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Donkin on Work - Psychometrics

May 2002 - Building the perfect employee

Is it possible to find or indeed build the perfect worker? Even if it were, perfection itself does not always satisfy the human demand for improvement.

Consider the example of Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. Once they had perfected the depiction of the human form, the mannerists, a subsequent group of artists, decided to improve desirable physical features, producing paintings of women with swan-like necks and elongated fingers.

Today we may be on the threshold of achieving a type of industrial mannerism, possessing the tools and processes to select, improve and develop human features that are deemed desirable in the struggle for competitive advantage.

The prospects of a Frankenstein worker are explored in a new book by Francis Fukuyama*, the social thinker who is now a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Prof Fukuyama highlights the way mood-enhancing drugs can change personality. Prozac, for example, can improve self-esteem and Ritalin may aid the ability to concentrate. During the 1990s Ritalin, a drug used to treat attention deficit disorder in children, became one of the fastest-growing drugs used on US university campuses as students found it helped them to study and to pay attention in class.

Prozac, on the other hand, may be seen as a version of "soma", the fictional happy drug used to ensure harmony between the castes in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.
Some of these drugs have side-effects but, according to Prof Fukuyama, knowledge of genomics will enable pharmaceuticals companies to overcome these problems by tailoring drugs to genetic profiles. "Stolid people can become vivacious; introspective ones extraverted; you can adopt one personality on Wednesday and another for the weekend," he writes.

What would be the point of personality testing for specific jobs if you could pick up a ready-made behaviour trait off the shelf? You want a bit of extraversion to give that sales talk? Take the blue pill. You want some emotional stability for the annual meeting? Take the red one.

Even before such drugs are widely available, the dependence on personality testing in recruitment is troubling. Steve Blinkhorn, chairman of Psychometric Research & Development, a British occupational psychology consultancy and a persistent critic of personality tests, pointed out in a recent speech to the Association of Business Psychologists that it was perfectly natural for people to adopt different types of behaviour in certain circumstances. "I'm a fairly quiet person normally but I can sound quite gregarious when making a speech," he says.

This chameleon-like ability for people to adapt their behaviour appropriately in different situations was recognised in the 1960s by Walter Mischel, a social learning theorist.
"There are, Mischel conceded, broad dimensions of temperament, probably with a strong genetic component, which influence the emotional climate of our lives but have little impact, except in extreme cases, on our successes and failures in life," says Mr Blinkhorn.

"Far more important is our capacity to learn roles and adapt appropriately to changing situations, reading the social environment and shaping our behaviour accordingly."

This ability to project a different personality, says Mr Blinkhorn, more nearly fits the Greek derivation of "persona", a word meaning the sort of mask adopted by actors when they assume roles. "Modern practice in applied psychology seems determined to stick to the idea that one personality profile, or mask, fits all occasions," he says.

So if people can present differing personalities at different times, why are personality tests such popular tools in job selection? Mr Blinkhorn, who has argued for many years that personality tests "do not predict job performance to any useful or significant extent", believes that human resources departments have become obsessed with ready-made products.

Mr Blinkhorn says that "instead of building systems based on knowledge, choosing assessment methods that map on to their needs . . . many companies buy into the latest quick fix, glossily presented, slickly sold and cavernously empty of merit and utility."

Too many techniques and processes, he says, are overshadowing the professional interpretative skills of occupational psychologists. "Occupational or business psychology is not a collection of techniques or gobbets of knowledge. It is, or should be, the professional skill of drawing on theories and methods from psychology in general to solve practical problems, enhance the performance and well-being of people at work and dispel bad and injurious practices."

His comments are timely, particularly in the UK after a BBC television programme this month aroused new interest in psychometric testing, when some 95,000 viewers and studio-based teams completed an IQ test. As Mr Blinkhorn points out, such tests have been around since the 1930s. Rather than achieve a snapshot of the nation's intelligence, he says, all it achieved was to measure the intelligence of those with nothing better to do on a Saturday night.

Such events may prove little but they can help to create an inflated enthusiasm for the power of testing. We can even imagine a distant future in which people try to shape their thinking, or that of their children, in the same way that ageing Hollywood film stars choose to shape their looks.

In such a dystopia, drugs might be prescribed routinely to engender studious behaviour in children. Advances in the technology of genetic engineering could ultimately allow pre-modelled embryos, chosen for hair colour, height and the ability to pass exams.

Gregory Stock, director of the programme of medicine, technology and society at the University of California, Los Angeles' School of Medicine, writes in another new book**: "Armed with a greater knowledge about our genome, we might be able to capture for our children a hint of musical talent of a John Lennon, a touch of Einstein's genius, a wisp of the physical prowess of Michael Jordan (the basketball star)."

A gene that helps to enhance memory has been inserted into a mouse by Joe Tsien, a Princeton biologist. This is a long way from discovering a genetic coding for intelligence or for memory, since both qualities rely on the interaction of many different genes.
But as Prof Fukuyama writes, "a piece of the puzzle is now in place and more will come". Today we have boxed the techniques of selection. Some day we may be boxing people. Is this what we want?

*Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, Francis Fukuyama, Profile Books, £17.99 ** Redesigning Humans, Choosing Our Children's Genes, Gregory Stock, Profile Books, £17.99

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©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved