Can We Really Test People for Potential?

We need a more nuanced approach to predicting job performance.

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People Analytics

This limited series from Spring 2019 focuses on how managers can use data and analytics to persuade decision makers, assess talent, and facilitate personal growth.
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Editor’s note: This article is part of a new MIT SMR series about people analytics.

Have you ever taken an aptitude or work personality test? Maybe it was part of a job application, one of the many ways your prospective employer tried to figure out whether you were the right fit. Or perhaps you took it for a leadership development program, at an offsite team-building retreat, or as a quiz in a best-selling business book. Regardless of the circumstances, the hope was probably more or less the same: that a brief test would unlock deep insight into who you are and how you work, which in turn would lead you to a perfect-match job and heretofore unseen leaps in your productivity, people skills, and all-around potential.

How’s that working out for you and your organization?

My guess is that results have been mixed at best. On the one hand, a good psychometric test can easily outperform a résumé scan and interview at predicting job performance and retention. The most recent review of a century’s worth of research on selection methods, for example, found that tests of general mental ability (intelligence) are the best available predictors of job performance, especially when paired with an integrity test. Yet, assessing candidates’ and employees’ potential presents significant challenges. We’ll look at some of them here.

People Metrics Are Hard to Get Right

For all the promise these techniques hold, it’s difficult to measure something as complex as a person for several reasons:

Not all assessments pass the sniff test. Multiple valid and reliable personality tests have been carefully calibrated to measure one or more character traits that predict important work and life outcomes. But countless other tests offer little more than what some scholars call “pseudo-profound bullshit” — the results sound inspiring and meaningful, but they bear little resemblance to any objective truth.

People often differ more from themselves than they do from one another. Traditional psychological assessments are usually designed to help figure out whether people who are more or less something (fill in the blank: intelligent, extraverted, gritty, what have you), on average, do better on whatever outcomes the organization or researcher is most interested in. In other words, they’re meant to capture differences among people. But


People Analytics

This limited series from Spring 2019 focuses on how managers can use data and analytics to persuade decision makers, assess talent, and facilitate personal growth.
More in this series

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Comments (3)
Kwesi da-Costa Vroom
I have been part of different work environment and typical one I would like to make reference to is with multinationals for convenience,  for at least a 10. The dynamics that comes to play with predicting performance is just as interesting as it is deserving of a much broader scope for further research. 

“The typical individual regularly and routinely manifested nearly all levels of nearly all traits in his or her everyday behavior.” (source: Article:Can we really test people for potential.) Very complex statement. It encapsulate all the traits for favourable performance predication just as the reverse is real.

May the scale below would of great business interest in measuring performance and same can form an interesting basis for prediction future performance;
1.Prediction perspective.
a. Financial objective perspective
b. Customer Satisfaction perspective
c. Internal Business Operation Perspective and 
d. Motivation and Asset development perspective

It is important to note that the hired be it full time, Part time have expectations just as the employer.
Performance Predication has become the new layer on needle point on assurance for retention to justify investment decisions on newly hired and even old hands.
Considering having such a complex "specimen" or "sample" with characteristics as described in the  quote above would obviously pose a challenge to predictions. 

Take a typical 9-5 schedule worker who commits 8hrs daily. For purposes of discussion, let's say our sample  works 7days a week. The sample is a new staff. If he stays on the job for 6yrs. Technically, it means he/she may have spent two years literally living on the job. That is a third of the time. There is so much that goes on in the life of this staff within the two-thirds (2/3) of the time which is the four years outside the job. happenings in the 2/3 time would be a huge contribution factor to what is influencing the quote above. Remember, practically half of the 2/3 time is used to sleep. So basically, the staff shared the active part of their waking life in two equal halves with the employer.

To what extent  must an employer indulge in the employee's 1/3 time (8hrs) for interest in  accuracy in performance predictions without infringing on privacy.

What level of commitment is sufficient to assure the employer of high future performance. 

These are relevant for planing and strategic development

All the test eventually gives valuable insight that traditional approach may not offer, however, intuition and the powerful human instincts is highly recommended for reviewing computer aided test result before making conclusions to inform business decisions.
Deanna Brown
Thank you for a lucid and thoughtful article.  However, I suggest that your description of the raison d’être or purposes of the tests and analytics is not quite accurate for either employers or employees.  As with your "grit" example, the notion of relationships and of careers means something very different to each party.  And "people analytics" are geared toward employer needs;  after all, employers pay for the development, administration, etc.  Indeed, employees may not even have access to interpretations of the data.  To meet the purposes you describe, analytics, both instruments and process, need a lot more thought.
Barry Deutsch
My experience over 30 years of hiring and performance management consulting, and over 1000 executive search projects is that there is NO test that is predicative of future performance.

The intellectual tests do not predict future performance. They simply give you a perspective on raw intelligence - the ability to logically and rationally process information.

The personality assessments do not predict performance - they simply give you insight into a person's preferred behavior/communication style in a work setting. Most of the tests are easily manipulated by the candidate into answering questions or checking words that the hiring manager wants to hear - not the real candidate.

Both of these are still useful tools and insights even with their flaws.

However, the ONLY way to predict future performance is to conduct a performance or success based structured interview that correlates with the outcomes desired in the role. Adding role plays, homework, and working/practical sessions/real case studies - along with deep and intrusive reference checking can boost interview accuracy from what most of the studies show is basically a 50/50 success rate into the 80-90 percent range.