Modern forms of divination

Anthropology teaches you to respect the knowledge that emerges out of other cultures. Reading Evans-Pritchard on the Azande of Southern Sudan as a student blew my mind. He describes how logical their way of divining who is a witch is, if you understand it, even if you don’t agree with it. Beliefs that I had dismissed as primitive were revealed as moral, intelligent and rational in their own terms. You can understand only if you look carefully at how it works in practice.

I’m struggling to do the same to modern forms of divination used in management. Take the two examples of risk and talent management, relatively new business discourses promoted by auditors and human resources consultants respectively. Both demand predictions about the future, one mostly financial and the other focused on the talent of staff. The processes for making these predictions are becoming more specialist, expensive, elaborate and demanding and only intelligible if you study them in great detail. At first glance they seem as irrational as Azande witchcraft but, trained to respect other cultures, I’m trying to appreciate the sense in the underlying beliefs if at all possible.

I’ll have a go at understanding one aspect of talent management. To help people understand and develop their skills, the personality test Myers Briggs Type Indicator has become hugely popular. Devised in the 1930/40s, it is loosely based on the ideas of Carl Jung. By filling out a questionnaire you ascertain your personality ‘type’ on four continua: extrovert vs introvert; sensing vs intuition; thinking vs feeling; judging vs perceiving. Everyone has some of all eight types but you can discover your ‘preference’ by answering a long list of questions. I went through this process recently at a workshop designed to improve our skills at advocacy. One participant expressed doubts about whether it was useful to spend time thinking about ourselves as individuals when our main challenge was a collective one of navigating power inequalities. This was not relevant to Myers Briggs so the facilitator designated as an extra small group session on another day to deal with power. I asked about the assumption that these preferences are ‘in-born’. Yes, they are in-born even if your natural ‘type’ is beaten out of you by socialisation and culture. Whoops, so that’s all my anthropology training (not to mention my slight knowledge of child development) out of the window.

Once we picked our types we did some exercises to validate them and understand more about ourselves. The first was to work in teams to draw a poster of our perfect holiday. Our group played up to our extrovert label with gusto, drawing a café on a beach with a huge crowd of people laughing, dancing and talking. (I felt a bit guilty that the day before I’d be asked to discuss my perfect weekend with a colleague and I’d said playing board games quietly at home with my daughters. I was feeling more introverted at the start of the workshop surrounded by strangers so perhaps my ‘natural’ type was being suppressed?) In the next exercise I faced a crisis. The ‘feelers’ and ‘thinkers’ got together into separate groups, pretended to be on boats, and had to decide which three people to  throw overboard into the jaws of sharks. The thinkers in one group developed criteria while the feelers in the other group tried to evade the choice as it was too painful. I did both. Apparently I needed to study the methodology a bit more to be clearer about whether I’m a thinker or feeler. To add to the confusion we were told that during stressful situations you revert to the opposite of your type. Just as oracles of divination can’t fail – if that person turns out not to be a witch, then the oracle wasn’t done properly – so too Myers Briggs can be invalidated. If you act out of ‘type’, then you are suffering stress or the effects of culture.

I conclude that Myers Briggs is perfectly rational within its own terms. However, just like identifying your neighbours as witches, I’m seriously uncomfortable with the terms. They entice people to create stereotypes and underplay both individuality and the importance of working out group dynamics. If figuring out good advocacy strategies, give me the discussion of power any day.