The following is adapted from Linda V. Berens and Dario Nardi, The 16 Personality Types: Descriptions for Self-Discovery (Telos Publications, 1999) *Used with permission.
Personality can be described in many ways. The most common approaches include observing and measuring traits like cheerfulness, anxiety, and outgoingness. Sometimes the traits are extremely relevant to a particular job performance, so there is value to this approach. However, even when there is an attempt to see a pattern to the traits, the result is usually a fragmented picture that gives little useful information.
Other times personality is described by looking at separate dynamic processes, such as how we gather information and make decisions. This is not purely a trait approach because no attempt is made to measure the degree of the trait, but the processes are often treated as separate parts that somehow combine with each other. Processes, however, have meaning only in reference to the whole context, so descriptions based only on this approach are often missing essential qualities.
Living systems are not concretely visible. Only in the last forty years have behavioral scientists really been learning to "see" systems, especially human systems.
Systems have "rules" that govern their behavior. The pattern of organization is not imposed from outside but "comes with" the system at the moment of creation. The system is organized around a deep operating principle.
Systems are "driven" to operate in certain ways. If we try to force a system to behave in ways inconsistent with its nature, we spend energy and encounter resistance. If we can understand the inherent operating principles and work with them, we can save energy. Personality descriptions using a systems approach try to portray the system as a whole.
One systems approach to describing personality is to have people describe themselves. Unfortunately, people are influenced by the models they already have, as well as their self-esteem, traumas, stress and cultures, so they may describe themselves in a somewhat limited way. However, people and the inborn patterns existed before any theoretical models, so the expressions of self-esteem, traumas, stress, and culture will themselves be influenced by the push of that inborn pattern.
Since each type pattern is reflected in language, such an approach can use the language of the type, its syntax, vocabulary, rhythm, and so on. Descriptions developed this way can be very helpful in self-discovery, even if they do not comprehensively describe the theory.
A second way of describing personality using a systems approach is to describe personality in terms of the themes of each type pattern and how they are organized. This approach portrays aspects not available any other way.
It reveals the pattern of the various dynamics at play. Sometimes it is hard to sort out what is the essence of the theme and what is culture or the result of growth and development. Yet the pattern of themes is constant under varying conditions.