Sunday, February 06, 2005

Jung at Heart: Curt Schilling & Smashing QuesTecs  

Organizations' application of pop-psychology systems and tests is proportional to their expected margin. In phat times like the 90s, people partied with them, but in lean times like these, you see them in the field less frequently than that old TV commercial with George Steinbrenner plugging Prozac.

A lot of those pop-psych systems sold to big organizations aren't actionable in the field; their introduction in the workplace is the consequence of someone with budget authority falling in love with it for the insights he learned from it wanting to spread the joy. I'm not suggesting there's not useful information to harvest from these systems, just that their lessons generally are less applicable to organizational development than they are to individual development. I call these glancing discoveries a "Yreka", a disappointing minor league example of the Archimedean "Eureka" discoveries that have serious torque.

So I was pleased this morning to discover someone is using my personal favorite Eureka pop-psych test on baseball players as a way to help them compete more effectively. I'm disappointed that, in what appears to be a marketing gimmick, they are way over-reaching the general value of the test's strengths and making it sound like a panacea, a potentially dangerous implementation of the method. I'll re-hash the essence of this morning's news, summarize the method's strengths and its limits, and tell you its applications.

You may recognize the interviewees model as the Myers-Briggs personality model, morphed out of the work of Carl Jung. If the language puts you off a bit, be patient, there's some real, practical value in the system, at least as generally used, and you don't have to be fully Jung At Heart to apply it.

Thanks to Baseball Primer, I got to read the Boston Globe's Shira Springer article about the pretentious-sounding Brain Type Institute's analysis of personality types (they call them Brain Types) of some star pitchers.

Brain typer Jon Niednagel has never sat, radar gun in hand, and watched Randy Johnson pitch. But from what he has observed a short distance from the mound and heard in postgame interviews, Niednagel identified the new Yankees pitcher as the rare INTJ brain type -- a left-brained, dominant intuitive. Niednagel feels confident drawing certain conclusions about Johnson's strengths and weaknesses. "You want to get to Randy Johnson earlier because as a left-brainer he comes out a little bit more mechanical, a little bit more nervous and uptight," said Niednagel. "The longer he throws, he'll often get better because he'll relax, whereas Pedro [Martinez] and even [Curt] Schilling, high-energy right brains, can come out pretty strong. Randy Johnson will start off slower.

"If I managed against him, I would make him go deep in the count. You get him frustrated. An INTJ will melt down faster than other types. And as a dominant intuitive, unpleasant reality shakes them up a little bit."

Excluding the brain-typing terms, none of this should come as news to Yankee manager Joe Torre or Red Sox manager Terry Francona. With established All-Stars such as Johnson, Martinez, and Schilling, Niednagel explains why the best in the game behave and pitch the way they do, why Johnson confronts a cameraman, why Martinez calls the Yankees "my daddy," why Schilling competes with a dislocated ankle tendon. {SNIP}

The Brain Type Institute, if their site is any indication, has taken the Myers-Briggs temperament sorter as a foundation and has built on top of it a cornucopia of tools and techniques they've snipped from elsewhere, then blended it all into a proprietary amalgam. It seems from their testimonials that they already do a lot of work with individual athletes and teams, so if Niednagel is a decent practitioner, his insights quoted are likely somewhat- or very valid. But when I look at that site and look at the range of "hot topics" unrelated to temperament sorting, my "marketing over-hype alert" goes off. Here's a snippet that makes me wary:

BTI began genetically researching the various Brain Types in the mid-1990’s. Neurotransmitter DNA analysis was done at a prominent American university. Though neurotransmitter evaluation is still ongoing, BTI has also ventured into other genetic fields, searching for additional clues. One such area is Proteomics, where our ultimate goal is to identify the various inborn Brain Types strictly by urine analysis.

I'm not saying this is hype. It's that the wording in this marketing face and the conflation of so many trendy scientific areas in one paragraph smells like the pitch of a cold-call stockbroker looking to puff up pre-IPO interest. The bad grammar ("genetically researching") may also color my opinion based on my personal prejudice. I'm agnostic about them, though. I'm always interested in people that dedicate time and effort into new systems of understanding that have practical applications.

The Myers-Briggs sorter, especially in the practically-oriented incarnation smacked out into the field by David Keirsey & Marilyn Bates in their pop-psych book Please Understand Me is an extra-base hit for managers (and non-managers, too). It's a simplified version of the Jungian system, with four binary scales that result in sixteen permutations (with the results stated, like in the Neidnagel quotes, as four-letter codes like the INTJ he cites for Randy Johnson).

This method was very popular in workplaces during most of the Nineties. You may already know all this and your own type. If not, here's a site when you can fill out the sorter for free (registration req'd.) & get the results with some short analysis. Let me state firmly before you go, that you may be one of the significant minority of people who are a different type in the workplace than you are at home. Myers-Briggs enthusiasts won't usually tell you that, so if you're going to take the self-test, decide upfront which "you" you're going to answer as.

Once you've got some background in the method and understand the scales and the way they affect temperament, you can interact with a person in a public setting for as little as five to fifteen minutes and judge if they have a strong tendency towards one of the types. (NOTE: People generally exhibit different types through their life as they change; and as I already mentioned, many, not most, people have a different type at home in private than they do in a public, workplace, setting.).

This sense of probable type isn't an Echelon into someone's psyche that will permit you to know their innermost thoughts or manipulate them. It's a glance into the kinds of things that probably inspire them, probably motivate them. It's a hook to a strong possibility of better communication. That's why it's useful to a manager to work with the system long enough to harvest the ability to judge probable workplace type.

What kind of information can you get out of a quick, simple profile once you've interacted enough to get a probable type? As Neidnagel says about Pedro Martínez later in the Springer piece:

"Rather than being big-picture strategic, Pedro is one of those STs that's the best tactician," said Niednagel. "In the spur of the moment, they're really, really good. Pedro's type is great at seeing a guy in the batter's box and noticing every little thing. I'll bet if you went and talked to his manager, he would say Pedro is uncanny at noticing little quirks about opposing hitters.

This is actionable information for a pitching coach or a fellow-player looking to expand his knowledge by asking for help. It also provides a manager looking to provide coaching. For example, Neidnagel says in the article that Schilling is of the ENTP type. Here's a quote from the book Please Understand Me about Schilling's type. The says there's:

...a reclacitrance on the part of the NT -- even from an early age -- to accept without question in the domain of ideas even a widely acepted authority. The fact that a certain person proclaims soemthing, whatever his or her title, reputation or credentials, leaves the NT indifferent. The pronouncement must stand on its own merits, tried in the court of coherence, verification and pragmatics. {SNIP}This recalcitrance to established authorities tends to make an NT...seem unusally individualist and even arrogant.

Wow...that's Curt Schilling to a T: Critical of the owners, critical of the union, and critical enough of the QuesTec Umpire Evaluation System technology to pull a Mike Tyson and demolish the Phoenix ballpark's installation to make known his personal opinion.

In general, I'm very enthused about the high value of knowing enough about the Keirsey-Bates model to apply it at work. I don't think that alone it's the One Big Thing that will make you successful at people management. But if you apply it in its areas of highest value, tweaking work assignments to play to individual strengths, cobbling together ad-hoc teams with complementary types, and most of all in refining communication with the people who report to you, it's a big winner. These three applications are all important requirements for success at Second Base in the MBB Model.

But I'll reassert here: It's a tool, not a personal Echelon, everything you need to know about someone. People are not types -- they are, at any given moment, somewhat like, or very much like, the description of a type, and different individuals embrace a specific type more or less tightly over time than others do.

So when Sean Casey's testimonial for the Brain Type Institute tells me ""When I talked to Jon Niednagel, I felt like he had been living in my head for 27 years," I want to ask him, "Dude, have you been paying rent?"

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