In theory... Psychometric testing

Emma De Vita's weekly look at management-speak

Isn't it suspicious how a manager's face will always light up when a set of statistics is shoved under his or her nose? PowerPoint slides: can't get enough of them. Profit and loss forecasts: bring 'em on. Wouldn't it be great, they muse, if everything could be reduced to a figure on a line? 

Take people. Employees are difficult things to process. Many claim to be reasonable human beings, but they are in fact illogical, irrational and emotional. Their unpredictable behaviour is a problem for managers, especially when it comes to recruiting and developing staff. So managers will turn to any scientific crutch to help them in their work. Enter psychometric testing.

Psychometric testing has been around since the sunset of the 19th century. Unsurprisingly, the ideas behind it were developed by an American, James McKeen Cattell, who developed methods of measuring mental ability and placing it on a scale or metric. At first, all that was measured was 'g' - 'general intelligence'. Over the past 15 years, personality, interests, knowledge and emotion have been added. The measurement of these traits, so the theory goes, provides a scientifically sound way of identifying a person's strengths and weaknesses - and their suitability for jobs in your organisation. Most of us have been subject to some kind of psychometric test. Remember the 11 Plus?

Naturally, there is some scepticism about psychometric testing. Some test questions are hardly taxing: "Do you like working with people?" "Are you motivated?" Only a fool would say no - but some employers do need fools.

Such tests are not usually used in isolation for recruitment, as managers like to get a measure of a person in the flesh. Indeed, there's a common suspicion that managers will pick people not for their astounding cognitive abilities, fierce ambition or emotional intelligence, but rather because they come recommended by friends, they look a lot like themselves and they'd be a laugh down the pub. So much for science.

- Emma De Vita is a senior section editor on Management Today.

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