What You See Ain't Always What You Get

Some organizations consider themselves very fortunate when one or a few of their employees turn out to be peak performers, the kind of people to invest in and build on for the future. Other organizations hire them as a matter of course; they do it every day.  How do they do it?
Obviously there is no simple answer.  However, there is an approach to selection of proven, undeniable value.  The primary message of this article is that professionally developed assessment instruments are valid predictors of performance both on the job and in training for all jobs in all settings.  For example, research has established that mental abilities are important determinants of job performance and if assessment instruments measuring these abilities are dropped and replaced by interviews or other less valid procedures, the proportion of low performing people hired increases resulting in a serious decline in both individual and organizational performance.
A quick example is worth noting.  General Electric (GE) at one point dropped all testing in response to government pressure but found that a large proportion of those hired under new selection procedures were not promotable.  But this is not just a G.E. problem.

Career Plateaus

Plateauing is a state everyone reaches at some point; it is an event, not a judgment. But it has ramifications for the individual and the organization. The Center for Research in Career Development at Columbia University developed a conceptual model vis-a-vis-plateauing. The model postulates 4 principal career states "Learners" (or "comers"); "Stars"; Solid Citizens" and "Deadwood."

Essentially there are two types of plateauees, effective and ineffective.  The former are performing satisfactorily or better and continue to contribute while the latter are judged to be performing unsatisfactorily.  Setting aside for the moment the various reasons for plateauing it is obvious that the plateauee concept can be extremely important.  For example, If your organization has a high and rising proportion of ineffective plateauees you are at risk.  Do you know which of your people are solid citizens?  Deadwood? Stars? Learners?. . . Have you given any thought to just how many ineffective plauteauees your group can absorb with immunity?
Downsizing and re-engineering have become dirty words but it's true nonetheless that there will be greater competition for fewer management positions.  There will be an imbalance between available managerial positions and the number of aspirants and organizations simply must do everything they can to choose the right people at the point of organizational entry or suffer the consequences as G.E. did until they went back to formal assessments.
 Most organizations choose people on the basis of interviews and reference checks and this probably will never change.  Even those who formally assess individual performance potential use these two techniques.  Unfortunately they are among those selection procedures with least validity.  To be sure, some interviews and interviewers are better than others but interviews alone, regardless of their quality, are unequal to the task of identifying peak performers.

The Difference That Makes a Difference

We define peak performers as people who produce results that are constantly much better than expected.  Since a well-selected population will always outperform a less well-selected population it is very hard to understand why every organization of every size doesn't make use of available selection technology.  The most direct route to a high performance organization is a population of high performing individuals.  Whatever the difference is between peak performers and everybody else it is the difference that makes a difference.
A great deal of what someone does to achieve peak performance is learned.  But what a person has learned, at least in some respects, can be a problem.  Much of what a person does is automatic rather than selective.  Habits of thought acquired over a lifetime are hard to break.  No one consciously thinks about how they light a cigarette, remember a phone number, get angry, make a decision and so forth.  The content of their thoughts is what is noticed, not their anatomy.  Subliminal strategies are the primary material of performance.
This is the primary reason it is important to know as much as you can about a given individual before making an important personnel decision.* Only a fraction of a person's make-up is on public view and it accounts for only a fraction of their behavior.*  It is worthwhile to measure this fraction but it gives only a partial insight into what makes him/her tick.

The visible fraction of personality, however, is nothing more than the surface manifestation of inclinations, tendencies and trends that are at work within.  The surface characteristics observed are accurate and reliable as far as they go but they are also trivial.  Outside techniques of personality assessment have definite value particularly in an actuarial sense in that they are excellent for sorting people into groups and provide an informed quotation of the odds on whether a given person can measure up to a given standard of performance and behavior.  When the odds are either very long or very short the predictions are highly efficient.
But when the odds are not so clear-cut, when the ratings are neither high nor low the picture is murkier and the predictions start to lose their accuracy.  Profiles with a strong central tendency do not permit dramatic interpretations one way or the other.  Outside classification techniques do not help us understand people as individuals, they can help us understand "what" a person may do but not "why."  This gap can be critical.
For example, a test may identify someone as sociable but there are at least three and possibly more reasons why someone may be socially oriented and knowing the inner motivation with some accuracy can greatly illuminate a personnel decision.  Sociability, like every other personality trait, is a multidimensional construct.  For someone to be identified as "sociable" tells us something but not nearly enough.  Is their social orientation instrumental, a means to an end or is it an end in itself?  Are they genuinely warm or self-displaying limelighters more interested in themselves than others.  Or are they insecure and in desperate need of acceptance.  Each of these distinctions has major implication for personnel decisions. 
Another example is how someone thinks.  A test may tell you someone has so many I.Q. points but it won't tell you whether they are reactive or proactive; locked-in to conventional wisdom or innovative; whether they will challenge the system or stay close to their comfort zone or whether they can produce new ideas or just dusted-off versions of old ones.
Where a high-accuracy decision about one or a few people is required a combination of inside (depth) and outside (surface) techniques of assessment is probably best.  The inside view provides depth and richness of detail while the outside view provides a check of probabilities.
In the final analysis we believe that every important personnel decision should be made with as much richness and depth of understanding as possible.  The hiring executive brings expertise and perspective to the employment decision, no question about that.  But two sets of expertise and perspective are better than one.  While an outside source such as a behavioral scientist may legitimately be considered "an" expert he/she is not "the" expert.  Working in tandem as a team the executive and the consultant can work together in a way that will invariably result in a higher quality decision than either could make independently.
The value of the consultant's insights is roughly proportional to the time and effort spent.  In our view that means the better part of a full day of assessment exercises and in-depth interviewing.  There are no quick and easy panaceas although oversimplified, highly approximate answers are available in abundance and usually are quick and very inexpensive.  Such sources must make their approach easy and quick because their low cost demand high volume in order to be profitable.  But there is no magic, only magicians.
On the other hand, sharply defined, thorough answers can only be arrived at with great care.  Obviously cost is a factor but a quick, inexpensive solution to a problem involving human potentialities, as appealing as it sounds, is never as economical as it seems simply because it is likely to be only half right or, worse, dead wrong.  Quality and thoroughness are not luxuries but necessities.  It not only pays to get the best but it is usually a waste of time and money to get anything less.