Learning Styles, MBTI, NLP and asbestos

The other week I wrote about morals and ethics of L&D models and interventions we choose to use. It’s an interesting one because many practitioners are wedded to their preferred models, theories, etc. 

In truth, I can be too. I find it increasingly hard to justify using MBTI as a tool because it doesn’t seem to have good reliability as a tool – that is, if you were retested on the tool there’s no guarantee it wouldn’t give you different results. That’s just not helpful. 

Decades ago, asbestos was used as a building material for its resilience and fire proof qualities. It was such a good material for use in buildings that everyone used it. No-one doubted that it shouldn’t be used.

Until people started falling unexplicably ill. So ill in fact it caused life long health problems with breathing, and in many cases, death.


For literally, decades, no one knew such a robust and resilient building material was so dangerous to human life. So they banned it as a material and we’re still having to deal with the fallout of its use in buildings across the world. 

What we thought was good and useful insight was deeply flawed. We wouldn’t, in good conscience, ever use asbestos when constructing a building ever again.

Learning Styles, NLP and MBTI are the L&D equivalent of asbestos.

They are all deeply flawed theories and models. Regardless that practitioners may respond that their clients report healthy insights and useful outcomes, these are still flawed. Insight from a flawed basis isn’t what we should be trying to defend.

I’ve personally moved away from these models and theories because I have no faith in their construction as tools, their validity for personal development, or their relevance in learning solutions. I will actively choose to not include these when designing learning solutions.

Which is why in recent years I’ve invested a huge amount of time and energy into learning about other models and theories where I can be confident that they have a solid research base. Approaches like emotional intelligence, positive psychology, cognitive psychology,  neuroscience, behavioural economics, adult learning theories, all provide much more relevant ways to design learning solutions.

It’s a tough one. And it’s hard to argue a right and wrong. Am I right in my assertions? For some people I will be. Am I challenging many practitioners in what they do and how they do it? Yes, that’s what I’m doing. Am I wrong? Quite possibly, and I’m really hoping to have a good and healthy debate about this.


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

5 thoughts on “Learning Styles, MBTI, NLP and asbestos”

  1. I think you are right, especially with your areas of emphasis. I do still work with learning styles as it is so embedded that many have heard of it. I do explain the health warning though – I never subscribed to any assertion that we can put all people of certain preferences in the same group – as we all learn in so many ways. My key message is that variety stimulates and ideally we will be able to learn in many ways.

  2. This is an interesting to me because I believe that it is more about the misuse of the MBTI (and other personality style products) than whether or not they have the validity claimed that seems to create a reaction of people feeling the need to be decide they either are or are not useful.

    My experience suggests that they can be when combined with other resources, emotional intelligence being one. The challenge I have found is that there is so much misinformation and hype about the products that it is incumbent on the practitioner to provide realistic coaching on what it can and can not do.

    It is helpful to remember that these products are always evolving as more information becomes available and being open too understanding this can help avoid getting too attached to one way of using them. Another point that can be lost in the quest to better understand others is that our diverse experiences throughout life will affect how we behave both at work and in our personal lives.

  3. I don’t know much about learning styles; did a ten minute exercise once which seemed to be useful to people. I am not a fan of NLP – from personal experience it seems it is “done” to people without their knowledge (elements of hypnotism?). And I could say that one experience was upsetting, unboundaried.

    I do know about MBTI – I did go on the qualifying course and whilst I’m not using it much now, the majority of people I have introduced to it seemed to find some value in it, a few not at all – some felt they understood themselves for the first time. I don’t think it’s done any harm….

    I have read a range of articles as the momentum to discredit MBTI has gathered. There seems to be so much strong feeling directed towards it and I’m fascinated by that.

    I think theories of leadership/personality etc can act as a bridge and I think they can get in the way; as Karin says, it’s how it’s done.

  4. Some interesting comments. However, there is a risk here that the baby is being thrown out with the bathwater. There are limitation to all models, including those cited by the author as being replacements for earlier ones like MBTI, NLP, etc.. The key is to identify the limitations and work around them. As an example, the key limitations with MBTI are that people get different results when filling out the instrument on themselves. This is a bias issue that often appears to reflect environmental differentiation, which was a problem identified from the outset by Katherine Briggs & Isabel Briggs Myers. The key to using this type of framework is to understand the limitations, and then identify a useful approach that makes best use of the strengths, while avoiding the limitations. This is quite feasible, as I proved as a part of a Master’s Thesis (where I developed and rigorously tested a system that finds the MBTI of others and then uses the information to optimise communication).
    Similarly, there are numerous problems with learning styles and NLP. However, in my experience many of the problems accredited to these frameworks are caused by their misuse and misapplication. For example, people seem to think that VAK and VARK learning style models infer singular modalities. However, anyone who has read Barbe, et al. (1979, 1981) or Fleming (2014) know that the intent was not to see them as mutually exclusive, but to apply them within a multi-modal framework. Consequently, it is the application and not the model that is at fault.
    In the same way, there is now so much misinformation floating around related to NLP (that is not based on any research) that the entire body of material is often discredited. However, there are some aspects of NLP that can be of use.
    Consequently, I see where the comments are coming from, and I understand the premise. However, I counsel caution, as I suspect that the author may be missing the key point. Use any and all frameworks sensibly, and work around any shortfalls where possible. Just throwing them away, and treating them like asbestos is unlikely to be the best solution

  5. Thanks Sukh, any tool is useless unless the conversations happen after diagnosis. The problem is that some L&D teams often rely on the tools and consider the answers ‘true’. Too much time is often spent on explanation of the model rather than talking about the impact, the ‘so what’.

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