This isn’t the first time that I have written about the risks of untrained individuals using psychometrics, although my focus has previously tended to be on so-called ‘professionals’ using the tools inappropriately or unskilfully. On this occasion, however, the articles that caught my attention have involved a complete misinterpretation of how psychometrics can and should be used – specifically, the huge assumptions that people have taken when they heard the words ‘[he] was appointed to post because he did better than rival candidates in psychometric tests’ (as stated in the recent article in The Guardian “Psychometric tests in job interviews: what are they looking for?”) in reference to the Ex-Co-op Bank chairman Paul Flowers aced psychometric tests.
Thankfully, other practitioners have noticed this inaccurate statement and taken the opportunity to set the record straight. Business Psychologist Mark Parkinson states that psychometrics (or questionnaires):
discover what kind of person you are in ways that you wouldn’t necessarily admit to in an interview, with questions designed to expose how you behave and what motivates you.”
The truth of the matter is that a psychometric test can only provide you with a glimpse of who the person sat in front of you truly is. The results of such questionnaires allow you, as an assessor, to explore behaviours, attitudes and traits that wouldn’t typically emerge in everyday interactions. If you want to be able to get beneath the surface of the person that you have in front of you and want to get past their ‘sales pitch’, it helps if you have an angle which the candidates themselves has eluded to. This is where psychometrics add huge value.
The arguments put forward in the Guardian article by Dr Parkinson (“If someone comes across as sociable, they should be asked to give an example”) and Cary Cooper (“An interview on its own is a very poor predictor of ultimate success”) are sound in themselves, although I still feel the point is being lost. Even with an Assessment Centre and with worked examples, the only true way to determine a person’s effectiveness and fit is to see them in action rather than offering them different ways to tell you a story about what they did. Most people do not attend Assessment Centres for the opportunity to present their unsuitability, and self-reporting will always carry the possibility of a candidate maximising their appeal: the reward of a position is an inseparable part of the assessment process, after all.
The most effective approach lies in observing behaviours in candidates when they are put under pressure that corroborate indicators that you have previously identified by intelligent use of a psychometric instrument. Subsequently exploring what they did, why they did it and what they could have done differently will tell you a lot about the person you are assessing.
Dr Parkinson was also consulted by The Financial Times in its own coverage, and used the opportunity to make another good point:
They are one of a number of tests recruiters use and one would expect due diligence on [a potential employee’s] career to date would have occurred before it got to that stage,” he said.
Psychometric tests, commonly derided as “ink blot” tests, typically include multiple questions. When used correctly, Dr Parkinson said, they can prove an effective way of assessing an employee’s personality and suitability for a job or particular organisation. “It is unlikely to be used in isolation,” he said, adding that tests would also rarely outweigh other factors such as financial knowledge.”
Time and events have already passed judgement as to whether the appointment of Paul Flowers was a good decision, but – for the sake of the credibility of not just the Co-op Bank but of executive assessment – let us all hope that, in truth, the decision to appoint him was not made purely on the back of a psychometric test.
Subsequent events at the Co-op Group, including the resignation of Chief Executive Euan Sutherland, suggest that a possibly over-optimistic and arguably misguided approach to using psychometric instruments in its selection and appointments procedures may have been only the tip of a now apparently fracturing iceberg. Recent coverage in The Guardian suggests a cultural battle within the organisation – the type of situation in which selection and appointment procedures become possibly ever more crucial to manage thoroughly and effectively. As well as credentials in finance and banking, selection criteria in such a situation – one would hope – would include emotional intelligence, sensitivity to cultural conflict, negotiation skills and an ability to manage organisational and inter-personal turbulence. Psychometric tools can – used appropriately – help to answer questions that explore a candidate’s capabilities in these and many other areas, but a willingness to identify the right questions needs to precede the process of unearthing the answers.