Competencies, personalities or behaviours by James Parsons

Competencies, personalities or behaviours:  what are you measuring and why?

Increasingly, psychometric and other assessment techniques, interview frameworks and selection methodologies are rebranding themselves as “behavioural” rather than, more honestly, measuring what they were designed to – personality or competence.  The CIPD describes a competency as ‘the behaviour that lies behind competent performance, such as critical thinking or analytical skills, and describes what people bring to the job.’  Now that’s kind of confusing, so let’s clear up some definitions up front to make things easier:

Competencies are actions that we learn through repetition.  You could, for example, evidence a high level of measurable competence in public speaking, managing teams across borders, managing operational change or tax accounting.  You are competent at something if you have practised or honed it to a specific level to have done it successfully before.  Assessing competencies effectively looks at these actions, evaluating evidence of the person’s skills and abilities.  These are measured against set criteria, indicating how likely a person will be able to conduct the job.

Personality, as defined by American Psychology Association, refers to “individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving.  The study of personality focuses on two broad areas: one is understanding individual differences in particular personality characteristics, such as sociability or irritability.  The other is understanding how the various parts of a person come together as a whole.”  Tests measuring personality are available everywhere – at the last count, some 2,500 are commercially available – and perhaps the most famous is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), based on Jungian psychology which seeks to “type” people into 16 personality types.  Despite its fame, MBTI is not completely reliable and crucially, its predictive capacities are called into question by many academic practitioners.

Behaviours refer to drive or urge to behave in a specific way in a given situation.  At Miramar, we are fond of a well-validated profiling instrument called PRISM Brain Mapping to help us measure behaviours in individuals and map them against what clients say they are looking for.  Neurologically, we are measuring the brain’s natural preferences for certain  behaviours, in effect to see how much horse power it uses (metabolic, oxygenated blood flow, calorie usage, etc.) because we know the brain is “lazy” in that it always works through paths of least resistance to conserve precious energy.  Behavioural assessment is situational: it measures how an individual responds to their immediate environment and stimuli, whether stress from colleagues, what they prioritise, what they avoid and what gets them angry.  Ultimately it presents of how they are naturally “driven” to act without conscious awareness (PRISM calls this underlying behaviour) or feels “compelled” to act in order to survive (PRISM calls this adapted behaviour) in a workplace environment.  Data from PRISM feeds in directly to our in-house candidate interviewing tool, which highlights key areas for enquiry concerning both competencies and behaviours deemed as critical for job success.  The result is a consistent, objective and robust process to ensure both talent and experience are considered in full when moving individuals through the search process.

Most search firms use competency models – why the additional focus on behaviours?

Two reasons:

a)  Most of our clients have developed competency framework already (and if not we infer from the brief what the critical competencies are ourselves);

b)  Many studies have shown that the predictive power of behavioural profiling in addition to more conventional competency-based assessment substantially increases the likelihood of a good “fit” when looking to hire

“Being good at something and liking something are not always the same thing”

To summarise, behavioural assessment shows how we respond to different situations behaviourally and thus gives an idea of the kind of environment best suited to someone.  Competency assessment simply assesses how good we are at something and is less interested in whether we like it or not.

In practice, this means that while a person may have good communication and team working skills and might have learned (PRISM: adapted) over the years to do it, it might not mean that they enjoy or prefer working in a way where they are constantly using those skills.  In fact, when you are extending in behaviours beyond what you find naturally comfortable, you are in effect asking your brain to consistently do things it doesn’t find neurologically easy (i.e. your brain is being inefficient, using too much energy).  This is what psychology calls “falsifying type” and can lead to both mental and physiological problems.  It stands to reason – if your brain is using more glucose and oxygenated blood flow, there is less available for other body functions, which can compromise immunity and lead to illness.  Conversely, if you are inhibiting naturally preferred behaviours, it can become very frustrating over time and the source of much disengagement, often beyond awareness of most individuals and their employers to address until it’s too late.  Being good at something and liking something are not always the same thing and confusing these two things can lead to poor career decisions and of course bad hiring decisions.

What about behavioural assessment?

No tool can measure everything.  Note that instruments like PRISM don’t measure the whole personality but rather measures the specific factors that drive behaviour as well as the natural and adapted behaviours of an individual.  By assessing these behavioural criteria, you can gain a deeper insight into aspects of a person and what they revert to under stress, such as:

  •  How they prefer to influence situations and people
  •  How they work in a team
  •  What their decision making and communication styles are
  •  What’s their tolerance for risk

Progressive firms increasingly use behavioural assessments because observation alone based on interviews can be misleading.  Humans have learned to adapt ourselves to whichever environment we find ourselves in and are adept at saying what we want to hear, rather than the truth.  Also, the confirmation biases we all have mean staying objective and accurate is tough – we might hire the best interviewee and not the best candidate.

Research from Harvard and Leadership IQ conducted over the past decade has reported that 46% of new hires will fail within 18 months.  Consequently, if you select candidates based on your subjective observations, without any insight into their hidden behavioural preferences, you’re risking placing someone in a role they’re not suited for, even if on paper they could do it.

In other words, behavioural assessment helps identify what’s below the surface of your candidates, things that they might rather not reveal.


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