Assessing Progress

This article was first published in issue 175 of The Global Recruiter –

Charles Martin, CEO at Ipsemet says psychometric testing is evolving fast.

If you’ve ever sat across an interview desk from a candidate, you’ve probably asked yourself: ‘What will you really be like if we hire you?’ Until recently, psychometric questionnaires were your best answer to that question. These lists of self-report questions have become an institution – and they’ve acquitted themselves well over the years.

It’s axiomatic that you hire for attitude, train for skills. And it is so because mangers have long known that skills can be changed, temperament can’t. There are exceptions – the performing arts prima donna or cranky coding genius – but they’re rare and tolerated only as long as they’re indispensable. Frequently they work in solo fields.

Behaviour is the decider

Not only are few of us indispensable, but most of us labour collectively, where individual cussedness can pull a team down much faster than lone stardom can push it up. That makes behaviour the decider. Elusive, complex, variable – but the decider.

As the world of work changes, it’s arguable that we’re seeing a bifurcation of the jobs market into two recognisable types. The first is knowledge work – skilled, creative roles that focus on complex problems, producing for example a marketing campaign or a business strategy. The second is less technically skilled, but is heavily weighted to behaviour. Care work, retail, hospitality – these are roles whose demands for politeness under duress, observance of procedures or simple patience might test many a CEO.

As the rising tide of automation covers jobs once thought too varied or complex to delegate to machines, the areas staying dry longest may be the extremes of these two types; those which rely most on judgment, or personal interaction.

Don’t tell me you’re funny – make me laugh

Thus, time-honoured wisdom and changes in modern work are converging to raise the stakes on that question – what will you really be like if we hire you?

The nub of this question is the qualifier – ‘really’. For all its importance, it’s historically been very hard to know for sure before you committed. Reflected in that ‘really’ is the recognition that people manage the impression they create. Whether it’s first dates or job interviews, the shop window is nicer than the store. Much of this is benign, or is simply about meeting social norms, but the potential for masking is real. No one wants to meet Peter Perfect at interview and Dick Dastardly on the job.

So employers need ways of disabling the impression management reflex, so they can see the store behind the shop window – the everyday, under pressure, managing-between-priorities person that you’re going to work with post-hire.

The tool first to hand is the psychometric questionnaire. This is a technology that has served us well and is only now – after a remarkably long run – beginning to show its age. Digital natives increasingly believe that questionnaires can be gamed, a belief which – even if mistaken – puts candidates in something of a Prisoner’s Dilemma. If others are likely to cheat, what should you do?

Equally long established, and right at the other end of the price scale, is the Assessment Centre. Putting candidates through a series of face-to-face exercises with managers and HR experts observing mimics, in hot-house conditions, the real job. They’re the best tool we have. The only snag is, they’re as expensive as they are good. Costs of £1,000 a head are common – and then you’ve got to herd time-poor senior managers together to oversee it. No wonder then, that assessment centres are top-tier only.

In between these extremes, a new format is emerging, that draws on both these forebears: the psychometric game. With the statistical rigour of questionnaires and the realness of assessment centres, psychometric games hold the promise of assessment centre outputs at questionnaire costs and convenience.

Learn more in one hour

So what’s the magic ingredient in games? “If you would read a man’s disposition, see him game,” wrote the author Richard Lindgard in 1907. “You will then learn more of him in one hour than in seven years’ conversation.” Lindgard offers this guidance in his book A Letter of Advice to a Young Gentleman Leaving the University Concerning His Behaviour and Conversation in the World. Why? The clue is in his revealing follow up remark: “little Wagers will try him as soon as great Stakes, for then he is off his Guard.” What Lindgard was pointing to was, in modern language, immersion. A state of ‘flow’, where the person is absorbed enough in what they are doing that their attention is switched from self-observation to performance. Here, then, is where the person is truly seen.

Psychometric games are built on this same insight. Human attention is singular and, like a torch beam, even as it illuminates the object of interest it throws the remainder into deeper shadow. Self-monitoring and task performance don’t combine (hence the clumsiness that descends when we have to do something difficult before an audience). As a game turns up the heat candidates become immersed and their behaviour is revealed.

Getting real

The shift of psychometric testing from self-reporting to real behaviour requires a fully immersive environment, and sophisticated data capture methods. The emergence of the gaming megatrend and of complex data analysis are the reasons this is happening now, and not before. These powerful shifts in capability make psychometric games possible, but they also mean there’s no going back. Games will have a long development journey ahead of them, as questionnaires did in their day, but the potential is clear. Once you can identify behaviour through software, you need never wonder what that interviewee would really be like again.

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