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Are psychometric tests a good way to select your leaders?

Karen Higginbottom

According to media reports, the disgraced chair of the Co-op bank Paul Flowers was selected for the role of chairman as ‘he did well in psychometric tests’. What are the pros and cons of just using psychometric tests to assess a senior person's suitability for a role? Is it better to use a selection of assessment tools to recruit leaders? Karen Higginbottom investigates

In January this year, the Treasury Committee heard the testimony of Rodney Baker-Bates, the Co-op bank’s former deputy chairman who resigned in July 2012. He told MPs that he had been a candidate for the chairman role but the board decided to appoint Mr Flowers, even though he had no banking experience on the basis that ‘he did well in psychometric tests’. Psychometric tests are widely used by organisations when selecting leaders, comments Dennis Kerslake, mentor at Merryck, a business leader mentoring company. “There are a wide range of psychometric tests out there and organisations have to be clear about what they’re looking to test in a candidate.” 

Approximately 70% of UK organisations use aptitude tests in employee selection and 56% use personality tests when recruiting employees, according to an average of recruitment surveys published between 2002 and 2010 by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. 

It wasn’t until the 1950s that psychometric tests began to be used widely in the workplace, explained Robert McHenry, founder of OPP, a provider of business psychology solutions, which delivers psychometric tests to about 80 of the FTSE top 100 companies. “This was when companies outside of the armed services began to use them.”

The most common psychometric test when it comes to assessing potential leadership candidates is one of aptitude, remarked McHenry. However, Myers-Briggs is also used to test for personality, he added. “Some tests are really about talking to an individual about their general tendencies and entering a coaching conversation.  I would never recommend a psychometric test to recruit a leader in isolation.”

There are psychometric tests that test for personality traits, competencies, values and intelligence, adds Kerslake. He argued that psychometric tests played a role in giving an organisation business data but cautioned: “It doesn’t replace intuition. All a psychometric test will give you is the basis for having a right conversation and I would advise organisations not to rely on a psychometric test for selecting a candidate.”

It’s disastrous for organisations to rely solely on psychometric tests when it comes to recruiting senior business leaders, remarks Professor Cary Cooper, professor of organisational health and psychology at Lancaster University Management School.  

“The general feeling among occupational psychologists is that good practice for selecting candidates means you don’t just use psychometric tests. Very few psychologists would only use psychometric tests; the highest reliability for recruitment would be an assessment centre.”

An assessment centre would involve a series of interviews with a number of people that the candidate would work for, explains Professor Cooper. “In that assessment centre, a candidate would undergo a psychometric test, group meetings and work sampling. The latter could be giving a candidate a case study of a real-life work scenario such as task or problem that they will face in the job. That would test the senior manager’s ability to number crunch and whether they are able to be strategic in their thinking. Work sampling highlights how that individual will handle problems.”

Most organisations use a mixture of recruitment and selection methods when it comes to appointing senior managers, adds Professor Cooper. “Unfortunately, this is not the case when it comes to recruiting a chief executive or Chair. Then organisations are far more likely to go on the track record of the individual.” 

Psychometric tests have their place in selecting senior leaders, comments Kerslake. “They give you a sense of the strengths and weakness of a candidate.” However, Kerslake warned that other recruitment and selection methods were required as well. “An organisation also needs to have a constructive conversation around the requirements of the role and how the results of the psychometric tests make you more or less relevant for the role.”

Kerslake believes that chemistry, which cannot be identified by a psychometric test, is vital especially when it comes to selecting a chief executive or chairperson. “This person has to spend time with the board.  The danger is that individuals are recruited quickly and I’m a great believer in the candidate getting to know the company and vice-versa. Work shadowing is useful as the candidate can get to know the organisation. It’s really valuable for organisations to get to know the candidate.”

McHenry advises organisations to think long and hard about the relevant skills they want to test for within the psychometric tests. “Organisations must avoid having a stereotype of what a leader is and really think about the kind of leader that you need in your organisation. Some  organisations think they want a charismatic leader but that is rarely relevant."


  • Brian Hunt

    Psychometric tests are great for people who don't want to trust their own judgement.  If the task of assessing a candidate can be contracted out to a recruiter who then runs a bank of tests, the assessment can be deemed objective and free of any bias. <p>

    Human beings cover a wide range of different types and not everyone fit's neatly into a box or classification.  Judgement, experience and intuition should be valued more in making recruiting decisions.



  • Stella Chandler of Focal Point Training & Consultancy Ltd

    Great article - we completely agree that more than one selection method should be used at every level of recruitment. We see far too many instances of defaulting to a "nice lunch and a bit of a chat" for director level recruitment - often with dire consequences.  

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