Model behaviour

This article explains the work done to relate clusters of repeating patterns among people to what creates effective leadership, especially across cultures

“Who are you?” and “Who am I?” have been asked throughout history and across many cultures. A wide variety of systems have been used to reveal clusters of repeating patterns among people. They enable us to see our own particular behaviours in contrast to those of others and thereby to empathise and communicate with others more effectively.

But it has been difficult to relate these patterns to what creates effective leadership, especially across cultures. We thought that if we tried to build on existing personality inventories to find a more subtle way of describing the range of behaviours of people in different situations, it would help to predict who would make the most effective leader, particularly in a multi-cultural setting. This article explains the work we have done.

We have taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) as one example of a traditional personality inventory because it is recognised as the most widely used personality inventory in the world. Key in Myers-Briggs on an internet search engine and you will find around 1,400 results. While we know that the MBTI is not intended for use in recruitment, but as an aid to self-analysis, we are aware from our work internationally that many individuals are “typed” in its name, for the purposes of recruitment as well as management development needs analysis. There are also many imitations of the MBTI.

We have no wish to criticise the indicator, or any other inventory – just to discuss the usefulness of extending it in light of the above.

Jung, Freud and other psychologists conceived a number of typologies, originally intending to organise their observations into robust frameworks from which they could generalise and draw conclusions. The MBTI was “designed to make Jung’s theory of psychological types understandable and useful in everyday life”1. It attempts to differentiate personal preferences on four scales:

  • Extroversion-introversion (E versus I);
  • Sensing-intuition (S versus N);
  • Thinking-feeling (T versus F);
  • Judging-perceiving (J versus P).

The relationship of characteristics measured by MBTI to corporate culture is apparent when considering the way in which the 16 personality types are discussed. For example, a view often held by consultants and trainers is that introverted/sensing/feeling/judging individuals may become rigid in supporting hierarchy, authority, and procedures and be uncomfortable applying impersonal logic to decisions, even when it is needed.

We have come across similar assumptions relating to the other 15 types that are likely to generate dilemmas created by tensions between an individual’s preferred work environment (corporate cultural norms) and their actual corporate culture. 

Some consultants have sought to correlate these original MBTI scales with different job categories and functions. So, for instance, they might suggest which dominant type fits a marketing role and which is found most often among successful managers. But with the globalisation of business, we are suddenly confronted with some interesting dilemmas that challenge this. Consider the situation where the culture in which people are being recruited has a preference for sensing; what could be done when one is facing an environment where intuiting is the preference for a successful career?

The MBTI was not intended for comparing country-specific cultures, which can produce problems in a cross-cultural context. Even when the type distributions of two cultures are similar, the cultures themselves are not necessarily similar. So it is not surprising that type behaviour may not look the same in different cultures. 

Britain and the US offer good examples. The type distributions of both populations are almost the same. But the behaviour British introverts use to express their introversion is different from the behaviour introverts in the US use to express their introversion. The differences in behaviour do not necessarily indicate differences in type, but varying ways in which preferences can be expressed in those cultures. 

There are cultural differences in behaviour, but not in personality. But if you are faced with a questionnaire that asks about your behaviour, perceptions or feelings, your cultural perspective may have an effect on your answers.

Perhaps a more important question is whether people are more similar to themselves over time and across situations than they are to other cultures, and whether the variation within a single person across time and context is more or less than the variation between people. Yet this is impossible to verify as it assumes that such instruments have the same meaning across cultures.

Also, the globalisation of recruitment has shown us that different personality preferences are more dominant in other cultural environments. For instance, we know from our own cross-cultural profiling instruments that US and UK managers tend to be more individualistic and Japanese more team-oriented. So, as long as American managers remain in the US managing Americans and the Japanese stay in Japan, then presumably there is no problem. But in today’s multi-cultural world, an American leader could be running a team overseas with Korean, Japanese and French members.

So what about trying to assess whether a person can survive in other cultures? Obviously MBTI users find solutions in the team and the complementarities of types. Or they refer to the fact that the types are only preferences but that all is potentially within the person. Perhaps we should also remember that Jung did not intend his typology to be used for typing people. He wrote: “it is not the purpose to classify human beings into categories”.

MBTI and other models have proved their worth because they help respondents to identify where they are starting from and thereby the nature of their own orientation compared to others. 

Our concern is that, too often, HR people use these frameworks to categorise people according to mutual exclusivity. Why, if you are a “judging” person, can you not also be a “perceiving person”? Why, if you are an “individualist”, can you not also be a “team player” (collectivist)?

The problem derives from the notion promulgated by some users – although not recommended by Isabel Myers, who designed the indicator – that you can only be one type or the other. For example, Lenore Thomson defines each dimension with the use of “either” and “or”:

  • We can either adjust ourselves to the external situation (E) or relate the external situation to ourselves (I).
  • We can either focus on what is right in front of us (S) or see other possibilities in our imagination (N).
  • We can either analyse impersonally (T) or evaluate personally (F). 
  • We can either experience events directly as they happen (P) or organise events rationally and prepare for them (J).

The classic MBTI step 1 contains 88 items, comprising question and word pairs representing both poles of a preference dimension, and the computed profile will indicate the degree of clarity with which the individual expresses one preference or another. This is frequently interpreted as the degree to which the individual tends to each pole.

Thomson criticises people who tend to score towards the middle of scales in that they haven’t developed a clear-cut sense of self because they don’t know where they are starting from.

Finally, the “big five” model has been proposed as a replacement for MBTI, but even this is based on opposite scales. The five-factor personality model attempts to measure negative emotionality; extroversion; openness; agreeableness; and conscientiousness. 

But why are these questionnaires designed on mutually exclusive values? It is because our Western thinking is based on Cartesian logic and forces us to describe something as either one thing or the other, rather than entertaining several possibilities at once or seeing how one thing can lead to another. The stark choice was not what Isabel Myers had in mind when she construed the framework behind MBTI. But it is hardly surprising when you look at the way our world forces choices on us. 

Marketers stress the differences between their products. They claim their car is better because it has this and that feature, not how it provides the same basic function of getting you from A to B. Consumer groups keep reminding us we have choice. Do you want a whisky or a beer? We may opt for whisky sometimes and beer at other times, but it stops us asking whether we can have both at the same time, as in a chaser. Or whether a beer tastes even better after a glass of whisky. What we could ask is how can having both together produce an even more pleasant (synergistic) experience than just the simple addition of the two?

We believe that there is too much one-dimensional thinking when it comes to leadership. So our quest is to ask how we can extend orthodox personality models and questionnaires and make them jewels that go far beyond any cultural preference.

Our fundamental concern with the classic profiling tools is that each dimension is based on this dichotomy. Many people using the MBTI naturally conclude, for instance, that the more you identify yourself as sensing, the less you must be of the intuiting type. While this helps individuals to know where they are starting from, we find that accretion to the extremities of each scale is constraining when the results are applied in an international context. 

Although professional psychologists discuss preference with reference to the dominance of our right or left hand, it remains a poor solution. Both could be used, but one is usually dominant. And this model hardly helps you when you’re clapping. During applause it doesn’t really matter which hand is dominant, but success will depend on the coordination between both hands. 

When we begin to incorporate non-Western types of logic, such as Ying-yang or Taoism, we soon realise that we have been restrictive in basing the profiling on bi-modal dimensions. Working with Charles Hampden-Turner, we recognised these limitations of our own cross-cultural frameworks, based around the seven dimensions of culture.

Thus in testing for the preference for individualism or collectivism (communitarianism) we would have originally posed forced choice questions such as:

Which of the following jobs in your organisation would you personally prefer to have?: 

a. A job that is part of a team and the organisation, where everyone works together without bothering about individual credit. 

b. A job that allows everyone to work independently and where credit is given for individual performance without restrictions. 

With a series of such questions, we are trying to place the respondent on a scale with “individualism” at one end and “communitarianism” at the other.

The respondent’s answer provides an insight when the dominant culture in which it is applied prefers to work alone or through teamwork. But what if, in a multi-cultural environment, one finds people with different approaches? The highly individualised leader will agonise over the fact that many subordinates prefer to work with their team. 

Conversely, the group-oriented leader will fail because they do not appear to recognise the efforts of individuals. As a result we have a dilemma between the opposing orientations of both individualism or communitarianism. 

Hampden-Turner’s dilemma theory4 shows how we can reconcile seemingly opposing views. Thus the addition of two alternative options provides a means of evaluating the individual’s tendency to reconcile this dilemma:

c. A job where everyone works together in teams to help the organisation as a whole, but where teams encourage, stimulate, reward and celebrate individual contributions. 

d. A job which allows everyone to work independently for personal recognition, but where credit and acclaim come from the team and organisation.Those who answer “c” are starting from a communitarian orientation but accounting for the individualism of others. They are seeking to reconcile the opposites. This process involves starting from one axis (see graph 1, right) and spiraling to the top right position. 

Similarly, those who answer “d” are starting from individualism but spiraling towards communitarianism and again integrating the two opposite orientations.

Given the importance of reconciling opposites, we are surprised that no instrument that measures this has been published. As explained, we recognised the limitations of our own cross-cultural instruments that positioned people on bi-polar scales of mutually exclusive extremes of seven dimensions, and therefore extended our Intercultural Leadership Assessment profiler. This now assesses “through-through thinking” to account for and evaluate how people reconcile cultural differences.

We now include a series of questions that follow the above pattern. They represent the two extreme opposing values for each cross-cultural dimension, but two choices that reconcile these extremes are added. 

By combining the answers from a series of such questions in this format, we can compute a profile that reveals the degree to which an individual seeks to integrate the extreme dimensions. (See our web site, for details).

The integrated approach enables us to determine the propensity for the individual to reconcile dilemmas. We call this propensity to reconcile dilemmas trans-cultural competence; it transcends the single culture in which it may be measured and thus provides a robust generalisable model for all cultures. In our experience this is a direct measure of leadership. Reconciliation is the essence of leadership. This approach is different because it has a conceptual framework which acknowledges that, while managers work to accomplish this or that objective, effective leaders deal with the dilemmas of seemingly “opposed” objectives which they continually seek to reconcile. 

We have already tested 4,000 international managers and leaders using this approach. We have compared their responses with evidence from workshops, simulations and interviews and it supports our core proposition. We found these behaviours also correlate with bottom line business results and 360-peer feedback.

Published models of leadership tend to lack any coherent underlying rationale or basic proposition that predicts effective leadership behaviours. These various models tend to seek the same end, but differ in approach as they try to encapsulate the existing body of knowledge on what makes an effective leader. Because of the methodology, these are only prescriptive lists, like a series of ingredients to a recipe. You can only guess what the dish is going to be; there is no unifying theme.

This creates considerable confusion for today’s global trans-cultural leaders. Which paradigm should they fit into?

Which meanings should they espouse – their own or those of the foreign culture? Since most of our management theories come from the US and from other English-speaking countries, there is a significant danger of ethnocentrism. 

We do not know, for example, how the lists cited fare outside the US, or how diverse conceptions of leadership may be. Do different cultures necessitate different styles? Can we reasonably expect other cultures to follow a lead from outside those cultures?

Part of the difficulty in researching leadership has been that, without an agreed model of what effective leaders do, it is difficult to assess the value of our observations when we collect information from people. To the interpreting observer, many of the best leadership behaviours are often inexplicable and are not the stuff of science. The observations are difficult to code, classify and regurgitate. Can we know with certainty that it would work for others?

Dilemmas also occur across HR. A common example we encountered is the issue of a bonus scheme for a multi-cultural team. Reconciliation is when the good team is judged on how well it serves the individual and how well individuals contribute to the team. Another we frequently hear is “we are asked to work more in teams to benefit from sharing and collaboration” yet “our career, appraisal and, reward systems are based on our individual performance.”

Having worked on our profiler to try to reflect people’s ability to reconcile dilemmas, we started to ask how we might develop new instruments to begin to explore the propensity to deal with opposite values and orientations more overtly. 

Professional licensed practitioners of MBTI benefit from being able to use MBTI in a way that embraces some of these ideas, and we would emphasise that our discussion in this article is not intended as a criticism of MBTI. We could have presented the same discussion based on DISC, 16PF and virtually any other HR model based on linear scales, although we chose a reference to MBTI because so many readers are familiar with it and use it successfully in their professional work. 

Our concern about applying any linear model across international boundaries might be explained by our own over-developed reconciliation profiles. But we insist that with the combination of opposed orientations the leader of today can flourish in diversity. And no one has ever measured anything like that in us.

To clap with one hand makes little noise. 

The Myers-Briggs response

The MBTI is, for good reason, probably the world’s most popular personality questionnaire. Its many powerful applications include providing bridges between very different cultures. It is rich and complex and too easily used simplistically, which is why OPP insists that purchasers are properly trained in its interpretation.

Well-trained practitioners understand that the indicator does not measure how extroverted or intuitive a person is. 

They learn to avoid stereotyping. They know how to integrate opposite preferences and they all learn never to use the MBTI instrument for job selection. We think Fons Trompenaars’ and Peter Woolliams’ work is complementary to that of Isabel Myers. Both sets of ideas have their roots in Carl Jung’s writings and by making Jung’s ideas accessible, Myers and Briggs created the most multi-dimensional, dynamic and developmental approach to personality measurement that is in use today. 

For more details from OPP, email: MBTI and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator are registered trademarks of CPP, Inc.

Robert McHenry, chairman of OPP Ltd, sole European distributor of the MBTI


  1. Isabel Myers, Gifts Differing, Palo Alto, CA: CPP Inc, 1995.
  2. Carl G Jung, Psychological Types, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971.
  3. Lenore Thomson, Personality Type, An owner’s manual, Shambhala, Boston & London, 1998.
  4. Charles Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars, 21 Leaders for the 21st Century, Capstone, London, 2002.