2003 - Selecting for type
Walking to work, I used to pass
a motto set in stone above the door of Kirkaldy's
Testing and Experimenting Works that said: "Facts
not Opinions". David Kirkaldy, the scientifically
minded Scot who established the works in 1866,
was sure about that.
Kirkaldy pioneered the standardised
testing of materials used in big civil engineering
projects. Steel used in the Sydney Harbour bridge
was tested at the works. The workshop closed down
in 1974 and has since been turned into a museum.
If Kirkaldy were alive today,
I wonder if he would be so certain about his conclusion.
The world these days seems to run on the strength
of opinions. Maybe this explains why the testing
of personality, as much as ability, is becoming
so popular in selection. It is not enough any
more simply to know things. Today we are expected
to demonstrate a whole range of personality traits,
such as interpersonal skills, creative thinking
and persuasiveness, that can be matched to various
As faith in educational certificates
has been undermined by the achievement of ever
more successful results, there has been renewed
interest among recruiters in various forms of
psychometric tests. Headhunters have come relatively
late to the field - psychometric testing has been
around for nearly 90 years - but as the recruitment
business seeks to broaden its offering, the introduction
of testing is becoming increasingly commonplace.
Headhunters have traditionally
not been impressed by the idea of testing. Theirs
is a relationship business. They tend to talk
about chemistry and "fit" and like to
judge job candidates by their record. But the
bigger organisations have been changing their
tune, recognising that psychometrics might give
them a competitive edge.
This is good news for test designers
because the headhunters, with their extensive
databases have a wealth of material for undertaking
comparative studies. Just such an arrangement
between Korn Ferry International and Decision
Dynamics, a test design business run by Michael
Driver and Ken Brousseau, two test developers
based in southern California, has led to the creation
of a Korn Ferry assessment tool that claims to
match a candidate's management qualities with
particular job requirements. Last week I gave
it my own test.
This is not the first time I
have undertaken a psychometric test. A few years
ago I discovered I was an INTP (a reserved type
who likes to theorise about things) when undertaking
the Myers Briggs Type Indicator personality questionnaire.
In the test shorthand, the I stands for introversion,
N for intuition, T for thinking and P for perceiving.
Another test, the 16 Personality Factor questionnaire,
came up with similar findings It also revealed
a strong leaning towards non-conformity.
Korn Ferry found what they decided
was an entrepreneurial and inquisitive streak.
Given my career background, it had matched the
results against two possible occupations, that
of a consultant and that of a public relations
manager. The consultancy map seemed to fit pretty
well but the PR map was completely at odds with
my results. Apparently I would not be prepared
to say nice enough things about my clients.
Korn Ferry pointed out that the
tests are designed to provide only part of the
picture of any potential candidate. But when added
to biographical information and career and educational
details in the overall assessment, says Marc Swales,
managing director of its management assessment
practice in Europe, the results can be useful
in piecing together the different aspects that
make an ideal job fit. The way that job candidates
are being selected today is beginning to resemble
the assembly of a complex human jigsaw. Once,
it was sufficient to give the piece a good thump
and it went into place. Not any more.
Is this all good news? As UK
universities consider the use of psychometrics
, under pressure from the government to demonstrate
they are selecting students on merit, Robert McHenry,
chief executive of Oxford Psychologists Press,
has warned that too rigorous use of personality
testing, which might identify only a narrow field
of personality types, could wreck the diversity
that all organisations need if they are not to
produce executive clones.
"Companies often find that
people with more unusual personality types, such
as creatives, are harder to manage, yet they are
essential to a balanced and innovative workforce,"
he says. "On the one hand universities are
trying to widen the net by making selection fairer;
on the other, they risk making it smaller. It's
essential that a cross-section of different types
of people are selected. If this is not the case,
we risk creating a bland future workforce."
The same risk could be applied
to companies. In the documentation supplied to
me by Korn Ferry it is clear that its management
assessment tool can be used to identify those
in work teams who are ready for or resistant to
change. What happens to the resistant ones? Do
they get fired? Or are they subjected to a higher
level of indoctrination and persuasion?
Suppose that whatever change
is being proposed is not a good idea and that
one or two experienced people in these teams have
realised that. They could be important assets
to the business yet they will be labelled as "flat
earthers" or difficult people.
You do not need a personality
test to identify the sycophants and politicians
in a boardroom or in a team. At the very time
when the Higgs report on corporate governance
is trying to create conditions for a more questioning
atmosphere in boardrooms, we have developed selection
methods that can sift out such people for the
sake of harmony.
Personality tests can be fun
for those undertaking them because it is impossible
to fail them and the results are always couched
in positive terms designed to give us a warm glow.
But there is a darker side to their use. It seems
clear to me that my own results reveal a prime
candidate for the awkward squad. Anything that
turns up the word "entrepreneurial"
is going to sound alarm bells for big employers.
Work is not about facts alone.
Nor is it about cramming for exams (there are
so many examinations nowadays that children are
learning the answers at the expense of the questions).
But I would have reservations about extending
personality testing into the university system.
The tests' increasing sophistication is both an
asset to recruiters and a danger. It seems clear
they can find the ideal individual. But what happens
when that ideal changes, when opinions become
as valuable as facts?
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