Myers-Briggs In The Nonprofit Workplace: How To Lead With J's And P's

When they discover Myers-Briggs personality types, many people are transfixed by the dichotomy between “extraverts” and “introverts.” This may be because this is the easiest and most in-you-face concept.

That was my own experience, when I first learned that I am an ENTP personality type.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator has four factors, each of which has two possible values. Knowing these values can allow us to understand what our biases and inclinations are when it comes to our personaties, as well as those of others. This is useful in the workplace (and, in fact, in any situation where it’s all about how people get along: families, civic efforts, etc.).

Equal Opportunity Employment by Flickr user pasukaru76
"Equal Opportunity Employment" by Flickr user pasukaru76

It’s especially useful to know (or be able to identify through observation) others’ types, because that can help you get along with them better and — as a leader — can help you create balanced teams that are the most effective. It helps to have lots of different types around.

Here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Extravert / Introvert — Where you get your energy
  • INtuitive / Sensing — How you take in information about your world
  • Feeling / Thinking — How you like to make decisions
  • Judging / Perceiving — How you organize your world

One’s Myers-Briggs type is not destiny. It is more a description of what your “default” or preferred way of handling things is.

Each of the factors is important in its own right. But, in the workplace, I have found the last letter-pair in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to be particularly  important. This is P vs. J — “Perceiving” vs. “Judging.”

Peceivers And Judgers

Many people misunderstand this factor, because of the pejorative sense the word “judging” conveys — they hear “judgmental,” which people see as negative. But it has nothing to do with that. This factor describes how a person organizes their world.

A P is always scanning for new information and prefers to defer making decisions until absolutely necessary. A J, on the other hand, is always on the lookout for decisions already made, and prefers to make a decision and move on whenever possible. For a P, decisions are contingent and new ideas can reopen decisions that had already been made. To a J, decisions are only reopened in extreme circumstances.

In the workplace, J‘s tend to get on P‘s nerves, who see them as overly uptight. Meanwhile, P‘s tend to absolutely infuriate J‘s, whe often regard them as unstable and mercurial.

Seth Godin’s recent article on hunters and farmers can be seen as a description of P‘s (hunters) and J‘s (farmers).

Tips For P Leaders

Lots of nonprofit leaders, in my experience, are P‘s. I’m one myself. Over the years I have learned a few pointers in getting along and thriving.

Advice for leaders who are P‘s:

  1. Remember what others are hearing. Remember the J‘s around you are looking for and actively cataloging commitments made. So, when you muse about things, talk through alternatives, and suggest you might be rethinking this or that initiative — others may be hearing definite plans. This can cause anxiety and misunderstandings.
  2. Find a safe sounding board. As a P, you need to find someone to bounce ideas off of. It might be safest to look for someone outside your organization to talk to.
  3. Play to people’s strengths. J‘s are incredibly good at identifying the commitments people make — who promised to do what by when. They are the best people to have taking notes at a staff meeting, they are in their element driving complex projects with intricate deadlines, and in ensuring that policies are adhered to. Do you need solid and consistent performance, day-in, day-out? Get a J on the job.
  4. Be clear when you’re just talking. Make sure you let people know that sometimes you are raising ideas without any decisions attached — and that you will definitively say when you do make a decision. It is important for others around you (especially J‘s) to be able to know what is stable and what is fluid.
  5. Careful you don’t get distracted! If you work with many other P‘s, it’s easy to get sidetracked. P‘s are distracted by shiny objects and, get a few of them together in one room, it’ll be one new initiative after another! That’s great, but . . . older initiatives may tend to fall by the wayside. As a leader, make sure there are enough J‘s around to keep things on track.

That last point, about getting sidetracked, cannot be overemphasized.

The Distracted Organization

In my experience and observation, it is very easy for an entire organization to take on P characteristics if there are too many P‘s in senior leadership without any J balance. And, for whatever the reason (we can speculate all we want) it seems like there are a lot of P people throughout the nonprofit sector.

Furthermore, people often (not always) tend to gravitate to folks like them. So, a leader can end up surrounding themselves with people they like, but who do not necessarily complement or balance their skill sets.

So, many organizations can themselves become mercurial, easily distracted by shiny objects and new ideas. I can remember returning from a meeting with one organization. The meeting lasted three hours and we never even touched the agenda. “That is a totally P organization,” I told my colleagues. (I even wrote a memo about it for others, for their use in working with the organization.)

Knowing this, knowing the potential for distractedness (the downside of the P factor), it is important to work against that and actively seek out people who are different from you. This is of course true in an inclusionary sense (gender, ethnicity, orientation, background, and so forth) but it is also true in a personality type sense.

What Are P‘s Good For?

Are P‘s a terrible thing? Distracted, mercurial, flighty . . . they sound like a nightmare in the workplace!

Speaking as a P, certainly not. P‘s can drive a lot of energy, creativity, and out-of-the-box breakthroughs (these are not solely the province of P‘s, don’t get me wrong).

If you need a stalled project accelerated, put a P on the job. If you have a high-energy and time-limited task (like prepping for an important meeting or event), a P can really shine. Because of their omnivorous approach to things, a P can be great in a generalist troubleshooter position and (balanced with a good J as a partner) can be a great manager.

In a future post, I may outline my thoughts about some of the other Myers-Briggs factors and how they relate to leadership. Please note, though, that this is just based on my experience and I am not an expert on personality types. I’ve just thought a lot about them and try to use them in my day-to-day life.

What’s your type? How has that impacted how you get your work done?

Published by

Brad Rourke

Executive editor of issue guides and program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

3 thoughts on “Myers-Briggs In The Nonprofit Workplace: How To Lead With J's And P's”

  1. Brad, thanks for this post! I had the good fortune to participate in leadership training program at my job a couple of years ago, but your “J versus P” distinction is a new one to me. By the way, I took an MBTI test as part of that program, and the result was ISTJ, with the I and T pretty definitive, but the S and J more borderline.

  2. Josh and Rich — thanks!

    Josh — for me, my P is definitely NOT borderline! But my E and my T are.

    And, Rich, that’s a very kind note. I learned so much of this from you so it means a great deal to me.

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