How the recruitment assessments surprised me – again!

When I am involved in recruitment, I refer to a suite of assessments to explore behaviours, motivations, resilience, integrity & a few other things. All of these NEURO-M Candidate Assessments were developed over years of trial (& yes, error) so we are now at the stage where we can reliably predict how a candidate is likely to behave in what context, to who & why. They’ve also been reliable at explaining why candidates really left previous roles or are looking for a new one – the consistency, let alone the predictive power of that information, has been amazing. All of which tells me I should have known better.

There was a time a couple of years ago when I interviewed a guy who looked, on paper, suitable for a role with a long-term client. He had the experience, skills & in his interview he also fit the personal values we were looking for. For most decision-makers this may have been enough to engage him in the role, but I know that, for me, a good decision requires more than ticked boxes and a pleasant conversation.

Some of his assessment results were entirely in line with how he presented – nervous & chatty in the stress of an interview, but normally quiet, focusing on task details, building relationships & getting generally on with others. This was absolutely in accordance with his temperament assessment. Other assessments showed him tentative in the face of challenges, something that could be managed easily enough for that role, as well as having a preferred working style that was reasonably consistent with what the role demanded. I had a little concern about him working casually for a few different employers for the previous few years but in his industry that was not so unusual.

The surprise came in his motivation assessment, which looks at matching subconscious needs with what a role might reasonably be able to offer, a process based on our Integrated Model of Employee Engagement (after Epstein, Grawe & Rossouw.) His assessment showed that he was not getting much out of his current role at all, but that his intrinsic motivational needs were in fact so low that they weren’t a bad match for how they were being rewarded, despite their paucity.

A good match in motivational needs & their satisfaction indicates a wish for stability, with no desire to change roles, tasks, workmates or environments unless absolutely necessary (e.g., redundancy), or indeed for any change in performance or behaviour. But a match at such an unprecedented low level suggests almost no motivation to get up out of bed, or indeed go to the effort of breathing, let alone taking on change or challenges. I noted, “If the assessment results are true, it would align with his lack of career direction, initial stability then recent instability, but, due to extremes, reliability is unlikely”.

As you’d know, when evaluating assessment result content & usefulness we have to keep in the back of our minds that even the very best self-assessments aren’t completely foolproof, sometimes in design but more commonly in interpretation or attempts at deception (difficult in this assessment), as well as of our own confirmation bias & how it might distort how we interpret data. And, in all humility, we have to be realistic  in accepting that no model or assessment can be completely accurate for all of the people all of the time. So, despite my confidence in the assessment’s proven reliability, I put the outlier info aside & wondered how the assessment might have gone so wrong in that single case.

And for good reason – every research statistician knows that a result that far outside the norm MUST be an outlier & therefore of no practical value so there has to be an error somewhere. So I continued to include him in my considerations, albeit a touch cautiously. That is, until he sent me a text saying that his partner had told him the role wouldn’t be suitable, despite the stability, suitability, job security & higher pay!

Damn my lack of faith! Unbelievably, the assessment was right! His data were outliers because of where they sat on the chart, but not in their accuracy. In reality they were as accurate, representative & useful as any of our other data.

As it turns out, this person is suited to a role where he has no career & very little commitment or, as it happens, pressure to do much more than turn up, even if that means being treated poorly, with poor job security, unhealthy hours & very low rewards. I think he really wanted more, but his avoidance schema is so strong that commitment, any commitment, is too much. It might also have been fear of rejection – perhaps he withdrew rather than risk getting bad news. Unfortunately, he appears to live in survival* mode and there is a likelihood of anxiety playing an unhelpfully large role in his life.

The partner’s involvement may or may not have been true – the data suggests that she would have only have had to sow doubt in his mind or agree with him on any hesitation, let alone instruct him. Either way, the challenge of either doing the job, or taking a positive position, was too much for him & so he reduced risk, as imaginary as it was, by avoiding it. It’s a common approach, but not to the extent that a person has such low motivational needs that “bad” is more appealing than hope or change. In any case, he was a nice guy & I hope he can find a way of stimulating his brain’s positive reward systems to marshal the energy to take steps to secure his own future and well-being.

As it turns out we had 2 other terrific applicants who were an excellent fit for the role (including the breathing part) so everyone is happy & my client can continue doing great work in leading their industry. The lesson for me was that I really should trust the reliability of my assessments, no matter how weird the results might look when an “outlier” pops up, including where those results challenge my perceptions of what is “likely”, let alone possible.

*”Survival mode” is where the amygdala, our brain’s alarm system, is triggered to the extent that our flight or fight response kicks in, instructing us to act aggressively or defensively with little capacity for rational, positive, solution-oriented thought due to reduced blood flow to the prefrontal cortex & down-regulation of the hippocampus. This natural neurobiological response evolved as a handy response to physical threat, but is generally unhelpful in other contexts. Part of the natural fear response system, over-activation of the fight or flight “survival” mode is all-too-common for people suffering from anxiety.