Personality Tests: “Birkman” for Writers (Part 1)

Note: this is part one.  Read Part two here, and an additional addendum here.

Personality Tests

One of the interesting sidelights of the MBA experience, for me, has been my new exposure (and newfound appreciation for) Personality Tests.  Most of you have heard of the Myers-Briggs test, and the different types.  Most of us even use Myers-Briggs terminology when we describe ourselves: that being whether we are an extrovert or an introvert (though we typically use the terms differently from the way Myers-Briggs means it).  

I don’t know about  you, but I personally have a love-hate relationship with the Myers-Briggs.  I find the concepts intriguing, but the execution and classification to be dense and misleading.  Considering how popular it is, the somewhat misleading nature of the test can be dangerous if employed in the workplace, for instance.  It’s also been my experience that the Myers-Briggs is not, shall we say, as fixed as the creators would have you believe.  I’ve seen my MBTI-type change over time, depending on my mood at the time of the test.  There is just something left to be desired by this overly simplistic classification system.

Introducing the Birkman

So, I was initially skeptical when introduced to the “Birkman Method” in connection with the MBA program I’m in.  It’s just another way for someone to think they know me when they don’t know me, I reasoned.  But, I’ll be honest again, with my Birkman report in hand, I think I’m converted to the potential value of tests like this.  I can even see how this would be useful if deployed within a proper context within the workplace.  I can even see how I can use this tool as a writer.

I took the Birkman almost two years ago, now, when I first started on my MBA.  When I got my report back, I was surprised that it seemed to be about 80% to 90% accurate in describing me.  I don’t remember the details of the questions in the assessment itself, but it might be difficult for your average person to figure out the correlation between the answers to those questions and the results of the assessment.

What differentiates the Birkman, in my opinion, is its focus on observable behavior in a clear manner.  You can go down the list and say “yes I do that” or “no I don’t do that”.  But the conceptual differentiation of the Birkman – the thing that drove it’s development and which makes it a potentially powerful tool – is the realization that people are often complex and contradictory creatures.  In specific, the Birkman posits that the way we need to be treated differs from the way we naturally act, and that there is no “normal” relationship between these two sides of our natures.

If this seems to violate the “Golden Rule”, well, yeah.  We wouldn’t need a Golden Rule if we were naturally inclined to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.  But more than that, this isn’t about moral behavior.  It’s about our personality and how we interact with the world.

My Birkman report is divided  into 8 sections: “Areas of Interest”, “Summary”, “Needs Graph”, “Strengths and Needs”, “Lifestyle Grid”, “Coaching”, “Preferred Work Styles”, and “Career Management”, which is further subdivided into three section: “Organizational Focus & Professional Strengths”, “Job Families and Job Titles”, and “Career Narrative”.

The “Summary” summarizes the data on the “Needs Graph”, the “Areas of Interest”, and the “Lifestyle Grid”.  The “Areas of Interest” section details our interest in certain “types” of activities, such as “Literary”, “Musical”, “Clerical”, “Mechanical”, “Persuasive”, and so on.  No surprise that I score very highly in “Literary”.  The “Coaching”, “Work Styles” and “Career Management” sections tell about how I relate to work and what careers are most likely to match my strengths and preferences by relating to the other parts of the assessment.

But the real meat of this assessment is in the “Needs Graph” (and the accompanying detail in “Strength and Needs”) and the Grid.  The Grid is a 2 x 2 continuum contrasting, on one axis, our preferences, needs and interests for communication (Direct Communication versus Indirect Communication) and, on the other, our orientation towards either People or Tasks.  There are three or four marks on this grid: where our interests lie on this graph, where our normal “usual” behavior lies, and where our needs and possibly our stress behaviors lie.  The grid doesn’t limit you to the four general “types”: everyone exists on a continuum. If you’re near the middle between types, the assessment acknowledges this.

The “Needs Graph” is where the interesting action starts.  This graph is the illustration of the core concept of the Birkman: that the way we act does not directly correlate with the way we need to be treated.  There are 11 characteristics described in the needs graph:

  1. “Esteem” which is how we relate to other people individually, in a one-on-one basis
  2. “Acceptance” which is how we relate to other people collectively, in groups and social organizations
  3. “Structure” which is how we relate to organizing our work and following systems and procedures
  4. “Authority” which is how we relate to authority and control
  5. “Advantage” which is our approach to teamwork, individual competitiveness, and idealism
  6. “Activity” which is our preferences for action versus reflection and planning
  7. “Challenge” which is how we relate to the demands of work and the expectations placed on us and others
  8. “Empathy” which is the degree to which we take the feelings of other people into consideration and whether we focus on objectivity or subjectivity
  9. “Change” which is how we deal with change
  10. “Freedom” which is our outlook on independence and the uniqueness of our identity
  11. “Thought” which parallels Activity and concerns how we deal with ambiguity and reflection in decision making

At first pass, some of these may seem a little dry.  But there’s a surprising amount of depth to eleven characteristics.  What’s powerful is that there are three measures for each of these characteristics: your “Usual” behavior, which is how you normally behave with regard to that characteristic, your “Needs” which is what you need from your environment and from others in order to maintain your “Usual” style”, and your “Stress” behavior, which is how you act when your needs are not met, and is a negative manifestation of the possible behaviors associated with each characteristic.    Each of these three scores is rated on a continuum – from 1 to 99 – so you may be strongly on one side or strongly on the other or somewhere in the middle, and any of these has implications for your character.  Most typically, a person’s “Needs” and “Stress” scores exist on the same point in the continuum, but many people will also have a few opposing characteristics in which their “Stress” reaction is the opposite of their “Needs”.

My “Acceptance” score is an excellent case-in-point.  My usual behavior is a “51” which is solidly in the middle.  This means I’m midway between “Able to work well alone” and “Friendly and easy to know”.  I don’t go out of my way to be social, nor do I go out of my way to be alone.  But my “Needs” score is very high: an “84”, which means I lean strongly toward “needing to feel part of the group” and strongly away from “needing plenty of time alone or in small groups”.  But my “Stress” behavior is an opposite.  Your typical “High Acceptance Needs” person will go to extreme lengths to ingratiate themselves to the group if their needs are not met (called “over-valuing group opinion”).  Instead, I become “impatient with group interaction” and will withdraw emotionally and physically from group interaction.

So, where Myers-Briggs oversimplifies me by pegging me in the “Introvert” category, the Birkman provides a deeper and more enlightening look into how I deal with groups.  The insight I gained from this category alone convinced me that the Birkman has a lot of potential.

Which isn’t to say it’s perfect.  The Birkman suggests, for instance, that I have a strong “Activity” inclination, preferring to “take direct action to get things done” over “reflects before taking action”, but I’m pretty sure I’m highly non-impulsive by nature, preferring to think about and weigh my options before ever taking action.  That’s the biggest miss of the test, for me personally, with a possibly small miss on my Need for “Change” (I think I lean a little more strongly toward needing more “different calls to attention” to avoid “getting distracted to easily” than the test suggests).

With the way the Birkman is strongly designed toward how we interact professionally in the workplace, it’s easy to see how it can be helpful for people in a professional, work context.  But I mentioned that I can see it being useful for writers, and the subtitle of the post is “Birkman for Writers”.  So, how is this useful to writers?

Tomorrow, I’ll answer that question, and go into more detail on the sliding scales of the “Needs Graph”.  For you writers who are “High Structure” like me (I’ll explain what that means, of course) I think you’ll like how I have devised to use this tool.

8 thoughts on “Personality Tests: “Birkman” for Writers (Part 1)

  1. Stephen,
    Thanks for your terrific article! If you are willing and have a few moments, I’d be pleased to speak with you by phone. If you are anywhere near Houston, Texas, we’d prefer to invite you to our offices. I am the daughter of the creator of the Birkman, Roger Birkman, and am CEO of Birkman International, Inc.

    You can feel free to give us a call here at B.I.: 713-623-2760 or let me know how I might be able to contact you. I am here until Friday noon, will be in San Francisco until the middle of next week and back in the office next Thursday and Friday. Thanks again!

  2. Pingback: Personality Tests: “Birkman” for Writers (Part 2) « The Undiscovered Author

    • I had a great conversation yesterday. But it certainly wasn’t the response I was expecting. Mostly, I was just excited to share what I thought was a cool new process for writing – as well as share what I thought would be an interesting look at the Birkman, which I suspect many of you have never seen. If any of you guys out there have day-jobs and have any kind of influence to get your employer to take a look at the Birkman, I imagine you’ll be impressed.

  3. Your comments make this sound interesting. I’ve always been amused, because I’m an E/I… or effectively, I fall right in the middle so I’m not really either. 🙂 This sounds like you can mine for subtleties.

  4. Pingback: Daily Update and a “Birkman” Correction… « The Undiscovered Author

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