He not busy being born is busy dying,” sang Bob Dylan in his hit song “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” It’s a fairly apt sentiment in describing the imperative that executives and employees have today to adapt to the blistering speed of change.
Get busy being born — quickly learn new things, new responsibilities and new ways of working — or risk not surviving.
But there is a way HR teams can better predict early in the hiring process — especially for demanding, high-profile knowledge worker roles — which potential hires are more likely than others to learn quickly, adapt to different responsibilities, be resilient to setbacks, and willingly seek new challenges and opportunities.
Further, there is alignment between solid psychological research into the traits that make up human adaptability and tools that enable faster analysis of recruits to identify people with those traits.
Why Screen for Adaptability?
The potential benefits of being able to screen for adaptability are significant. First, consider how much it costs to replace an employee hired on the basis of experience alone, which is a poor predictor of future performance in general, much less of how flexible an employee will be when responding to changing performance needs.
A study by the Society for Human Resource Management puts the potential cost of replacing a bad hire at five times the person’s annual salary. The more demanding a job is in terms of responsibility and initiative — and the longer the person stays on the job — the higher the replacement cost.
One important way to address this challenge, according to Susan Cantrell, a research fellow at the Accenture Institute for High Performance, is to use assessments at the front end of the hiring process where traits and competencies of recruits can be determined and more readily matched to open positions.
She said prescreen assessments provide a wealth of rich data besides key words on resumes and details on education and experience — the typical ways most companies screen.
“Using predictive analytics on these prescreen assessments gives companies a way to determine if candidates have traits, including adaptability, that make them a good fit,” she said.
“This method increases the chances of making a better hiring decision and is also less expensive because it can be done before the interview phase.”
A second benefit of matching the right people to jobs in terms of career adaptability and general resiliency is improving both engagement and retention.
A 2005 study published by researchers at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan found employees who are more adaptable in their career development were also more likely to be committed to their organization.
Other studies have shown that the ability to be proactive positively influences both job performance and job satisfaction. A final benefit is the business impact of having adaptable employees, who are more likely to innovate and help their organizations respond to new opportunities.
Employees’ adaptability and commitment to learning new things can help to overcome unexpected developments in the business environment.
What Is Adaptability?
Mel Fugate and Angelo Kinicki of Southern Methodist University and Arizona State University, respectively, have identified and tested specific traits of employee adaptability, or what they call “dispositional employability.”
Certain character attributes have been shown to predispose employees to proactively adapt to their work and career environments.
This extends the typical approach of screening for knowledge, skills and abilities, or KSAs, and looks at higher-order and latent traits that enable an employee to react quickly to known demands and be perpetually ready for change.
Rather than wait for a specific new demand placed on them by major change, these employees tend to prepare in advance, and thus are ready when something happens.
This readiness is an important trait since many researchers in this area characterize today’s workplaces — turbulent environments in constant flux — as environments that put more focus on individuals who show the strength needed to persevere.
Further, because goals and the means to attain those goals are likely to shift constantly, individual traits and behaviors are more likely to influence teams’ and organizations’ overall performance.
Tools of the Trade
Paul Basile, the Princeton- and MIT-trained CEO of Matchpoint Careers, has spent much of his professional life working to develop and extend the science of what he calls “predictive hiring” — identifying at the applicant stage the candidates who have the best potential to be top performers in a particular job.
He reinforces the fact — known to most talent leaders but often ignored — that experience and education are among the worst predictors of how successful a hire will be in a new job, especially if one is screening for adaptability.
Instead, by using psychometric evaluations — assessments that measure both competencies, such as knowledge, skills and abilities, as well as traits and dispositions — one can, in Basile’s words, “break the cycle where companies hire on the basis of skills and then fire on the basis of fit.”
Beyond a recruit’s particular skills and experience, Basile said psychometric assessments provide a real measure of behaviors that indicate competencies and of what people generally refer to as “fit” — does the person have attributes that are aligned to an organization’s culture, its purpose and “the way things are done here.”
Matchpoint Careers creates assessments based in part on competency profiles developed by SHL, a talent measurement company. Among the competencies assessed, several have direct bearing on an individual’s potential to be flexible and proactive.
One is “adapting and responding to change” — the ability to tolerate ambiguity, accept new ideas and show interest in new experiences.
Another is “coping with pressures and setbacks” — the ability to be positive and work productively in pressure situations, and to handle criticism while keeping emotions in check.
However, one does not determine how adaptable an employee is by asking, “So, how adaptable are you?” Basile said the technique is to use a forced-choice questionnaire asking a short series of questions to which respondents have to indicate which statement “most” fits them and which “least” fits them.
A sample grouping of questions requiring a most/least response might include: I enjoy the companionship of others; I find negotiation easy; and I look to the future.
The benefits of this type of screening can be substantial. In its 2013 Business Outcomes Study, SHL reports a wealth of measurable business results from a hiring strategy based on psychometric assessments.
The assessment included a financial company that found customer advisers who scored highly on a persistence assessment were more than twice as likely to be rated by managers as top performers and twice as likely to be rated as good at coping with and adapting to change.
From Screening to Identifying Possibilities
If psychometric screening is a more sophisticated way to get turned down for a job — or if recruits feel as if a potential employer cares more about tests than about getting to know them as a full person — there could be backlash.
One benefit for employees is that, as with Matchpoint Careers’ assessments, the employees receive a personal report on their predictive psychometric profile, not linked to their fit for any particular job.
This gives them insights into the types of jobs most in line with their unique dispositions and attributes, as well as their background and training.
Beyond that, one futuristic idea would be for profiling to serve as the basis for a kind of matching database — with opt-in features to protect privacy — between job seekers and companies.
Accenture’s Cantrell said this development is analogous to patients’ electronic medical records, which, in accord with data protection laws, can be accessed by multiple providers.
“Right now companies have very rich information — training information, performance reviews, informal feedback — but it’s all internal,” Cantrell said. “In essence, beyond this one use, it’s all lost data.
If companies had access to real performance data across organizations, they could identify people with the right skills, attributes and fit for the exact job needs they have at the moment.”
Properly planned and administered, assessments for adaptability and other traits can benefit employees and employers alike.
Employees can avoid chasing after a job that actually isn’t right for them, and employers can avoid the costly mistake of hiring someone who looks good on paper, but isn’t predisposed for the demands of the job.
Craig Mindrum is CEO of Mindrum Northstrong, a management consultancy. He can be reached at email@example.com.