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The Mismeasurement of Talent


Recently reading Stephen Jay Gould’s masterful tome, The Mismeasure of Man, I was struck by how often people who measure aspects of personality or human functioning, can get it so completely wrong. Such mismeasurement can have devastating consequences, as Gould chronicles. His book brilliantly details how, when the fundamental assumption about what is being measured is wrong, all sorts of problems occur downstream. Gould majors on the mismeasurment of intelligence and uses the widely used IQ test as an example.

For me, the measurement of managerial and leadership capability has been similarly misunderstood. Measuring talent is a critical issue in business. Talent assessments or assessment centres that mismeasure, can often encourage a business to hire the wrong person or promote a person beyond their ability. Such a mistake can be incredibly expensive for a business.

There is a rapidly expanding industry devoted to the measurement or possibly mismeasurement of talent. Much of this focuses on measuring aspects of your personality, identifying your strengths, your preferences or your type. These approaches characterise different dimensions of the human condition:

  1. Typologies – The simplest typology is masculine or feminine. Such descriptions may be true but are they really that helpful in developing your business? You may be familiar with two of the most widely used typologies in industry – the Belbin Team Profiles or Myers Briggs Typology Indicator (MBTI). These assessments can accurately describe what type of person you are and illuminate some of the characteristics of your type such as introversion (you get your energy from the inside) or extroversion, which doesn’t mean you are an extrovert, rather that you get your energy from interacting with others. Such characteristics may even predict how you will behave in the future. But such descriptions don’t necessarily give you an insight into how you could develop as a leader.
  2. Strengths – many leadership assessments will identify your ‘strengths’ in the mistaken belief that there is a certain set of strengths critical to leadership. If there is one thing that is true of the thousands of books on leadership, it is that there is no one set of strengths that is appropriate for leadership. Each leader leads in their own way. Of course it can be helpful to know your strengths and play to them, but again, such assessments do not necessarily help you develop as a leader. They also run the risk of creating self-justification. The sort of “well that’s the way I am made” argument. In reality most leaders are much more nuanced than a set of strengths would have you believe.
  3. Personality – many assessments define where you are on the ‘Big Five’ personality traits (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism) as these are thought to drive behaviour. But again such descriptions often just box people as more or less inclined to a specific trait. They provide little insight into how a leader may show up under specific market or cultural conditions.

So most modern management and leadership assessments fail because they don’t help you develop your capability as a leader; they just pigeon hole you. They imply that you can’t develop into something else. They tend to fix you as one ‘type’, one set of ‘strengths’, some personality ‘traits’ and a few behavioural ‘preferences’. We believe that there is a much richer and more useful way to assess talent.

If leaders want to truly raise their game and the performance of those around them then a more developmental approach is needed. We advocate an approach that uses a completely different methodology to the assessment of people – a more coherent talent assessment.

There are four rules of coherent talent assessment. We believe that each coherent assessment instrument has to be:

  1. Commercially relevant – there are at least 200 lines of human development that could be measured, but you need to select the ones that are relevant to your business. For example, there is no point in measuring your level of sophistication as a chef if you run an IT company. Fortunately there are 12 lines that are pretty critical in all companies. Five of these developmental lines are internal: physical, cognitive, emotional and social, values and ego maturity.
  2. Research based – many assessments are not grounded in a proper academic literature. The Hogan or Myers Briggs both evolved out of sound research literature but there are lots of instruments out there that have absolutely no validation in research. They have been invented by someone who is a smart marketeer. Without a solid research base you run a high risk of mismeasurement.
  3. Differentiated – It is vital to measure each line of development separately. Many assessments, in a bid to reduce length or complexity, mash together different phenomena in the same test. A bit like having a blood test and an X-ray in the same test. Without clarity around what is actually being measured, outputs become confused and ultimately unhelpful.
  4. Developmental – finally, the assessment instrument must be able to drive development – they cannot be purely descriptive. A good assessment should quantify not only what level of development you are at right now, along any one line, but what the next stage of your development will be. 

Poor assessment, founded on confused thinking and inaccurate or untested assumptions, needs to stop. It’s not only wrong, it can be incredibly costly. The cost of hiring the wrong person for a job can be up to three times the salary for that job.[1] Today we understand so much more about what really does help develop our leaders, that there really is no excuse for the mismeasurement of talent.

[1] Corporate Leadership Council, Literature Review, “Employee Selection Tests”, Catalogue No. 070-198-213, Washington DC, Mar 1998, p. 2

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Dr Alan Watkins

Alan is recognised as an international expert on leadership and human performance. He has a broad mix of commercial, academic, scientific and technological abilities.

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