Should You Use Psychological Testing in the Workplace?

The current focus of Talent Management magazine is on the use of assessments in talent management. This is what Psychology at Work had to say about this topic in November 2011.

When I look back on the mistakes I made running HR for a big company – and boy, do I have plenty to pick from – one of the biggest was not using more psychological testing in our hiring and performance development processes. I had plenty of company in the HR universe during those ancient days of the early 21st century, as psychological testing suffered from a lack of reliable and affordable measures, and if we are to be honest, a faint whiff of totalitarianism. Also, as author and psychologist Edward Hoffman notes in his recent book, Psychological Testing at Work, many of the surveys were based upon “theories of human development that are as  obsolete as record players and slide rules.” Since that time, however, major strides have been made in psychological testing based upon more modern theories of human performance, and several valid and readily accessible instruments are available for use. Make yourself aware of these and don’t repeat my mistakes.

There are plenty of companies today that use psychological testing to measure employees, both pre-employment and as part of their performance development processes. Hoffman notes that “psychological assessment in the workplace is booming.” The measures vary in size, scope and application, but most have several common flaws:

  • They are based upon proprietary methodology, and as such are costly and offer little peer-reviewed analysis of their efficacy in a corporate setting.
  • They focus primarily upon skills, not upon more subtle and less obvious intrinsic motivators.
  • The research and theories behind them are old and not proven to be useful in the modern corporate world, other than by anecdotal case studies (the highly popular Myers-Briggs indicator, which is based upon early 20th-century theories of Jungian typology, is a good example of this. When was the last time you did some Jungian sorting to build a work team? Please don’t answer; I know many of you love the MBTI).
  • They don’t focus on the simple but critical things that determine much of workplace performance, things such as optimism, zest, resiliencesocial intelligence and character.

After 30 years of work and research, I am convinced that traits such as these are the best predictors of individual excellence, and when spread across a group, organizational excellence in almost all fields. Yes, more important than IQ, technical skills and past experience for all but a handful of highly specialized jobs.

Before I recommend ways to measure for these traits, I will address a question that must be bothering some of you. Is it right to examine people’s inner being when all they are looking for is a job or a promotion? Who is it to say that someone’s personality traits are relevant to whether or not he or she can do a job? Isn’t it unfair?

The truth is, hiring managers have been sizing people up since Mongo the Strong was picking candidates for raiding parties. Think about the last person you interviewed. While he was answering your stock questions, you were thinking “Is he a fit? Can he take it when the heat is on? Will he stab me in the back when he gets a chance? Is he a team player?” not whether he answered in a particular way. YOU WERE DOING PSYCHOLOGICAL TESTING. Without calling it that. And without any check and balance on your own unconscious biases and mistaken impressions (see the work of Nobel-winning economist Daniel Kahneman on the latter points, but that is a subject for another day).

So why not take it to the next level and use more formal surveys? Surely this is a better – and fairer – way to capture data to aid in employment decisions. Here are a few I like, which have been shown to predict performance in modern organizations:

  • Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ) or more simply, optimistic versus pessimistic outlook on life. As we have discussed ad nauseum on these pages, optimism is an incredibly strong predictor of human performance in all venues, particularly any field involving sales.
  • Grit Scale – or the ability to focus on goals over time. Persistence is another word for grit, and it was the focus of a “Psychology at Work” blog on Nov. 4.
  • Character Strengths and Virtues (VIA) – I imagine you are familiar with the Gallup work on becoming aware of one’s strengths and using them at work (StrengthsFinder, etc.).  This survey springs from some of the same theoretical roots but in my opinion is more comprehensive and better vetted by independent researchers. It measures the presence in an individual of basic human virtues such as courage, diligence, respect for others and self-discipline, virtues that have been considered of the greatest importance in societal settings since the time of Aristotle.
  • Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS) – This is the gold standard of measurement for life satisfaction, used by the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among others, to survey the psychological health of the country. Although the idea of measuring life satisfaction as part of the employment equation is controversial to some (I was accused – by wags on my own team – of building my HR strategy on the basis of hiring Happy People), it is beyond serious argument that people who enjoy high levels of life satisfaction tend to report higher levels of engagement at work.
  • Social Intelligence – others might call this emotional intelligence. The VIA, referenced above, contains an excellent measure of this trait in a non-proprietary format, unlike most of the EI surveys based upon Daniel Coleman’s work that are out there.

All of the surveys I have listed here are free. You can access them on the website of the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, a research unit focused on finding the psychological roots of humanity at its best. Just scroll around and find them under the heading Resources for Researchers, and try them out yourself.  I think you will see their utility in your workplace for a number of things.

A final note. One of the giants in the field of psychological testing is Chris Peterson of the University of Michigan. He cautions against using any psychological survey to make final employment decisions, including some of these I have listed that he created. They are just more data points, and imperfect ones at that. But they are better than what has been used heretofore before by most of us. Including Mongo the Strong.