Do You Feel Lucky?

Picture this… You are standing before your Board of Directors asking for approval to rent equipment. You tell them it costs $75,000 a year and its price will increase 6% annually. It only has a 1-% probability of performing like the demo and there is a 50/50 chance it will be a low producer. It cannot be upgraded or repaired. It might quit working any time. Furthermore, there is a 10% chance you will be sued if you terminate the contract. You conclude your presentation by assuring the Board that overall productivity will be maintained by renting excess machines to make up for individual inefficiency. Sound familiar? It should. It happens every time you hire an IT professional! No organization knowingly hires weak employees, but separating truth from fiction during the selection process is an enormous challenge. Experienced managers already know why employees fail – they just have trouble measuring it. Just look at their tool kit. Although it is still the most prevalent selection tool in practice, the pre-employment interview is only 1% accurate. Managers who normally demand detailed cost justifications for purchasing office equipment pride themselves on hiring people based on first impressions. Furthermore, many of the so-called “tests” used for selection have absolutely no documented relationship with performance on the job. It is no wonder the average probability of hiring a high producer holds constant at 50/50 – Stone Age tools produce Stone Age results. The results of mis-measurement are disastrous. The numbers should not shock you. Look at sales. Do 20% of the sales people produce 80% of the business? Now, think about the managers you have worked for. Have more than 20% been truly competent? How often have you seen people change based on attendance at a training program? It’s amazing to consider that organizations usually have a more rigorous set of technical specifications for purchasing a $6,000 computer than for selecting a $75,000 employee! Finding Success Patterns Most people are not fired because they are technically incompetent – it is because they didn’t “fit” the culture, couldn’t get along with people, or wouldn’t do the work. Technical skills are easy to measure, but they don’t cover the full story. Developing a set of “people” specifications requires an understanding of the traits associated with both high and low performance in the job. Some people would call these personality traits and others would call them motivations. I like to call them MIA’s (i.e., for Motivations, Interests and Attitudes). What ever you call them, a great deal of your employment success depends on your ability to measure MIA’s during selection. Of course, this kind of measurement is easier said than done. Would you be surprised if I said that people would say or do almost anything to get a job? Would you be surprised if I said people have even fibbed a little during an interview? Would you be surprised if I said personal references are not always honest? I didn’t think so. Finding traits associated with job performance takes a special test, a special process to build a unique answer key and some special scoring tools. Yes, I know there are plenty of personality tests around. But, have you noticed they tend to fall into two categories? There are the basic communication models used in training and the broad-based general descriptions of personality that some professor (who never worked in a business) put together. Seldom was either of these designs intended to predict explicit performance on the job. Trying to take a generic trait like “creative,” “intuitive,” “wooer,” “extraverted,” “supportive,” etc., and convert it into job performance can be pure guesswork. No matter how much fun it might be to play amateur “shrink,” employers are not in the analysis business, they only want to know if an applicant can do the job! Period. Fortunately, there is over 25 years of solid research where personality and job performance information can be found. If you take the time to read through all the studies, you can eventually learn which personality factors relate to performance and which factors do not. These factor can be reduced to just ten areas: an interest in problem solving, behavioral impulsiveness, interest in generating new ideas, social expressiveness, personal inflexibility, need for perfection, amount of self-centeredness, degree of rule following, willingness to work in teams, and attitude toward work. Great! You now know the “secret” of employment success! What will you do next? Go to Disney World? I think not. Knowing these ten factors is only the beginning. You must understand how the factors combine to affect each element of performance. To do that, you need to do some homework. To start, you need:

  1. A clear description of each job task that contributes to performance (i.e., resolving customer problems, supporting the organization, coaching employees, etc.)
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  3. Performance ratings on each job task from people already in the job (i.e., over, match, under)
  4. Scores on each MIA factor from people already performing the job
  5. Special pattern-recognition software to make sense of this stuff

It works like this. The greatest source of information about performance in your organization can be gathered from the incumbents and managers who work for you. Take, for example, programmers. Now, break the programming job into 15 or so measurable tasks. Next, ask the programmers to complete a test that measures their MIA’s. OK, you are done with the programmers. Now, it is the manager’s turn. Ask the managers to rate each programmer’s performance on each of the 15 measurable tasks (use a three-point behaviorally based anchor to assure accuracy). Finally, use pattern recognition software that can figure out which factors are associated with each performance rating for each task. (At this stage, people usually start whining about having to work. Just remember that building and following a detailed project plan is not fun, either, but an early investment will return dividends in the end. Get over it. Hire a consultant. Let’s move on.) Pattern recognition software (PRS) works like your brain. Your brain takes data from past experience, then “cooks” and “simmers” until it finds and stores patterns. When presented with a new piece of information, it “plugs” into the stored pattern and predicts the outcome. In a practical sense, some people call this “business savvy” or “expertise.” Just as your brain learns from past experience, PRS “cooks” and “simmers” until it finds and stores patterns between factor scores and manager performance ratings (the program has a 80% to 100% accuracy rate). Wallah! Your work is done. Now you have a “model” of performance that is based on real MIAs and real performance ratings. When a new candidate applies for the programmer job, you “plug” their MIA test scores into your “performance pattern” and predict ratings in areas like teamwork, interpersonal support, organizational fit, cooperation, interest in learning new information, etc.). The predictions will be unique to your culture, unique to each position and is virtually impossible to fake. Here’s an example. When one organization’s salespeople were rated for strategic ability, the MIA factors included problem solving, idea generation, flexibility, and expressiveness. For their managers, the same task was affected by rule following, teamwork, perfectionism, and impulsiveness. Low key persuasiveness among their managers was associated with idea generation, rule following, teamwork, and expressiveness. Among salespeople the factors included problem solving, teamwork, and impulsiveness. Learning ability for managers was associated with flexibility, teamwork, and perfectionism, while salespeople’s learning ability was driven by rule following, flexibility and teamwork. What have we learned from all this?

  • When “hard” skills are about equal, MIA’s make a significant difference between high and low performance
  • One set of MIA factors does not apply to all jobs any more than a single shoe size fits all people
  • Different personality factors combine to produce different performance ratings depending on the task
  • Different organizations, jobs and tasks will have vastly different MIA’s
  • The use of any single set of personality items is, to be polite, not “helpful”
  • Adding MIA data to your selection process gives you an accurate way to predict the “will do”