What should we measure to predict job performance?
Organisations spend millions of pounds each year measuring cognitive ability as well as various personality dimensions – and they are right to do so. Although personality and ability are not perfect predictors, they are a good deal better than the alternatives.
Two classic papers help demonstrate this. The first by Robertson and Smith (2001), shows that two factors predict performance best of all – cognitive ability and integrity. Of these, cognitive ability is the best single predictor of performance. At the bottom, interestingly, are factors such as handwriting (no surprise), but also years of experience, age, job references and even (unstructured) interviews. Anyone with an interest in valid, reliable and fair selection processes should read this paper.
And yet the challenge must be to improve selection processes still further. After all, even the best selection methods predict only around 60% of someone’s likely job performance. Clearly other factors matter.
This is why in the second classic paper by Sackett and Lievens (2008), the authors identify the need for incremental validity – factors which add to our ability to predict performance over and above existing measures. They identify situation based moderators as being critical to improving our understanding of how specific traits predict job performance. In other words, the extent to which the situation itself overrides ‘personality’ or ability factors, and demands a more flexible set of responses.
This is why we should measure a third factor; psychological flexibility. The (accurate but pretty awful) technical definition of psychological flexibility is:
“contacting the present moment fully as a conscious human being, and based on what the situation affords, changing or persisting in behavior in the service of chosen values”.
What this means in practice is a measure of someone’s ability to:
- Focus on the present moment, including awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions and the demands of the situation; and then
- act in accordance with one’s chosen goals or values at that time.
Psychological flexibility is therefore a measure of the extent to which someone is able to transcend their automatic or learned patterns of behaviour, and act in ways which better fit the situation:
“This enhanced capacity for noticing, and responding to, the goal opportunities that exist in one’s environment has been described as “goal-related context sensitivity” (Bond, Flaxman, & Bunce, 2008).
‘Goal-related context sensitivity’ can be thought of as a secondary skill which helps people to implement their primary skills (e.g. communication, problem solving, creative thinking) more effectively. By measuring psychological flexibility we can assess how well someone can adapt or persist in the face of difficulty and how well they are able to remain focused on the demands of the present, rather than implementing the same strategies irrespective of the situation.
Psychological flexibility has been shown to predict performance of an in itself (see Bond et al 2008) but it also helps us account for situational awareness. Therefore if we want to build on our understanding and prediction of high performance, we should measure this, too.
- Robertson, I.T. and Smith, M. (2001). ‘Personnel Selection’, Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, vol.74. no.4, pp.441-72
- Sackett, Paul R. and Lievens, Filip, Personnel Selection. Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 59, January 2008. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1141954
- Bond, F. W., Flaxman, P. E., & Bunce, D. (2008). The influence of psychological flexibility on work redesign: Mediated moderation of a work reorganization intervention. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 645-654.