“Hire for attitude, train for skill” – Is Cognitive Ability or Personality more important in selecti

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In the current economic climate, there is generally a large pool of talent to search through when recruiting for a role. This can be an employer’s dream (or nightmare) given the abundance of choice, although at times, the finding of true talent can prove to be a difficult task. Sometimes, it can feel close to a miracle to find an individual who possesses all the desirable attributes for the role and generally, some degree of compromise is required.

Working in psychological assessment for selection and recruitment, one of the biggest dilemmas or obstacles that we encounter is what is more important – the cognitive capability of the candidate or their personality characteristics. Of course, all things being equal, a strong fit on both dimensions would be ideal, however if an aspect of either the personality or cognitive abilities does not match the requirements of the role, this can make the waters far murkier. The situation can then become even trickier when candidates are being compared for the position, with differing strengths seen across varying dimensions.

One third of the performance success in managerial positions

has been attributed to cognitive ability.

In the psychology sphere there has been multitudes of research from both sides of the fence. A commonly held belief is “hire for attitude, train for skill”, wherein if you recruit those with strong behavioral assets relevant to the role, the technical aspects of the role can be trained. However, cognitive ability is a very strong predictor of on-the-job success, accounting for a significant proportion of the predicted performance in both managerial and semi-skilled positions.

Conscientious employees are more committed and loyal, as well

as exhibiting less turnover and greater career satisfaction.

​​In a similar vein, measures of personality can effectively predict on-the-job performance outcomes. Within this, the strongest predictor of work performance is conscientiousness, ​​which encompasses areas such as a person’s dependability, level of structure, self-discipline and achievement motivation. Employees who are conscientious have been shown to demonstrate greater commitment and loyalty to their organisations, as well as less turnover and greater career satisfaction – a big tick in many employers’ books.

Source: traittheory.weebly.com

Given that generally a well-rounded psychological assessment process usually entails measures of both cognitive capability and personality, it isn’t an unexpected finding that both of these dimensions are predictive of work performance. This, however, doesn’t make the question of which is more predictive of on-the-job performance any clearer. A range of other contextual factors are important to consider.

For some positions, a high degree of cognitive capability is a core requirement. From a young age it is instilled in us that if we try hard enough we can achieve anything we set our mind to. Motivation and conscientiousness may help to a point, but people can only do what they are able to and sometimes they may struggle with the complexities of higher level positions. For roles that require on-going learning demands, with tasks that require high level problem solving, and entail significant ambiguity, cognitive ability is a strong predictor, above and beyond conscientiousness.

Those with a higher level of cognitive

capability may create un-warranted complexities within

less intellectually challenging roles.

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It's not entirely groundbreaking that performance success in higher level roles requires a greater level of cognitive capability, however how about the flip side of this? We are quite often faced with employers who want all of their employees to be “stars”, both from a cognitive and personality perspective. However, on-the-job performance in roles that are repetitive, consistent and routine is less associated with cognitive ability. It has been our experience that if a job is routine, repetitive and not cognitively challenging, this can not only prove to be less satisfying and more frustrating for those with a higher level of cognitive capability, but they may also start to create complexities within the role to challenge themselves. This could result in introducing new processes and more complex methods or potentially creating conflicts with other employees.

Conscientiousness is a stronger predictor

of safety behaviours for those with low levels of cognitive ability.

Whilst some roles do require a level of cognitive ability to be able to undertake the likely intellectual demands, other roles require people to demonstrate certain behavioural characteristics in order to succeed in the position. In many fields safety culture is of particular concern given the nature of the work environment, thus employing individuals who can implement such practices is a top priority. Accident involvement has been linked to low conscientiousness and low agreeableness, high sensation seeking and egocentricity; all elements commonly found in personality assessments.

Now, everything above has spoken about cognitive ability and personality in isolation, however in the workplace they do interact. In regards to safety culture, those with higher levels of cognitive ability are more likely to demonstrate safety behaviors regardless of their level of conscientiousness. However, conscientiousness was a stronger predictor of safety behaviours for those with low levels of cognitive ability. Logically, this makes sense, if a person has the intellectual ability to problem solve through information and foresee the consequences, they will likely be able to foresee if their actions will lead to harmful outcomes and thus not proceed (or, generally, we would assume so).

The relationship between cognitive ability and

performance success can deteriorate over time.

Cognitive ability and conscientiousness have also been found to interact in another way in regards to the acquisition of new skills. For new employees, cognitive ability is more predictive of performance whereas conscientiousness is more predictive of performance for experienced employees. Cognitive ability generally indicates how quickly one can learn and pick up new processes, job knowledge and skills, however the relationship between cognitive ability and performance success does deteriorate over time. Once the employee has learned the essential tasks, duties and responsibilities, that person must remain effective on-the-job, suggesting that conscientiousness is more important as time goes on.

This makes sense in regards to an individual’s performance in one role, or within a company, although this can also relate to how experienced a person is in their career or chosen field of employment. If someone has been working in similar jobs, with similar work demands over a long period of time, they would have already acquired the necessary job knowledge and skills, or at least be on track to do so, and therefore conscientiousness may be a stronger predictor of performance for them. When looking at a graduate in the field, however, cognitive ability may be of more importance given their inexperience and the potential for a steep learning curve.

Both personality and cognitive ability

must be carefully considered to make an objective and

effective recruitment decision.


Source: traittheory.weebly.com

In summary, often the answers to complex questions are themselves complex, and in saying this, there is no straightforward answer to the question - is cognitive capability or personality more important for performance success? The characteristics and complexities of the role dictate what is required, and this subsequently interacts with the characteristics and complexities of the person applying for the position. So to strive to make an objective and effective decision using psychometric assessment as a component, both must be carefully considered for their intricacies and how they interact to implicate or amplify each other.

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