When it comes to hiring, we all want the best—A laundry list of relevant experience at top organizations, references to die for (think the Elon Musk type and Tim Cooks of the world), and a slew of degrees from schools with Ivy League status.
But what is this list of must-haves really doing for our organization? What can it really predict about the success of a candidate as an employee? These components of what we think are the perfect candidate may look shiny on paper but can it translate in the workplace?
To understand if a candidate has what it takes to succeed in a role, let’s look past the resume and start by looking at whether or not this person is cognitively capable to do the job.
Intelligence is used in everyday language to mean a lot of things. Sometimes people use it to mean Crystalized Intelligence (verbal ability, numerical ability, reading comprehension) or sometimes Fluid Intelligence (visualization, spatial relations, induction).
All of these things are tied to an underlying general trait—General cognitive ability.
You might be wondering “Why not just ask a candidate for an IQ score?” Well, not all IQ tests are created equal. Intelligence scores tend to correlate with IQ scores, which also correlate with general cognitive ability (not a perfect correlation, but enough to show they are related).
Technically, you could ask candidates for their IQ scores BUT those assessments are designed for psychological use and aren’t always practical or meant for workforce use, so be careful!
For instance, IQ tests tend to be much longer than assessments that measure general cognitive ability.
Also, you would have to make sure that you are using the same IQ test for everyone, because these assessments use different score scales and are based on population samples and could reflect scores from different groups.
You’d also have to make sure you use a valid and reliable assessment. You can’t just have everyone take a random internet IQ test.
How to measure intelligence
We established that IQ tests are not the way to go when it comes to hiring, so how can you actually measure intelligence?
There’s different ways you can go about measuring intelligence and it really depends on what your use case is.
At The Predictive Index (PI), we work in workforce assessment, so we need somethings that’s easy to give a lot of different people that will work with a great general population, especially globally.
PI’s own Cognitive Assessment uses multiple choice response items in a speeded response format. We also design the questions so they are, for the most part, culturally neutral and load heavily on the certain tasks that are related to general cognitive ability.
But there’s other ways to measure intelligence or general cognitive ability that are more for clinical use, or to diagnose certain, let’s say, cognitive disabilities or diseases, and so those can be tailored specific to those use cases. Those might be way more in-depth or specific to a certain type of population, the kind of thing where it might require observations that go for days or months with a psychologist. That obviously doesn’t work for workforce assessment, but is good for clinical use.
There’s even people who are developing general cognitive ability assessments that are based on things like gameplay or behavioral observations…I’m getting ahead of myself here…The point is, there’s a lot of different ways you can collect evidence about intelligence. It really just depends on what works for your application.
Back to PI…I mentioned how we have our very own Cognitive Assessment.
Our assessment uses multiple choice format for each question. All questions are weighted equally and we calculate the score by adding the number of correct answers.
An important factor to our Cognitive Assessment is that there’s a timed component to it. Someone could get all the corrections correct if they had unlimited time to take the assessment. Almost anybody would be able to answer their best with unlimited time but adding that 12-minutes pressure is what makes the assessment difficult.
What can be gained from a cognitive assessment?
When it comes to workplace cognitive assessments the question is not “how smart is this person?” but rather “are they smart enough given the requirements of this job?”
The cognitive abilities needed to, say, stock grocery shelves are not the same as those needed to plan logistics for a chain of grocery stores.
This gives the hiring manager a way to define the cognitive demands of a job and then to evaluate candidates against that criterion.
Of course, the manager will also need to consider other things, like experience, skills, personality etc.
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Predicting job performance
When it comes to job performance, we like to use the term “predictors” to describe measures that can help us figure out who would be the best fit for a job.
There are lots of different predictors and the best practice is to combine several of them when making hiring decisions. Experience, education, knowledge, references, work samples or portfolios, skills, behavioral, etc. are all predictors. But cognitive ability has been found to be the best single predictor of job performance. The theory is that is has to do with information processing.
General cognitive ability relates to job performance in all jobs but that relationship is stronger in more complex jobs. That’s because complex jobs require more information processing.
Just think about all the types of information that might need to be understood and acted upon, even in a simple job—Following new instructions, identifying potential issues, reacting to an unexpected problem, changing your work to adapt to a new situation, anticipating what is coming up next.
We are all processing information all the time and people who can do that well tend to out perform their peers.
Can you hire someone too smart?
You can’t hire someone too smart. The misconception is that a really smart person will get bored at a job that is too easy for them, and then they will actually underperform. There is no research that supports this.
We all hear this and think of some rocket scientist who loses their job and has to work as a cashier and they’re really bored and so as a result she can’t even do the cashier job well.
There’s TV shows and movies loosely based on this narrative of a genius who is forced by circumstance to work at some menial job…Good Will Hunting comes to mind.
But that’s not reality. If someone is applying for a job with you, they want to work there, at least a little bit. And if they have higher cognitive ability research shows that they will likely perform better than other people at that job.
Your job, as their manager, is to retain them—Give them some opportunities to challenge themselves further, perhaps set clear paths for future promotion, and then you can develop these smart people into your next cohort of smart managers.
Legal ramifications of screening for cognitive ability
There’s no legal implications for asking candidates to take a cognitive ability assessment.
And that’s because you can show the cognitive ability is related to the job duties and performance on the job. The legal complications would occur if you relied solely on cognitive ability to make, say, a hiring or promotion decision.
In the U.S., let’s say, this could lead to something like adverse impact, which would mean you overly select people from one group and not enough from another group. So let’s say, for example, a company only interviewed people with certain cognitive score. Well, that cognitive score is now acting as the gatekeeper for the rest of the hiring process. It’s not being considered simultaneously; This could lead to adverse impact.
This is why we design the PI Cognitive Assessment to be used differently than just a pass/fail sort of thing. We instruct our clients to use cognitive ability in conjunction with a lot of other relevant data like education, training, personality traits, skills, so it’s not overly weighted in the hiring decision. But we also don’t use it as just a pass/fail instrument too. We talk about someone being a great match or a good match or a not so good match to the cognitive demands of a particular role, as opposed to saying, “you have to have this score or higher.”
You may be hiring blind
People succeed at their jobs all the time without having taken a cognitive assessment. But the fact is, if you went out on the street and hired the first ten people to walk by, some of them might be amazing at the job but some of them might also be really terrible. Using a cognitive assessment can help reduce the risk of those really terrible hires ending up at your company.
Look at it likes this: We collect data is to make more informed decisions. A lot of companies use things like references, resumes, and structured interviews to predict performance, but if you can use something like a cognitive assessment, you’ll make a more informed decision because when it boils down to it, these assessments are predictive of performance.
Learn more about cognitive assessments and hiring smart from PI’s own psychometrician, and watch the replay to our Hire smart: Easier said than done webinar.