We all like to think that we are good at human evaluation. After all, we are human beings ourselves, shouldn’t we know people? Since most of us have been hired or promoted, shouldn’t we be capable of making hiring or promotion decisions based on our own experience? The unfortunate reality is that most people (regardless of their positional title) over-estimate their “people evaluative” skills so their hiring or promotional decisions are not as accurate as they would like to think. Human behavior is highly complex, and this makes it very difficult to predict people’s short and long term performance capability.
Many people reduce their evaluative effectiveness by placing too much reliance on the wrong decision making tools. Those who rely on intuition or simplistically thinking that “they know one when they see one” are basing their decisions on risky and subjective personal biases. Their decisions are more prone to luck rather than anything substantial. Even the more commonly relied upon decision tool, the personal interview, when used on its own, is actually a terrible predictor of human performance in the majority of instances – regardless of interview style or “type”. Like any tool, when used by an inexperienced, incapable or “non-professional” interviewer (or “peer”), the tool does not have anywhere near as much evaluative value as people would like to believe. Personal interviews can be of value, but only when properly conducted by a truly capable interviewer.
A growing number of written tests (commonly referred to as ‘assessments’) have emerged in the marketplace over the years. All with good intentions of assisting people in screening candidates or in evaluating a wide range of personal characteristics. I too have been approached by numerous organizations claiming to offer me the “magic solution” to all my assessment related decisions. What I found however, was that generic or “off the shelf” written tests, while sometimes mildly interesting, most often added very little real value to my evaluation. The great majority fell short, simply because the information they provided did not relate to what I really needed to know.
If you want to be most effective in your evaluation there is significant value in first understanding the fundamentals behind what you are assessing (whether performance, motivation, problem solving, communication, concentration, management capability – or whatever). This understanding will help you to determine exactly what you need to know and then which assessment tools will be most appropriate to utilize. If you do not understand these fundamentals, while rightfully wanting assistance, you are more susceptible to being sold one of the many assessment “products”. Unfortunately most will provide you with relatively useless information - and no evaluative value. Like personal interviews, written assessments do have some predictive value – but only if they are appropriate to the subject and they are used properly.
It is important to remember that assessment is a process – not just a written test. Beyond utilizing appropriate assessments, you will increase your evaluative accuracy (as much as possible for human behaviour) when you co-ordinate sufficient valuable information from a variety of sources – interviews, written assessments, etc., and then conduct an in-depth interpretation of the information that has been gathered. If you want quality results, you need to “dig deep” and go beyond the typical standard interview or rely on “packaged” written assessment feedback. When the evaluation is important to you, and beyond your personal capability, you would be wise to utilize the skills and advice of an experienced professional. People get into trouble when they overestimate their interpretative skills and go beyond their real evaluative capability. We simply cannot know everything about everything.
A few examples from recent management search and promotion assignments
Over the years we have see numerous instances where in-depth interpretation of the right information has been crucial to an effective evaluative process. While predicting human performance capability is far from being an exact science, effort and diligence certainly helps to increase your chances of being successful.
Good Personal Interviews – Poor Written Assessment Results
According to his resume, Candidate “A” had leveraged his impressive educational background and experience to obtain increasingly responsible positions within notable organizations over a number of years. In the technical phase of the interview process his experience showed as he demonstrated appropriate technical capability in relation to the position applied for. Later in the personality-based interview he presented strongly, displayed high motivation, provided evidence of appropriate problem solving capability, and confirmed his superior communication skills. He was honest, interesting, and very likable.
However, when we evaluated the results from a number of written assessments, we found that, based on the specific requirements of the position, there were a number of significant personality-based mismatches that would contribute to poor performance should “A” be given the role in question. While “A” did perform exceptionally well in certain interview components, this additional background information clearly indicated that he would struggle in both the short and long terms in that particular role.
It is important to note that “A” was not intentionally trying to be deceptive in the interviews in order to obtain the position. Rather, his low self-awareness (which is quite typical) regarding his actual relevant strengths, weaknesses and performance capability, contributed to his underestimation of the extent of gap between what was needed in the position and what he possessed.
Good Personal Interviews – Inaccurate Written Assessment Results
In another instance, upon initial review, Candidate “B” seemed to have all of the necessary “ingredients”. His educational background, technical skills and specific industry experience seemed like a perfect fit for the position in question. He did well in the initial interviewing phases, and prior to proceeding with the written assessments I gave him the standard instructions: “Don’t try to answer with what you think we want to hear, nor answer how you think you would like to be. Just be honest, because we will be able to tell if you are exaggerating your ability or if you are outright lying”.
Later, when interpreting the results, it was obvious that “B” had intentionally lied in order to get the position. While some less critical people might misinterpret the “extraordinary” assessment results, or ignore the fact that they were “too good to be true”, I advised my client; “if he lies to you today, he will lie to you tomorrow - he is not as strong as he wants us to believe”.
In hiring or promotion we cannot expect people to be absolutely perfect, nor should we hire people that require too much developmental assistance. However, when making final decisions between closely competing people, it is much wiser to hire a person who is honest about their ability (and is very close to the requirements) than one who lacks integrity and tries to “sell” themselves to you.
Good Written Assessment - Poor Interview
Candidate “C” was in line for a position that seemed like a perfect fit based on his background which was well presented in his resume. As well, the initial technical and personality based interviews were acceptable. His written assessments showed an honest response set and, for the most part, his performance capabilities were in line with what was required for the role. I decided to elaborate on some specific characteristics that were identified in the written assessment phase in subsequent interviews – nothing too obvious but they were worth further investigation in order to increase our understanding and evaluative accuracy.
When I focused on a specific topic, well into the final interview, “C” forthrightly exclaimed; “Well, you got me”. In doing so he was admitting that, despite the initial interviews, and the honestly answered written assessments, he was still trying to withhold potentially “damaging” information in order to be seen positively and increase his odds of being selected. Since “C” was an active candidate (unemployed) he was under more pressure to be successful than a more selective passive candidate, and he was therefore not as forthcoming with all information as he might have been.
Despite substantial interviewing and assessment information gathering it was only when we “dug deeper” that we achieved a more accurate evaluation of “C”. It was the combined interpretation of all the interviews and assessments that allowed us to identify the specific investigative areas to explore and to then move to this next all important level.
Good Interview – Good Assessment
Our client asked us to assess the suitability of a current employee to assume the manager’s role in the near future. Through their own observation they knew that candidate “D” had the superior technical skills that were required (as did I since I placed “D” into her current role years prior), however they were unsure as to whether “D” had the required managerial skills. Upon a number of interviews and written assessments we found that “D” was a very suitable match and was almost perfect for the role with only a few minor gaps between the managerial requirements and her capability.
In reviewing the acquired data, we identified a few developmental initiatives that would fill those few gaps and we provided advice as to what steps could be taken to do so. Since the incumbent manager was to be present for the next six months, we strongly suggested his active involvement in the developmental process to allow for mentoring and accountability. It worked.
Whether intentionally or unintentionally (due to poor self-awareness), people are going to try to present themselves in the most positive light. This is especially true in difficult economic times when there is even more competition for suitable employment among candidates for those few exceptional career opportunities. Some people will honestly seek help (in the areas of resume development, interview preparation, job search strategy) in order to distinguish themselves from the rest. Many other people are “training to fool you” and are obtaining assistance to “polish” their presentation, in order to tell you what they think you want hear rather than presenting who they truly are.
If you want to make the right hiring and promotion decisions you will need to either finely develop your evaluative capability, or ensure that you have the professional help necessary to avoid hiring or promoting the wrong person. When you do, you will not only have the personal peace of mind and comfort that comes with making the right selection, you will also reap the benefits of higher performance, better productivity, and positive organizational growth that can only occur when you surround yourself with the right people.
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Jim Gilchrist B.E.S.