We need a more nuanced approach to predicting job performance.
Have you ever taken an aptitude or work personality test? Maybe it was part of a job application, one of the many ways your prospective employer tried to figure out whether you were the right fit. Or perhaps you took it for a leadership development program, at an offsite team-building retreat, or as a quiz in a best-selling business book.
Regardless of the circumstances, the hope was probably more or less the same: that a brief test would unlock deep insight into who you are and how you work, which in turn would lead you to a perfect-match job and heretofore unseen leaps in your productivity, people skills, and all-around potential.
How’s that working out for you and your organization?
My guess is that results have been mixed at best. On the one hand, a good psychometric test can easily outperform a résumé scan and interview at predicting job performance and retention. The most recent review of a century’s worth of research on selection methods, for example, found that tests of general mental ability (intelligence) are the best available predictors of job performance, especially when paired with an integrity test.
Yet, assessing candidates’ and employees’ potential presents significant challenges. We’ll look at some of them here.
People Metrics Are Hard to Get Right
For all the promise these techniques hold, it’s difficult to measure something as complex as a person for several reasons:
Not all assessments pass the sniff test. Multiple valid and reliable personality tests have been carefully calibrated to measure one or more character traits that predict important work and life outcomes. But countless other tests offer little more than what some scholars call “pseudo-profound bullshit” — the results sound inspiring and meaningful, but they bear little resemblance to any objective truth.
People often differ more from themselves than they do from one another. Traditional psychological assessments are usually designed to help figure out whether people who are more or less something (fill in the blank: intelligent, extraverted, gritty, what have you), on average, do better on whatever outcomes the organization or researcher is most interested in. In other words, they’re meant to capture differences among people.
But several studies have found that, during a two-week period, there can be even more variation within one individual’s personality than there is from person to person. As one study put it, “The typical individual regularly and routinely manifested nearly all levels of nearly all traits in his or her everyday behavior.” Between-person differences can be significant and meaningful, but within-person variation is underappreciated.
People change — and not always when you expect them to. The allure of aptitude, intelligence, and personality tests is that they purport to tell us something stable and enduring about who people are and what they are capable of. Test makers (usually) go to great lengths to make sure people who take the test more than once get about the same score the second time around. Yet compelling evidence suggests that we can learn how to learn, sometimes in ways we didn’t anticipate.
We can also shift our personalities in one direction or another (at least to some degree, though not always without cost) for both near-term benefits and longer-term goals. Interestingly, one recent study with more than 13,000 participants found that people tend to become more conscientious right before getting a new job, which is conveniently around the time a hiring manager would be trying to figure out how hard they would work if they landed the role.
The nature of the task can matter more than the nature of the person. Most of us have heard the theory that we each have a preferred learning style, and the more we can use the one that fits, the more we’ll remember. Unfortunately, virtually no evidence supports that theory. That doesn’t mean that all approaches to studying are equally effective — it’s just that the strategy that works best often depends more on the task than on the person.
Similarly, different parts of our personalities can serve different types of goals. We act extraverted when we want to connect with others or seize an opportunity, and we become disciplined when we want to get something done or avoid mistakes. In one study, conscientiousness especially emerged when the things that needed to get done were difficult and urgent — even for people who were not especially organized and hardworking in general.
One way to read this list of challenges is to come away convinced that people analytics is a fool’s errand. But that would ignore the fact that each of these caveats has been uncovered through rigorous analysis of people data.
Instead, it’s probably more constructive to remember what personality psychologist Brian Little, while channeling psychologist Henry Murray and anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn, says in his popular TED Talk: “Each of us is … in certain respects, like all other people, like some other people, and like no other person.” People analytics, in other words, needs to include better person analytics.
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