used as a proxy for judging individual reactions by managers essentially uncomfortable with the messy realities of actual humans. What started as an interesting thought exercise, intended for new analysts to learn about themselves in the spirit of reflective practice (much like Johari’s Window and similar concepts) soon was extended far beyond its initial use into a whole range of areas that it should never have been attempted in.

Sometime over the course of the past few years we saw a brief respite in the recycling of the MBTI “discovery”, and thought the fad over. After all, there is a war on, and there were quite a few other new attempts at understanding the intelligence community’s workforce in a more sophisticated manner that had been discussed since. We had hoped never again to see other individuals wearing their type code as badge around the vault…

Clearly, we relaxed too soon. There is rumour of an as yet unpublished work now circulating within academic circles, which examined the MBTI of a cohort of intelligence studies students. It claims to draw some sort of generational lessons in how the Millennial will differ from their older counterparts in the community.

Now, we are among the first to point to the radical impact of the oil and water mixture of the newest members of the community with practitioners of a certain age and kind of experience. This is not in our opinion a bad thing by any means, and in fact we have seen it result in some fascinating and innovative outcomes that no one could have predicted in advance, least of all the participants involved. We also hold the greatest hope for the students yet to enter the profession, for they will be the true drivers of a kind of transformation never before seen in the community as the Long War comes to full term.

But in addition to our critique of the uses to which the MBTI has been bent, we would strongly question the utility of using a student population at a civilian institution as the benchmark for the cohort. After all, most of those students will never have spent a day within the IC (or even in a full time private contracting shop.) The behaviors and activities of a millennial college student are a far cry from their employed professional counterpart of the same age – particularly given variables such as military service. Having shepherded more than our fair share of new cohorts into the community, we are acutely aware of the changes that are quickly wrought in individuals as the weight of their new responsibilities settles full upon their shoulders.

We are also greatly aware of the changes in behavior and expressed personality characteristics created by the unique pressures of the Long War, which can vary greatly depending on the roles these individuals are assigned. Such changes demonstrate the highly situational nature of the indicator, as an individual assigned to highly collaborative collection tasks will express as far more outgoing and concrete on a particular day than he or she might when tasked to intensely cerebral, isolated research on another.

The student population also likely contains a high percentage of candidates that will never actually enter the intelligence community, whether because they are seduced by the higher salaries of the business / competitive intelligence sector, or when they find they fall into that percentage that cannot obtain a security clearance. The distortion caused by the inclusion of these individuals within the benchmark study renders any conclusions highly suspect.

It is long past time to return the MBTI to its place as a teaching tool to cultivate introspection, rather than the clumsy lever of management others have sought to make of it. We also hope that the intelligence studies academia will perhaps focus on those newer tools of workforce assessment and evaluation – such as the competencies model, or performance assessments based on the universal joint task list – which could yield viable results using a model student population.

We would also hope to see this research published in the community’s literature, or through the academy’s own press, in order that a more substantive debate might occur as to its merits, design and outcomes than speculation upon rumour would allow.

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