The Psychology of failure

The use of psychometrics in business has grown dramatically over recent years.  Whether used for recruitment, personal or team development, few companies are without some capability in this area (either via the HR department or an external resource, the latter usually for recruitment).  However, despite their prevalence, much confusion and misunderstandings surround the subject.  We seem as far from a systematic and applied use of these tools as we were when I took my first test many years ago.

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Having worked with both behavioural and intelligence tests for over 20 years and become qualified in a wide variety of instruments, I have been in a position to monitor the ‘on the job’ performance of countless executives and managers from recruitment through to success or failure.  None of us tend to spend sleepless nights wondering why things are going well but I have been pleased to recognise those qualities we sought in a subsequently successful performance.  When things don’t go well, it’s been my practice to compare the factors that appear to be driving the performance shortfall with the test results.  Without fail, those factors that suggested the individual might not have been the most suitable candidate stare out from the page.  So why, armed with this information didn’t we simply reject the candidate in the first place?  A couple of examples might help:

A long search for a marketing manager had reached a very frustrating stage when I met a young lady I’ll call Louise.  We knew what we were looking for in terms of qualifications, experience and personal qualities but the suitable candidate just wasn’t showing up.  So, when I finally received Louise’s CV with the right qualifications and some solid experience, I felt the search might be over.  However, when I reviewed her test results against our desired profile my heart sank; Louise had sailed through the intelligence questionnaire but her personality profile was almost diametrically opposite to our ideal profile…and she was waiting outside my office for the interview. Louise proceeded compentently through our meeting with her knowledge and intellect shining through.  When, at the end of the process she asked me how her results stacked up against our ideal candidate, I had to explain that they just didn’t.  To cut a long story short, we discussed the details of our profile and the job requirements and Louise managed to convince me that she could meet the requirements of the role, even if the test results said it was unlikely.  I believed her and made the appointment.  Six months later the test results had been demonstrated in spades and Louise, at least, had the decency to resign.

A search for a Managing Director on another occasion had some very specific requirements.  One of the candidates on the short list was a chap we’ll call Peter.  Peter had all the right qualifications and experience and, I noted with enormous relief, he had come through our battery of tests, with exactly the right behavioural profile for an MD and with an intellect that tested in the top 5% of graduate managers.  Peter went through the rest of the selection process and emerged as the leading candidate by far.  I was delighted that he accepted the position, even more pleased to obtain some glowing references and we welcomed him on board with a great deal of confidence.  Later that year it was becoming brutally apparent that Peter was failing.  After a lengthy process of performance review, coaching and mentoring, Peter was fired.

The lesson from the first example is that one should never, ever let someone sell themselves into a role for which they are behaviourally unsuited.  Our marketing role was heavily biased towards careful research, analysis and planning; Louise’s skills were vested in her gregarious, outgoing powers of persuasion and she simply couldn’t apply herself to the detail oriented work that the role required.  We both share the guilt but whether you are candidate or employer, don’t accept a square peg for a round hole (or claim you can change) – it simply won’t work.

I spent a long time with Peter before he left us and managed to understand what had gone wrong.  I had had a very comprehensive profile drawn up and a big battery of test instruments to choose from in testing our candidates.  The problem is that there is no one test instrument in my opinion and experience that will measure every aspect, so an element of compromise is inevitable if test exhaustion of candidates is to be avoided.  Peter’s problem, despite his extremely high level of intellect, transpired to be extremely poor judgement, something he had somehow managed to compensate for in past roles.   However, in our business there was just nowhere for him to hide this shortcoming.  I subsequently succeeded in locating an extremely robust (and highly practical) new test instrument that focused solely upon managerial decision making ability that we were able to use additionally to good effect in the future.

Every one of us has a style of behaviour that can vary with circumstances and which contains clear strengths that can be matched to particular roles.  For example, the determined, influential, fast paced and independent individual is ideally suited to achieving results through sound leadership in challenging situations.  One the other hand, this profile has significant weaknesses when viewed against the role requirements of say a forensic scientist or an auditor.  I must stress, though, that there are no bad profiles, merely profiles that are better suited to some roles rather than others.

 My experience with psychometric test instruments is that they are an incredibly valuable tool to use in recruitment and development.  Yet, despite all the evidence, many managers still pay scant attention to what can be learnt and applied as part of a successful relationship with team members.  As an aid in coaching improved performance, career development and team functioning, psychometrics provide an insightful tool for both coach and coachee.  Finally, as a job applicant or team member, my strong advice would be to never attempt to convince yourself or others that you possess qualities that run counter to your normal patterns of behaviour; minor adjustments are possible but attempts to change 180ْ  are all but impossible.  Enjoy who you are and find a role that provides the best match to your behavioural skills.

Have you had particularly good or bad experience of psychometrics?


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