Being a Good Leadership Test and Assessment Consumer

Author: Warren Bobrow | Source: HCI | Published: June 20, 2013

Organizations and HR leaders today are facing some of the biggest and most talented labor pools in history, and navigating through this requires patience, processes, and tools. While there are many different types of tests and assessments readily available today, the sheer number can be overwhelming.
What is a test in the talent management space? For our purposes, a test is any exercise, questionnaire, or simulation that is used to evaluate the suitability of a job candidate or potential leader. Keep in mind that just as important as choosing an assessment is determining the proper use for it. To use tests most effectively, there are some fundamental questions to ask:

  • Validity. Does the test predict performance or measure critical knowledge, skills, or abilities? The best assessments have a body of research behind them that demonstrate correlated effectiveness: those who do better on the test do better on the job and/or the content of the test aligns with the content of the position.
  • Results comprehension. What do the scores of the particular test or assessment really mean? If a candidate scores 38.3 on a test, how is that number interpreted?  Knowing average scores and distribution of the test is critical to understand what the results of a test show.  
  • Demographic differentiators. Do different protected demographic groups score differently? There are average score differences by group on some assessments, and this may affect how the assessment is administered and/or how the results are interpreted.

What are the different types of tests and assessments and when should they be used? It’s important to first analyze the position you are looking to fill (or promote someone into) and determine what test is most valid. Below are six common kinds of tests and assessments HR leaders can use, depending on the objective at hand:

  • 1) Basic Abilities Tests. These assess cognitive ability, math, reading, and other traditional skills. Technology has made administering these tests easy and affordable, and they tend to be accurate predictor of performance for a wide variety of positions.  The cognitive ability tests are particularly useful for selecting leaders as they measure the ability to solve problems well.
  • 2) Specific Job Performance Tests. Examples are word processing and programming tests that allow job candidates to demonstrate the skills required of a position. These tests can be developed in house and are useful in evaluating a person on specialized abilities aligned with a role.  You can and should really get creative with these.
  • 3) Assessment Centers. An AC is a process where candidates (usually for leadership roles) are able to participate in multiple realistic simulations, but can also include basic skills, personality tests, and interviews. Several people evaluate this series of assessments to develop a broad perspective on the participants’ leadership and managerial skills. An AC is as valuable for development as it is for selection because the feedback is almost always actionable.  It is a great tool for identifying and developing future leaders.
  • 4) 360 Feedback. Do not use 360 Feedback for promotional decisions. A good 360 process requires candor and trust, and when people are competing for resources, these elements cannot exist. Additionally, there are questions about the reliability of the data - Can you trust the peer ratings?  Are people who are willing to admit their weaknesses at a disadvantage compared to people of equal abilities who are self-promoters?
  • 5) Personality Tests. Well-established personality tests (not just ones you find on the Internet) that focus on specific traits (conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, etc.) can yield interesting and valuable findings. Research has demonstrated that specific personality traits can be good predictors of managerial performance so that information can be valuable, but use personality test results with caution when they are part of a leadership development program. A person can’t change their personality any more than they can change their height, and it can be insulting and detrimental if a participant is told how they “should” be.
  • 6) “Type” Tests. People who use tests of type (Myers-Briggs, DiSC, etc) for selection and promotion of leaders are missing the point of these assessments and they should not be used for hiring. There is no data that shows that being a certain “type” means someone will be more effective in any job, let alone a leadership position. While a person might find a position more interesting and satisfying, they will not necessarily be better at it merely as a result of that categorization.

The good news is that research and technology have increased the access to, and cost of, valid and reliable tests, but this has also increased access to invalid and unreliable tests. For HR to be a valued business partner in the leadership identification and development arena, it needs to recommend selection systems and development techniques that are fair, legal, and deliver ROI to the business. There are many effective tools, tests and assessments to help do this, but it’s in your hands to choose the most effective one(s).
Warren Bobrow, Ph.D. specializes in employee selection, manager assessment, structured interviews, and opinion surveys. He has worked in a diverse range of industries, including customer contact centers, finance, health care, petroleum, retail, distribution, telecommunications, utilities, and apparel manufacturing throughout North America, Europe and Asia. Dr. Bobrow strives to create assessment programs that a client can easily manage and are designed to meet their specific needs. You can read his blog for occasional comments on leadership and employee selection.