How Intelligent Are Our Methods of Judging Capability

Published on : 12 Jan 2016
6 min read
Category : Leadership

Our understanding of what constitutes human capability is so sketchy that in management and leadership education, very little attention is given to comprehend this. This is strange especially the heart of running any social institution be it commercial or others, is leveraging human ability to make capital create surplus for economic and social progress. Yet we do not have a common understanding of what aspects of human capability drives what kind of performance. So we end up using non-specific, unreliable and inadequate methods to check out human capability. This is like using a thermometer to figure out the performance of the human body. This also makes capability development hit or miss activity.

Let us take a case in point to examine this hypothesis.

Take a look at the selection process to the best B-Schools in the world. The selection process is weighted heavily on the analytical aspects of human ability. It is also loaded heavily on someone’s academic track record as proof of learnability. There is at best a cursory weightage given to emotional and social abilities, almost none to conceptual abilities. This is despite the central mandate of B-schools being development of a student as an entrepreneur and a leader and not an analyst.

The unstated belief seems to be that for someone to be successful in running social institutions; commercial and others, cognitive abilities override emotional and social abilities. Add to this our unshakable faith that the best verification of someone’s cognitive ability comes from what are popularly known as intelligence tests, which challenges someone’s, numerical, verbal and spatial comprehension & manipulation abilities and are simulated by inducing difficulty by limiting the time.

Thus we conclude that management or leadership success is largely driven by problem solving abilities to the exclusion of others. We also conclude that superior problem solving abilities comes from analytical abilities (logico-mathematical). We also believe that strong analytical ability is a credible predictor of someone’s conceptual and envisioning abilities (perspectives and imagination). So much for our over simplification of predicting or judging cognitive abilities!

We also believe that we have devised a method to judge cognitive abilities in a more reliable and valid manner, hence the method is objective. We also believe that our ability to objectively judge emotional and social capabilities is suspect (the reliability and validity is poorer) hence we will either ignore it or attempt to assess it cursorily. So we will assign lower weightage to emotional and social capability assessment metrics. The fallacy in this assumption by now should be stark to the readers.

Should we not pause and ask the question; which any “logical and analytical” person will ask; when all things are equal, what is the discriminating capability that determines success in business? Who succeeds more often in say negotiating deals; the cognitively more proficient or the emotionally and socially more proficient? Who succeeds more often when designing a product; the analytically proficient or the conceptually more proficient? Who succeeds more often in coordinating and driving execution of large and diverse teams; the analytically more proficient or interpersonally more suave? The answer to all the questions is complex. We will have to conclude that in all cases, it is a combination, though loaded more in favour of the latter propositions in each of the 3 scenarios.

I know in most commercial organisations if the leaders are Ivy leaguers, they despite their great intellect, oversimplify the definition of human capability predictors, with over reliance on academic marks, specially mathematics and intelligence tests. The fact is there is no one size fit all judgment method of human capability. Paradoxically, these leaders grossly under value the contribution of their own conceptual, visualisation, emotional and social abilities to their leadership success.

Often oversimplification of a complex phenomenon makes people blind. This has led to these leaders over attributing the contribution of logical and analytical thinking to their leadership success. It is time for us to therefore examine the origins and the function of intelligence tests and put it in context. This is important because for close to 60 years, every organisation has without any application of mind, adopted intelligence tests, as the sole determiner of the human capability required for all kinds of roles.

In early 1900’s the French Government had passed laws requiring all French children to attend school. It therefore became important to identify children who would need special assistance. Faced with this challenge the French Psychologist Alfred Binet along with his colleague Theodore Simon, set out to find what would best predict success in school.

He soon found out that some children were able to answer questions which were that of advanced levels, while few could answer questions only at the level of children younger to them. So Binet and Simon suggested that there could be a measure of intelligence based on average abilities of children calibrated to certain age groups; in a way it was categorising children as par with their age group and above or below their age group. It was a concept based on, what is the mental age development of a child, when compared to her chronological age.

It is important to note that Binet himself did not believe that his psychometric instrument could be used to measure a single, permanent and inborn level of intelligence. He insisted that intelligence is influenced by a number of factors, changes over time and can only be compared among children with similar backgrounds.

In 1916 the Stanford-Binet intelligence tests became the standard intelligence tests in US. This gave birth to the famous “Intelligence quotient” or the “IQ”. The US army during the 1st World war faced with the challenge of screening candidates adapted this as Army Alpha and Beta tests. The US further used the IQ test to screen new immigrants, as they entered US through the Ellis Island. In due course of time, IQ scores became a badge of honour or should we say brag badge, for the accomplished adults in politics and business.

The irony is that during the last 70 years, all types of institutions have in one way or other been using a variant of the Binet intelligence tests, with no understanding of what they are seeking to predict or judge.

Are they trying to understand the mental age of the prospective recruit? Are they trying to understand the learning advantage or handicap a prospective recruit is likely to have? Or are they trying to judge the probability of success on job; in which case should we not ask which job? We can pardon the B-Schools for assigning higher weightage on intelligence tests because they are at least using it for admission to an academic institute, even though unlike Binet they are using it on adults.

But the sheer misapplication of intelligence tests by commercial organisations is inexplicable. They use this as a socially acceptable tool to reject candidates than predict job success. No wonder that after so many years of use of these tests, there is no credible research to substantiate their ability to predict job success in any industry or any role. As a wicked aside, let me pose a challenge to the ivy-league CEOs who swear by academic track record and intelligence tests, to now take one of these intelligence tests or even GMAT or CAT and check out their scores.

Let me narrate a hilarious story in which I was the protagonist.

At ICICI Bank in the early 2000’s we were using a type of intelligence test designed by a well-known multinational testing organisation. We were using this test to select the first level managers from the B-Schools and laterals. I was proud that the degree of comprehensiveness and difficulty of this test made it a good discriminator to select the best managers. Then 2 cycles into it, in 2003, Mr.Kamath the then MD & CEO of the bank had a conversation with me. He asked me, how was I sure that this test was not actually losing for ICICI Bank competent managers and selecting the wrong ones? He then posed a challenge to me to administer this test to the top 100 managers in ICICI Bank, Board level and 2 levels down. His proposition was that about 15 to 20 years of track record as successful managers and leaders, got these 100 managers where they have reached in the Bank. We should be able to compare their intelligence test scores and validate whether the test we were using had predictive validity. As they say the rest is history. Out of the 100 senior managers who have built ICICI Bank over the past 15 years, people with outstanding academic track record from the best institutions, only one manager could clear the cut-off we had set for the fresher’s.

Similarly, if we were to administer CAT or GMAT to 100 top CEOs and compare their performance in percentile standing terms with the younger aspirants for B-schools, I have no doubt that 90% of these successful CEOs would come a cropper. If we have such unshakable faith in these tests to predict success in management roles, should we not set up this experiment once to prove their predictive validity for management and leadership jobs? My argument cannot be twisted perversely that CEOs lack intelligence; it is more to substantiate that the tests, we use have no ability to predict what we are seeking to predict; performance and success in a variety of management, entrepreneurial and leadership roles.

This opened my eyes to the blind adoption of intelligence tests to assess ability and also using one size fit all tests, with no proof that they predict performance in a variety of jobs. It helped me understand that we do not have clarity on, what abilities predict success for what job. In fact we do not even have any idea about human capabilities and its link to performance in various spheres of life.

It made me ask, why I was using intelligence tests on adults who have had 2 years in pre-primary, 10 years in secondary, five years in under graduate education. What will I find about them that 17 years of formal education certification does not vouch safe, even granting for all the issues around these certifications? It was more foolish for me to have used it on Post graduates.Binet and Simon would have disapproved of my foolish endeavour.

More than all this, the clincher is that there is no proven link between intelligence test scores and performance in any job or role as a manager or a leader in any business. There is enough and more evidence that emotional and social abilities in fact are the success differentiators in leadership roles. We have ironically adopted and propagated a method, without applying our intelligence, when we were testing others for their intelligence!


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