I’ve just spoken to a friend who tells me that the tech company he works for, one of the world’s most well-known brand names, uses IQ or its surrogates – SAT, GMAT, GPA scores and the like – as critical requirement for employment – even if they were scores from many years ago. Basically, they are trying to ensure that their employees are the smartest people around.
But are the smartest the best in any given job? Not necessarily. Take two friends of mine. One, the most successful kid in my high school class, ended up as a CEO in the cable industry and retired after selling his company. He had been a B- student. The other, a kid I knew in my class at Amherst College, had perfect scores on his SATs – two 800s, and top numbers on three advanced placement tests. He now works for himself helping people set up their home computer systems.
If IQ predicted achievement in the working world, you’d expect the reverse career outcomes for my two friends. And that’s the problem: IQ is a mirage when it comes to how someone actually will perform on any given job. It tells you nothing about that person’s drive or self-mastery, their ability to collaborate or empathize, let alone their ethics.
IQ tests predict best how well people do taking similar tests-–i.e, school performance. IQ also predicts well what kind of job a person can get and hold – that is, it roughly reflects a person’s level of cognitive capacity, whether that allows them to be a sales clerk or an astrophysicist.
But once a person is in a job, other abilities matter more than how well they do at taking tests. This is why hundreds of studies have found that IQ predicts job performance best (though not all that well) at the start of a person’s career, and progressively weakens over the course of that career.
Here’s a summary of data on the trivial value of IQ as a predictor of job performance, a dirty little secret that has been well-known within psychology for decades (Ericsson et al, 1993):
The relation of IQ to exceptional performance is rather weak in many domains…For scientists, engineers, and medical doctors…the correlations between ability measures and occupational success are only around 0.2, accounting for only 4% of the variance (Baird, 1985). More generally, prediction of occupational success from psychometric tests has not been very successful. In a review of more than one hundred studies, Ghiselli (1966) found the average correlation between success-on-the-job measurements and aptitude-test scores to be 0.19. Aptitude tests can predict performance immediately after training with an average correlation of 0.3, but the correlation between performance after training and final performance on the job is only about 0.2 (Ghiselli, 1966). Reviews of subsequent research have reported very similar correlation estimates. When corrections were made for the restriction of range of these samples and for unreliability of performance measures, Hunter and Hunter (1984) found that only cognitive ability emerged as a useful predictor with an average adjusted correlation of 0.5 with early job performance. However, a recent review (Hulin, Henry and Noon, 1990) has shown that with increased experience on the job the predictive validities of ability tests for performance decrease over time by an average correlation of 0.6. This implies that ability tests can predict early performance on a job, whereas final performance is poorly predicted.
So what predicts how well someone will actually do? Measures of the specific competencies that distinguish star performers from average in a given job from the average.
“Competency modeling,” as the method for identifying such competencies for a given job is called, has been used for decades by most world-class companies to identify the abilities that foster outstanding performance. That method, detailed in Spencer and Spencer (1993), tells us, for example, that for the tech sector generally, the top six competencies that most powerfully predict star performance are:
- The drive to continually improve performance. These people measure how well they do, search for ways to improve outcomes, set challenging goals, and innovate.
- They are impactful: they can make persuasive arguments based on hard fact, they know how to tailor a presentation to their audience, and they are concerned about their own or their organization’s reputation.
- Conceptual thinking: they identify underlying problems and address them, they recognize the key actions that will make a difference, and they spot patterns that matter and make essential connections.
- Analysis: They anticipate obstacles, break problems down systematically, see consequences and implications within a system, and draw logical conclusions.
- Initiative: they are persistent in tackling problems, and take on a challenge or solve a problem on their own before being asked to do so.
- Self-confident: they trust their judgment, seek out challenges, and operate best when given independence.
IQ itself is not on this list. And an IQ or SAT score may tell you little about the specific cognitive abilities that matter for effectiveness on this list.
To be sure, a high level of cognitive talent is no doubt a threshold ability for entry into the tech sector – though not necessarily for every job: excellence in managerial and leadership positions, for example, depends most heavily on emotional intelligence abilities.
Threshold competencies like IQ are those everyone needs to get and hold a given job. However, smart hiring and promoting looks beyond these for distinguishing competencies, the abilities that identify outstanding performers.
- L. L. Baird (1985), “Do grades and tests poredict adult achievement?” Research in Higher Education, 23, 3-85.
- K. A. Ericsson (1993), “The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance,” Psychological Review, 3, 363-406.
- E. Ghiselli (1966), The Validity of Occupational Aptitude Tests. New York: Wiley.
- C. L. Hulin et al. (1990), “Adding a dimension: Time as a factoring the generalizability of predictive relationships,” Psychological Bulletin, 107, 328-340.
- L. Spencer and S. Spencer (1993), Competence at Work, New York: Wiley.