Preference Fetishes – when preference data becomes more important than what’s actually going on

Tom GibbonsOrganization DevelopmentLeave a Comment

Not long ago I was in a room filled with people who work a lot with personality preference data, as well as our own TMS work preference data.  I happened to overhear a snippet of a conversation between two people that seemed to be trying to figure out a problem someone had and that they were working with.  It went something like this…  ‘I think she’s probably extroverting her 4th function and it’s getting her into problems.’  ‘Yes, that would likely be a more childlike expression of this function and could be confusing.’  It could even be activating her shadow which might actually drive her dominant function inside so she’s not expressing her real strength.’ 

Most of us preference geeks have participated in these types of conversations but in that fleeting moment it struck me that this conversation was well on the road to reducing the person they were talking about, and her problem to an analytical exercise forced through a preference model that simply HAD to fit.  And that’s only the simple part of the challenge.

There are 2 key points to the challenge of a conversation that is on the pathway the one described above is on:

  1. The model used to understand the problem is more significant than the problem itself;
  2. There is a perception that the problem resides as a discreet ‘thing’ inside the individual.

The first point is very, very common and can be highly problematic.  What happens is that the model that is being used has become more of an ideology than a model.  As an ideology, the model has now become a dominant way of seeing and understanding the world.  The problem here is that no single model ever captures an ideology, so when a model becomes an ideology, your world view is extremely constrained and every problem has to be understood through this tiny window.  The model then develops a complexity that it was never meant to have and its use can actually be detrimental or confusing because of this.  It no longer helps the situation, it makes it more complicated.

The second point is much more subtle but in many ways, causes the first point to happen.  This second point is also a manifestation of a dominant ideology in the West, that of the supremacy of the individual or perhaps better stated, the ‘cult of individualism’.  Because we see the world as a collection of discreet, separate individuals, if one of those individuals has a problem (particularly an interpersonal problem) you must be able to find it inside them somewhere.  It cannot ‘be’ anywhere else.  The problem may be causing difficulties with other people but the search for the root problem almost always resides inside the individual.

Together these 2 points can produce a dynamic that helps create the type of conversation noted above.

  • You sincerely want to help someone solve their problem;
  • You have to ‘find’ the problem in order to help;
  • You have a model that helps you find problems like this (plus mirrors your worldview) and away you go.

The person can easily become simply a hiding place for the thing you have called the problem and you must find it using your model or you can no longer help the person.  The focus subtly shifts to the model and the problem and away from the person and what is actually happening with them.

This cult of individualism produces ‘things’.  People, problems, bosses, leaders, organizations; heck just about everyTHING.  It also pushes ‘process’ out of the way.  The conversation above would be quite different if the person and the problem were seen as a process rather than a thing and that the person, and the problem, were emerging through their interactions.  You would probably still use your preference model but it would not be the answer.  It would provide additional data for inclusion in conversations about the emerging process.

Most authors will say that they have a good idea of what the characters in their stories will be like as they begin to write the story.  Then the characters take on a life of their own, they emerge as the story is told and as new experiences happen.  The characters may even be quite different from the author’s initial idea of what they thought they would be.  This is how we think preference data should be used and how we hope our own work preference data is used.  It is a piece of information, an idea that can be part of the conversations that help in the sense making of our working lives.  It should take on a life of its own as you use it to inform the interactions and conversations that are part of the process of continually becoming.  That life of its own may reshape the model and that is just fine.

So while we may be work preference geeks and can get caught up in the fun of those conversations where work preference is everything, we don’t really have a preference fetish.  We have more of a process fetish.

Author – Tom

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