Chances are that on a subliminal level, you have already formed an opinion of a prospective employee within a tenth of a second – at least according to Princeton Psychologists Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov. You may not believe it, feeling you are a fairly good judge of character when it comes to sizing someone up. I’m certainly all for following your intuition (or “judgement and discretion” in psychometric terms). However, there are THREE questions you SHOULD ask every prospective employee – especially for senior level appointments.
As you may (or may not know), psychometrics is the use of various tools and techniques to basically quantify human behaviour into measurable data. Of course human beings are complex creatures and decisions pertaining to employment should never be based on this data alone. The point is that as a science, psychometrics is worth its weight in gold. I am going to teach you a technique which is actually a departure from a psychometric tool I use when conducting interviews for one of my clients. To utilise this effectively, you need to have a solid basis in Stratified Systems Theory; if you don’t, here’s an overview of this widely applied theorem.
According to Elliot Jaques, a Canadian psychoanalyst and organisational psychologist, managers in organisations are required to grow and acquire new skills as businesses evolve. Their ability to change and assimilate new skills and knowledge may be based on their potential capabilities and cognitive ability. Jaques proposes that work is structured in levels of increasing complexity in the organisation. Higher levels in the organisation therefore require greater cognitive skills than at the lower levels. At different levels in the organisation, tasks vary due to their complexity and become more unstructured and complex at the higher levels in the organisation. “Cognitive complexity” includes the ability to use environmental indicators to make distinctions, classify things, identify complex relationships and develop creative solutions to problems (Grobler, 2005).
With that in mind, here is the first of three critical questions you should be asking your prospective employees.
1. What is the most complex problem you have solved at work?
Allow your candidate a few moments to think of an example of the most complex problem they have solved; if they can’t think of anything, allow them the opportunity to revisit this question later, as it’s probably the trickiest to answer. What you are looking for is the type of problem they have solved, the impact it had on them, their team, and potentially the business as a whole, as well as who conceived the idea.
A relatively operational answer (SST 1-2) will focus on a tangible problem which the candidate may have been tasked with solving, and the impact was primarily felt in that person’s day to day operations, or possibility within their department. An example may be the candidate (let’s call him Joe) gets tasked by his boss to increase their website traffic in the hopes of attracting new clients. Joe suggests making their SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) values better. Joe does some research, works out what algorithms work for certain key words, and comes up with a creative strategy to implement to attract more traffic to the company’s website. DO NOT get seduced by the use of strategic language here; all Joe did was rely on his application of gained knowledge and expertise to come up with a solution to a problem.
More strategic answers (SST 3 onwards) are usually, though not always, the candidate’s own idea. In other words, they didn’t have to be asked by their superior to implement a solution to a problem – they simply recognised an issue and came up with a creative solution, adapted from best practice or in some instances, something completely novel, which would have a medium to long term impact (not just a reactive resolution to an immediate crisis).
An example may be a senior level candidate (let’s call him John) moves to a new department, but because there is limited budget, he no longer has a dedicated Personal Assistant or Administrator to assist him with his travel bookings. John needs to fly all over South Africa rather frequently, and is thus responsible for booking his flights, car rental and accommodation. As a formality he may need to await a Purchase Order number from the finance department in order to secure a flight; however, due to the nature of his job always being on the road or dealing with his customers, he may not always be “online”, and thus when a PO number does come through, he may have missed the window period of making the booking – resulting in losing his flight at the desired price and potentially even space on the preferred flight. Perhaps John sees an opportunity to approach his IT department to build an interface that works in symbiosis with his preferred travel agent, so that as booking requests are made, PO’s are automatically generated, and thus when John does log onto his laptop, he simply makes his desired bookings without waiting authorisation. This solution may not only solve John’s problem, but may be implemented into various divisions of the business, cutting expenses, and streamlining the process.
Here one can identify that John did not refer to what’s been done in the past; he came up with a completely novel idea (perhaps not a novel concept) and took this vision to his colleagues – in the process rallying his resources. Not only did he implement an innovative solution (with the help of his team) which would make his life easier, but it would have had an impact on the business, and on bottom line.
Remember with each answer your candidate provides you with; ask them what was significant of the experience? What “stood out” for them? Specialists who work best in operational environments will almost always refer to how it made them feel better; how they experienced a sense of inner accomplishment in resolving an issue, persuading others, or nurturing a relationship. They may say things like “it made me feel good about what I achieved” or “I enjoyed the recognition”. Strategic thinkers are always thinking from a global perspective, and although the impact may be felt from an individual level, the significance of creating a more efficient system (or innovative one altogether) gives them a sense of satisfaction.
Next month we’ll look at the second critical question you should be asking prospective staff members. However remember, in order for this technique to be utilised in scientific manner, it should be posed by a trained professional with expert knowledge on psychological theory. You are welcome to use it (even try it on some of your current peers and employees) and see if you can gauge their applied capability.
If you are interested in employing a more scientific approach to your recruitment process, get in touch with one of our consultants, where we will be able to advise you on the most appropriate psychometric assessments for your business.
Grobler, Schalk W (2005) “Research Report: Organisational Structure and Elliot Jaques’ Stratified Systems Theory”. UNISA: Johannesburg
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