Ever have the unnerving experience of pitching what you thought was a great idea, or at least a defensible one—only to have it dismissed out of hand, with barely even a fair hearing? Of all the possible reasons why, here’s one you may not have thought of: your audience’s personality type.
Most employees of big companies have at least a passing acquaintance with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which assigns a four-letter “type” to individuals according to how they answer 93 test questions. “It’s usually a tool for figuring out an individual’s strengths and blind spots, and for assigning people to teams,” notes Catherine Rains, a longtime trainer and coach at CPP, which owns and administers the MBTI.
A less obvious use: The middle two letters of anyone’s type suggest how a person takes in information and makes decisions—for example, how he or she listens to your pitch for more money or a window office, and whether or not your argument will come across as persuasive enough to get a “yes.” Making use of the MBTI to get what you want “isn’t about manipulating anyone,” Rains says. “It’s a matter of figuring out how to ‘speak their language,’ so they’ll hear you.”
It’s unlikely you’re privy to the results of your boss’s last MBTI test, assuming he or she has ever taken it, but Rains says figuring out those middle two letters isn’t hard. The first letter is either an S (sensing) or an I (intuition). “People who gravitate toward facts, figures, and specifics are most likely ‘sensing’ types. They’re most comfortable trusting only hard data,” says Rains. “An intuitive, or I, type is more interested in a vision for the future, imagining, and brainstorming.”
Paying attention in a few meetings is usually enough to tell you whether the person in charge is one type or the other. “An S-type boss is more interested in verifiable facts about the past and present, while an I-type is happier talking about the big picture and the future,” Rains says.
The second central letter is either a T (thinking) or an F (feeling). T-types tend to focus on logical, objective decision-making, while F’s “base decisions primarily on how they affect people, and how they fit with the organization’s overall values and long-term vision,” says Rains. One way to tell T’s from F’s is that F’s tend to know more about employees’ lives outside of work and to see business as built on relationships. “An F will ask about your kids or your dog, and know their names,” Rains notes. “A T-type, not so much.”
She adds that “most of us have, and rely on, all of these characteristics in our jobs. But for each of us, one or the other way of taking in and weighing information feels more natural and takes less energy.”
To win a negotiation, tailor your pitch to your boss’s type, not your own. “Remember that, whatever your own personality type, this is all about what your boss finds it easiest to hear.”
Let’s say you’re an intuitive, feeling type (NF), but you report to someone who, in meetings, usually wants to talk first and foremost about hard data (ST). The best part of an idea you have for a new project, in your view, is its long-term potential for the company, and the new opportunities it will create for you and your colleagues. Fine, but bury that in the footnotes. “Your presentation should be mostly a line-by-line analysis of costs and revenues, including the impact on the bottom line in the near term,” says Rains.
The reverse works, too. “A NF boss who makes decisions based first on gut instinct, and on how employees will be affected, is likely to tune you out pretty fast if you bombard him or her with a lot of facts and figures to support what you’re saying,” Rains notes. Instead, get to the big picture first and explain how your idea will benefit other people in the company, then tack on the relevant numbers “almost as an afterthought.”
The Myers-Briggs approach to personality types, incidentally, helps explain why navigating the corporate world can be so tricky. Since the MBTI was first developed decades ago, by far the most four-letter type among the millions of people tested has been ISFJ, which stands for Introverted, Sensing, Feeling, and Judging.
“Western culture, including business, functions as ESTJ—Extroverted, Sensing, Thinking, and Judging—which is much more practical and results-oriented,” Rains observes. “Many people have been so socialized to behave like ESTJs that they don’t discover they’re really introverted F-types until they’re in their 40s.”