Were psychometrics to blame?

It’s true that the Co-op Bank’s decision to appoint Paul Flowers as its Chairman was baffling in its wrongness: a Methodist minister with no financial experience to speak of, who hired rent boys and was caught in a sting operation where he was filmed apparently buying crystal meth and cocaine. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Flowers_(banker) Dubbed The Crystal Methodist, he is reported to be writing a book and starting up as an after-dinner speaker. Well, good luck to him, there have been stranger career resurrections than that.

But in the wake of the scandal, and the serious damage it has done to the Bank, the search for scapegoats is continuing. And guess what? It was all the fault of psychometrics. I have worked throughout my career with journalists, have been a freelance writer myself and was married to a journalist for many decades so I think I can say with authority that there is nothing a journo likes better than de-bunking. And many journos are specially fond of debunking psycho-babble. At one level who can blame them? We coaches, psychologists and consultants do love a nice bit of psychobabble: it can cover our anxiety about whether what we do actually has any value, so adding a few long words and over-claiming for their scientific validity can smudge things up beautifully.

This makes us – and psychometrics – a bit of an easy target. Tom Whipple had some fun in The Times on February 1 2014 where in one smooth slide he went from reporting that Rev Flowers had ‘passed’ a psychometric test to an unsubstantiated claim that the Myers Briggs (MBTI) must be the culprit to an even more unsubstantiated claim that its use is ‘widespread’ as a selection tool in the finance sector to then some of the usual meant-to-be-witty attacks on the ‘test’ for its apparently simplistic structure. Hold on Tom! First, you don’t know that the MBTI was involved because the Co-op Bank have refused to name the ‘test’. Second where is your evidence that the MBTI is used for selection as opposed to development in the finance or any other sector? And have you ever taken the MBTI yourself with a proper de-brief?

For the record, although not unheard of, it is rare for the MBTI to be used for selection. When you do the licensing training you sign up to ethical use, including agreeing to using it only for development – where it is magnificent – and not for selection – for which it was explicitly never designed. And personality questionnaires are not ‘tests’ since there are no right answers, so you cannot ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ them. Maybe the Rev Flowers took some psychometrics such as numeracy or verbal reasoning, which genuinely are tests and do have right/wrong answers. It is easy for journalists to get confused here.

Some of this happens because those of us in the business of working with organizations on this tricky human stuff are not clear enough ourselves about what psychometrics can and cannot do. We can get so blinded with love for the power of the MBTI, for instance, that it becomes a whole way of seeing the world, when, mighty though it is, it has well known weaknesses and limits. Where trait-based instruments like the NEO or 16PF are concerned, lack of time and perhaps lack of expertise can mean that we rely on computer-generated narrative reports which are invariably bland and cautious. We do this rather than slogging through the more tricky but ultimately more subtle and valuable task of writing our own reports. We may over-sell the benefits of psychometrics because we like the idea of being ‘experts’, or fail to persuade commissioning clients that there are more effective methods of providing data for the selection process than just administering a few questionnaires.

This can combine fatally with the grandiose ideas that many appointment committees can have about their own allegedly superior intuitive ability to judge candidates, where it is common to over-rely on a traditional panel interview, a selection method with the lowest level of correlation with performance in the job.

Ultimately, the decision to appoint Paul Flowers was the result of an extremely poorly designed recruitment process. The Co-op culture, with its legacy of 19thc labyrinthine bureaucracy and apparent ‘democracy’ also seems to have contributed.

But this event is also uncomfortable for the senior HR staff at the Bank who should have been tough, trusted and reliable advisors to the selectors. This would have included reminding them that however impeccable the methodology, there is no process in the world that can guarantee a perfect appointment. All you can ever do is minimize the risk of hiring the wrong person. In this case, even had he somehow got through the assessment process, a rigorous probe of this man’s reputation, background, skills and track record would soon have revealed that he was not the right man for the job. Sorry, journos, but it was nothing much to do with the psychometrics.