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The Psychometrics Centre

University of Cambridge Judge Business School

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A Spoonfull of Sugar

last modified Oct 05, 2013 05:10 PM

Ian Florance

The US hit television series 'The Apprentice' pitted a series of candidates against  flamboyant entrepreneur Donald Trump. They were given a series of tasks which weeded them out until a winner was offered a job in Trump's organisation. The UK adaptation of the series hasalso been a great success, with the 2nd series hitting our screens in Spring 2006. In The UK Sir Alan Sugar is cast in the Donald Trump role.

The Apprentice is an anthology of selection methods: a sort of televised assessment centre using work samples, interviewing and less structured social interaction to find a successful candidate. So, Alan Sugar's comments on how he judged the wannabee high fliers is directly relevant to our work at The Psychometrics Centre.

"For no reason, you take an immediate like or dislike to people, but over time my thoughts changed tremendously ... gut instinct is not the one to go for."

"Forget about flicking your hair back or having a handsome attack," he instructs the would-be executives. "I don't want to blow my own trumpet but I'm looking for someone similar to me."

Business folklore suggests that interviews don't predict job success that well, even though 97% of companies use them.* It's sometimes said that interviewers make up their minds in the first couple of minutes of an interview, and spend the rest of the time actively searching for evidence to back up their initial judgement.

Sir Alan Sugar's comments  are about a far wider and more pressured set of social interactions than a job interview, but they tap into the same set of issues any interviewer must consider.

Sir Alan is 'looking for someone similar' to himself. Maybe he's right.  But unthinkingly 'cloning' yourself can lead to disaster. Teams work better when they're made up of complementary skills (though rarely when they consist of conflicting personalities). Do you want to employ someone who simply agrees with you the whole time? Even if you're searching for a successor, is the task they face exactly the same as the one you've worked through?  The world, the market, the business will almost certainly have changed. Are the same set of skills and attributes needed to take the organisation to the next stage?

Sir Alan identifies the pitfall when you meet a candidate for the first time: making up your mind on gut instinct and sticking to it.  All sorts of factors influence your first impressions:

  • if a candidate is particularly good at one thing - talking eloquently, for instance - interviewers tend to judge them as good at everything. This is the well known 'halo effect', the reverse of which - a single weakness colours your judgement of the whole person - is known as the 'devil effect'.
  • body language affects our view of people, yet is hugely affected by cultural and gender factors which have no bearing on particular job success.
  • physically attractive people of either sex are always rated higher by interviewers.
  • your judgement of a candidate is often influenced by how the immediately preceding one or two have performed.

The introduction of more structured techniques improves interviews' predictive power hugely, though unstructured interviews are still pretty inaccurate because of the above factors. You need to prepare for an interview - not least by professional interview training - as much as you do to use and interpret a test. 
Tests and other techniques are used to bring stringency and objectivity to a selection process. Of their nature they aren't a total solution: tests measure critical attributes very accurately (if used well) but cannot practically give a view of the whole person. That's precisely why almost all companies use interviews as well as tests, assessment centres, references and other techniques.

But interviews can also be evaluated to see how well they're achieving your objectives.

Psychometrics is about any human decision-making process. We talk about psychometric tests, why not psychometric interviews, assessed for their fairness, accuracy and predictive power?

There's a growing trend to use testing, informal assessment and even more formal psychometrics as a kind of entertainment. Most reality TV shows like The Apprentice are based on the idea that the participants are competing, are being assessed and will either win or lose. Sometimes this is harmless fun. But at its worst, this sort of thing can trivialise an important area.  Such shows, by contrast, highlight exactly why we should take such care over people decisions - and why we should continually monitor whether, in fact, they're delivering the goods. 

• Figure taken from "Introduction to Work and Organizational Psychology" Edited by Nik Chmiel, published by Blackwell (2000)

© Ian Florance, February, 2005, Revised June 2006, All rights reserved

Ian Florance is an Associate of The Psychometrics Centre and Director of Only Connect Ltd.