Why Good People Underperform

As I headed to LinkedIn’s Talent Connect recruiting industry confab last week with more than 4,000 of the world’s best recruiters and talent leaders, someone tweeted me this headline:

Why Lou Adler is Wrong About Personality Assessment Tests

As I was leaving the conference a Talent Leader from a Fortune 200 company strong-armed me and said something strange. It went something like, “While we’ve aced our pre-hire quality of hire assessments, we’re struggling with improving quality of hire.”

That’s why I’m not wrong about pre-hire personality assessment tests. If they don't predict quality of hire they are valueless.

Good people don’t underperform due to the wrong personality, the wrong behaviors or some Quixotic definition of culture fit or lack of intelligence or weak team or technical skills. They underperform for one or more of the following reasons:

  • They’re not motivated to do the actual work required since the job they’re being asked to perform after being hired was ill-defined before they were hired.
  • Being competent to do something is not the same as being motivated to do it.
  • Being motivated to get a job is not the same as being motivated to do the job.
  • The interview focused on assessing competencies, behaviors and depth of skills that only weakly map to the actual work required to be done.
  • The hiring manager and candidate don’t work too well together.
  • While actual cultural fit is very important, few managers or recruiters understand what this means and how to measure it properly.

That’s why I’m not wrong about pre-hire personality assessment tests. Nor am I wrong about the continued use of flawed and ill-advised OD interviewing and assessment tests that put people into large groups and expect to hire perfect androids who will fit all jobs for all occasions.

Here’s my simpleminded alternative.

  1. Recognize that there are two job markets. One offers ill-defined lateral transfers; the other offers career moves. People in the career job market won’t take assessment tests nor will they underperform if properly assessed. This huge barrier-to-entry is why I really don’t like these tests. However, even if they’re reasonably good confirming indicators of performance they're only mildly predictive.
  2. Emphasize passive candidate recruiting since these candidates represent 85% of the entire talent market. But they’re only open to consider career moves.
  3. Drop transactional hiring and recruiting practices. Instead use a consultative recruiting process focusing on matching a person’s motivating needs with the real job, the real manager and the actual culture.
  4. A career move must provide a minimum 30% non-monetary increase. This is the sum of job stretch, job growth and a richer mix of more satisfying work.
  5. Use a performance-based job description to define the real work, not one infested with skills.
  6. Use comparable results as the primary means to assess pre-hire quality, motivation and cultural fit. Here’s a super quick summary of the Performance-based Interview process I recommend.
  7. Redefine your culture. Most of a company’s culture is determined by the pace of the organization, the quality and depth of its decision-making process, the flexibility of its infrastructure, its strategy and how well it’s doing in comparison to its competition. You need to match this part before you get into the idealism.
  8. Put compensation in the parking lot. If a person doesn’t find the job intrinsically satisfying, paying the person a salary premium will make things worse.
  9. Get the manager fit part right. Nothing else will matter otherwise.
  10. Make hiring managers formally accountable for the quality of the people they hire.
  11. If recruiters need to present more than four candidates for any open job something is wrong. It’s probably one of the first 10 items listed here.

Maybe assessment tests, competency modeling and behavioral interviewing can help separate the more qualified from the less qualified in a talent surplus environment. But quality of hire will not improve since these people are not being assessed on their fit with the actual job, the actual manager and the actual culture and business situation. In this case there’s a high probability these good people will underperform because the job is demotivating, the hiring manager’s style is demotivating or the culture was ill-defined.

That’s why I suggest recruiters and hiring managers define the real job and the real culture and offer real career moves. Recognize that a career move is not a lateral transfer with more money; it’s doing work that offers more stretch, more growth and more satisfaction. Assessment tests assess none of these things. That’s why I don’t like them.