In the world of academia, leadership is “a process of social influence in which a person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task”, as defined by M.Chemers. In the business world, a leader is someone who can create an inspiring vision of the future, motivate people to engage with that vision and inspire them, as well as manage the vision delivery.
It is considered leaders are honest, confident, committed, creative, intuitive, have a positive attitude and great communication skills, may inspire others and easily delegate tasks to the appropriate persons or departments, as well as use different approaches with different people.
The combination of all the above skills and characteristics in the same person is highly desirable for organizations and recruiters, but it is quite hard to find. For decades, HR executives have been struggling to standardize the way which will make it easier for them to recognize leaders. Psychometric tests have been extensively used over the years, in order to analyze the candidates’ personality, mindset and abilities.
Is psychometry really the right way to identify leadership potential?
According to Robert McHenry, founder of OPP (a provider of business psychology solutions, which delivers psychometric tests to about 80 of the FTSE top 100 companies), the answer is no. In the article “Are psychometric tests a good way to select your leaders?”, authored by Karen Higginbottom, she asked McHenry his opinion on this issue. His response was truly interesting: “I would never recommend a psychometric test to recruit a leader in isolation”. Keeping in mind that this was stated by a very experienced professional in the field of psychometric testing, this is a rather strong and remarkable statement.
Professor Cary Cooper, a renowned professor of organizational health and psychology at Lancaster University Management School in the UK, seems to also agree. Professor Cooper believes that most occupational psychologists avoid relying solely on psychometric tests when evaluating and selecting candidates. Instead, he suggests that the highest reliability for recruitment would be an assessment center, i.e. the combination of psychometric tests, group meetings, and work sampling.
Can psychometric tests be applied solely or not?
So why is that the case? Aren’t standardized, well-designed tests enough to identify leadership characteristics?
It is true that psychometric tests identify and evaluate competencies, values, personality traits and intelligence. For example, questions related to goals, thinking forward, teamwork, providing inspiration and motivation are essential to recognizing leaders and there are many psychometric tests that include such questions. However, as Dennis Kerslake, mentor at Merryck (a business leader mentoring company) puts it, “all a psychometric test will give you is the basis for having a right conversation and I would advise organizations not to rely on a psychometric test for selecting a candidate”. What he suggests is that psychometric tests cannot replace intuition. Recruiters need to have constructive conversations with the candidates in order to see whether they are a good fit for the company, as well as for the specific role.
In addition, other criteria beyond score in a psychometric test should be incorporated in the decision-making process. Let’s consider the following situation: after completing the process of psychometric testing, a company has a dilemma between two candidates for a senior position. Candidate A did extremely well on the psychometric tests, but comes from a completely different background and has never so far had a leader’s position. Candidate B did quite well on the psychometric tests, but his score was slightly lower than candidate’s A. However, he has more than 10 years of experience in this specific sector and is already leading a team of 6 persons. What should the company do?
Without implying that people who have never had leadership positions before should not be given a chance to do so, or that people should never change industries, it would be more natural to assume that candidate B would be more appropriate for the position. This is due to the fact that this individual would be familiar with the particularities of this business sector and their “leadership” record can be checked. The recruiters may very well ask carefully selected and targeted questions concerning this person’s achievements in their previous position, how they handled conflicts, or whether they participated in strategic decisions.
Moreover, chemistry is crucial when selecting a leader; and, of course, chemistry cannot be measured in any test. Candidates that have done very well in a standardized test do not necessarily fit with the corporate culture. This is why candidates for senior positions, which entail leadership, need to spend time with the board of directors and their future colleagues. Recruiting decisions should not be taken rapidly, simply because someone has achieved a remarkable score in a test. It is much safer for both the candidate and the company to get to know each other. What if the board does not like or trust this person? What if the candidate cannot get along with key persons in the organization, who are directly related to this particular job function? It is better to know before hiring someone solely because his psychometric score was exceptional.
Besides, even if a psychometric test has indeed measured someone’s potential to be a leader, is this person the type of leader suitable for the role? Different types of leaders are required for different job positions. Most recruiters seem to believe that a charismatic leader is desirable for all job functions, which is not true. In fact, Ahmed Raza describes twelve different leadership styles in his article “12 Different Types of Leadership Styles”: autocratic, democratic, strategic, transformational, team, cross-cultural, facilitative, laissez-faire, transactional, coaching, charismatic and visionary. Many other categorizations of leadership styles may be found, but I believe this one is the most detailed and inclusive. So, depending on the duties of a senior role, a different leadership style and characteristics may be required- and usually, psychometric tests have a standardized set of questions for leadership in general.
Last but not least, we should always keep in mind what Sue Mitchell, a specialist in psychometric testing, states about leadership in her article “Leadership and Psychometric Testing”. Sue says that there is no formula for the attributes of a leader and leadership is not a thing you can get. Developing leadership is a journey. This means no one can turn into a leader by following a standardized set of rules or processes. Leadership has to do with the way we are and the way we evolve over time. And since psychometric testing has an absolute approach towards human behavior, a “black or white” approach, it cannot recognize leaders. Leadership usually lies within the “grey” area of human behavior, the area where there is no right or wrong necessarily; the area where maybe corrective action has to be taken in order to change something that seemed “right” when a decision was made but is no longer right.
Where the Gamification Steps In
This is exactly why gamification is becoming more and more popular in the corporate world. Games facilitate the effort of organizations to identify leaders because they usually have a longer duration, they entail a more strategic direction and they require a “sequence” of actions that affect one another. Candidates deal with real-world scenarios while recruiters and HR executives have the chance to watch their reactions to certain difficult or unusual situations. In games, there is usually no (single) right answer; rather there are multiple different options and they can lead to different results. A certain selection or sequence of decisions may be better than others, but candidates may be identified as leaders even after taking a less effective path, according to the decisions they make and how they manage to improve a certain situation.
It is not accidental that major multinational companies have developed online games and tailor-made simulations in order to attract talent and recognize leaders. Such companies also use games as a training tool for leadership development. This means that gamification may be used in very interesting ways related to leadership: a) in order to help recruiters identify leaders and b) in order to help employees enhance their leadership skills.
The perfect recipe for leaders recognition
Thus, the sole use of psychometric tests is not enough to recognize leaders. In case a company decides to use psychometry as a way to identify and measure the leadership potential of candidates, it should combine psychometric tests with a series of interviews, constructive discussions, meetings with the board of directors and groups meetings with future colleagues. It should also take into account the candidate’s background and experience. Or, a company may develop a fun game in order to be able to recognize leaders. Which of the two options seems more effective and timesaving? I believe that the answer is rather obvious. Gamification it is!