Organisations use assessment for a number of reasons. From determining the suitability of new candidates, to understanding a person’s readiness for promotion, as well as identifying areas for development for individuals or whole teams. However, particular challenges emerge when using assessment with very intelligent people.
In 2014, Google engineer Avery Pennarun astutely observed in a blog post that “Smart people have a problem, especially (although not only) when you put them in large groups. That problem is an ability to convincingly rationalize nearly anything.”
After many years of assessing and developing very intelligent people from a range of professions, both individuals and entire teams, this has been my experience too. Specifically, when assessment is used for hiring or promotion, highly intelligent candidates are more prone to viewing the process as a test they need to pass, which could lead to attempts at manipulating results. The second challenge, when assessment is used for development purposes, is that clever people are skilled at coming up with convincing ‘evidence’ that they are either more or less capable of doing what is required of them by the organisation. To address these two challenges, assessments need to be conducted in a robust fashion that can assure organisations they get an accurate picture of candidates, or have the best chance of developing their people.
Taking a step back, people are confronted by assessment throughout their lives. In childhood, academic tests are a regular occurrence, with examinations continuing through to university. Assessments are a common feature during careers too; with most graduate roles requiring candidates to take part in some kind of assessment centre to ensure that they can deliver, such as personality profiling or ability testing with some form of interactive exercises. As professionals move on to taking their first step into management roles, they will often undergo further assessment, to ensure they will be capable of getting their teams to deliver. Finally, at the upper end of the pyramid, assessment is needed for those taking their first director role, becoming a partner in the firm, or making the transition from junior to senior partner. It is at this senior level that assessment becomes more challenging.
Outsmarting the (Assessment) System
At the point that individuals have made it to the top echelon of their careers, they will already be highly accomplished and skilled. They will have consistently come at the upper end of the top quartile at school, and university, as graduates and as managers. Most individuals reaching this level will have a long history of being at the top, being used to, among other things, getting high marks. In addition, some of those now reaching this career level are members of Generation Y, who will likely have grown up with a lot of praise, over-doting parents and social media that is constantly giving them recognition (in the form of ‘likes’ for example). These two factors, namely being highly accomplished and being used to receiving a lot of praise, mean that a lot of such people will see any form of assessment as something you can come top at, hoping that their results will flatter them, giving them the praise they are used to getting. The challenge then, when using assessment with gifted individuals for the purpose of senior recruitment or promotion, is that these two factors can lead candidates to try and ‘beat the system’. If this is not identified in time, the implication for organisations is that they could end up making the wrong decision.
So what is the solution to this?
The OE Cam Approach to Assessing the Clever Ones
The following case study illustrates the OE Cam methodology, with our robust approach to assessment that reduces risk by identifying what may be misleading information. With one of our clients we found that an unusually high number of IT Director candidates had attempted to manipulate their personality profiles. In identifying this, it became clear that there had been an attempt by many to ‘cover up’ some of their interpersonal shortfalls. In addition to capability questions, our ERCONIC™ approach focuses on life and career history, looking for patterns and inconsistencies to understand personal and career motives and drivers. We explore what the individual has been good at and not so good at, how they have developed over time, their self-awareness, conscious competence/incompetence. We cross-reference this with psychological profiles and our knowledge about the business and the role. We then link the insights from this process to make a judgement about the accuracy of the data and predicted capability against the requirement of the role. In addition we benchmark this against other similar roles we have assessed. This allows us to advise our clients on critical decisions and how to manage risks that emerge.
That same pattern of clever people wanting to outsmart assessments and cover up flaws has popped up in a range of other professional groups. In my experience there are two main reasons why candidates behave in this way. In some cases, as in the example above, it is a conscious attempt to misrepresent themselves. When this is so, identifying it makes it possible to ask the pertinent questions, looking at whether or not there is anything for the organisation to be concerned about. However, in other cases, candidates might actually believe some of their own inaccurate responses, having convinced themselves incorrectly with a lot of logic and lots of ‘evidence’. This then leads me on to the second challenge of assessing clever people, this time within development contexts, namely their propensity to suffer from ‘confirmation bias’.
This restrictive perfectionism is often driven by the fact that until now they have often achieved top marks at everything they attempted, making them feel a lot of pressure to only attempt things that guarantee the same success”
Understanding Confirmation Bias
In psychology, confirmation bias refers to the tendency for people to search for, interpret, or remember information in a way that confirms their existing beliefs or hypotheses. This is fine when people’s beliefs about themselves are accurate, but when they filter information to reaffirm false beliefs, it can limit their potential and even cause great distress. It doesn’t surprise me that I see this bias a lot with intelligent people in professional services, since they are merely applying to themselves that same skill that allows them to formulate convincing arguments to get their points across to colleagues. The classic example will be a lawyer with the potential to become a Partner of the firm who is uncomfortable with the feedback that they are not proactive enough with client relationships. They find numerous examples of well thought through logic to evidence that they don’t need to spend more time developing client relationships and that the firm has got it wrong. They then use that logic to focus on fee earning work that should be delegated rather than develop a client relationship. In many cases that I have worked with, they are excellent at their current work, wanting to focus on what they know best. At the same time, they may not be aware that what is holding them back is an underlying feeling of discomfort about developing client relationships. Without fully realising it, they may be operating out of a concern that if they end up focusing on it, they might not do as well. This restrictive perfectionism is often driven by the fact that until now they have often achieved top marks at everything they attempted, making them feel a lot of pressure to only attempt things that guarantee the same success. As will be elaborated in the next case study, the task of an OE Cam consultant here is to help the client become aware of what is driving their behaviour, deconstruct some of their unfounded negative beliefs and get them to the point where they can feel comfortable fulfilling the firm’s requirements.
A good example of a particularly intelligent senior executive, who had convinced himself that he was less capable than he was in reality, is the work I did with Paul. He had an exceptional academic background, but kept getting told that he was not effective at influencing the Board. He was convinced that it was his council estate childhood that was the reason he was struggling to become a director in his organisation, feeling certain that his colleagues did not trust ‘people like him’. He could recall very detailed examples of his social faux pas over the years and recounted that, because of those, he was not fully accepted. Despite having a 1st from Oxford, he was fixated with examples from his past that he had convinced himself were barriers to him now.
Using the OE Cam ERCONIC™ assessment methodology I was able to cut right through Paul’s very convincing evidence by testing his hypothesis. Instead of looking for more evidence of social faux pas that had left him feeling a fool, I looked for examples of when he had handled social situations particularly well, which as it transpired, happened frequently for him. In fact, he found so many examples that he was finally able to agree that this was the norm. The further we explored this, the more apparent it became to him that his fixation on his background was in fact an inaccurate representation of his experience and that he had therefore, inappropriately, been using it to justify his inability to influence the board.
Having deconstructed Paul’s long held belief, I could then combine my development assessment with the feedback I had received about him from the board. Paul was now ready to see that in fact, the real reason he was struggling to influence his colleagues was that he was using an unsuitable approach to doing so. Paul was spending very little time with board members. He presented proposals to them that were devoid of emotion and used pure logic and lots of facts, as well as trying to put time pressures on the board to force them into quick decisions. This approach had served him well in a previous organisation and it fitted his personality. However, the board in his current organisation responded better when, before they were given recommendations, were first told the whole picture including both the facts and the emotional elements, were given options and all the evidence they needed to make their own assessments first. Until the board had all that information they would not accept his recommendation.
Until that point, each time the board asked Paul whether he had considered alternative options he would feel like they did not trust him because he wasn’t ‘one of them’. He would then become irritated and not want to give them the information. But in reality, his social background was only ever an issue in his head as an explanation for failing to influence. However, being clever, once he understood his prior misunderstandings, he quickly adjusted his approach to influencing and the last I heard, he now sits on that board.
A trend that I’ve seen developing recently is that professional services firms are increasingly assessing potential Partners and Directors several years before they are ready, in order to flag the requirements of the role earlier and put in place the development required. I believe this is a move for the better and one which encourages more openness at the assessment phase.
Assessing individuals who for most of their lives have been top in their game or pretty close is challenging whether they are being assessed for selection or development. However, with a robust methodology like our ERCONIC™ approach we can provide much deeper insights which you can then use to identify and leverage opportunities and manage risks more effectively.
So, how do your clever ones measure up?
1. Avery Pennarun – http://apenwarr.ca/log/?m=201407#01