Paul Flowers became a bank chairman after a psychometric test. Can I try?

Carnation

The words "I really like most people I meet" flash on to my screen, as the computer asks me how strongly I might agree or disagree with that statement.

For me, this is a nice easy one with which to get off the mark, so I quickly disagree and move on to 242 further intrusions, asking if I possess a vivid imagination, if I'm a worrier, or if I tend to be cynical and sceptical about others' intentions.

Welcome to the world of the psychometric test, for which the top prize could be a bank chairmanship and bags of class A drugs.

At least that was the bounty scooped by Paul Flowers who – we learned last week via the Treasury select committee – rose to the top of the Co-op by scoring highly in a similar test, which seemed to trump any other concerns about his expertise, experience or lifestyle.

If I wasn't a cynical worrier with a vivid imagination before learning about the dear Rev Flowers' finance career, I find myself considering those points slightly more carefully now. But perhaps most troublesome is that the psychologist studying the results of my test does not seem to think that I should be barred from leading a major company either – at least not solely on the data in front of him. That's despite me emerging as someone scoring very low on the scales measuring self-discipline, outgoingness and orderliness and very high marks on, er, absolutely nothing.

Still, if you're the type of person who focuses on the positives, you might hone in on the one character trait where I did manage to score a high mark – imagination – leaving the overall package painting a portrait of some sort of cross between Walter Mitty and Albert Steptoe. As well as being used by the Co-op, psychometric tests are now used regularly, across business sectors, with most major headhunting firms testing candidates for major executive roles in this way, as a standard part of the selection process.

The examinations effectively measure five major character traits that psychologists say explain how we all differ from each other: emotional reactions, interpersonal patterns, openness to change, agreeableness, and work ethic. Each of the so-called big five is then divided into six further sub-categories and, even at that level of detail, there were very few assessments in my report that I could convincingly argue with.

But couldn't I just have lied in order to make myself out to be some tough businessman and bagged a cushy boardroom berth? Certainly people try, but it is probably not quite that easy.

One City human resources director says: "The tests have built-in questions to check if you are lying. It's a bit of a basic tool but could mean your results could be all over the shop if you try to manipulate it. Also, say you were going for a sales job – you could answer all the questions that make you sound ruthless and driven, even if you didn't feel that. But for most roles that doesn't work. Most companies are not looking for an extreme personality."

Psychologists also say that there is no particular profile that suggests somebody will be a good leader – although quite often bosses score low marks on scales such as "consideration for others" – so trying to manipulate the results may also be pointless. Also the scores only form part of the evaluation.

David Cooper, the founder of Cooper Limon, which conducts psychometric tests for businesses, says: "It is certainly possible for people to try to lie. But a decent psychologist will find that out. You take multiple data points and then you discuss it [with the candidate]. The assessment is primarily based on the conversation."

There are other clues that can be gleaned during these face-to-face meetings. For example, if, during his interview, the Rev Flowers took a second biscuit with his cup of tea this might provide a clue for the self-indulgence measure, which looks at how easily tempted a person is. How candidates talk about their own achievements can provide further information for the modesty score, and so on.

However, even psychometric testing's strongest advocates won't recommend the personality evaluations should be the major factor in hiring decisions, as was suggested in the Flowers case.

It is also thought to be more appropriate when recruiting executives, rather than part-time non-executives, like Flowers, as it provides an insight into how a certain personality might fit into an existing team.

Kit Bingham, head of the chair and non-executive director practice at City headhunters Odgers Berndtson, said: "I can't think of an occasion when we've been asked to use psychometric tests as part of a chairman appointment, though we frequently use it as a tool for executive appointments. So much of what makes a successful chairman is about experience, wisdom and sound judgement, as well chemistry, style and their fit with other members of the board, particularly the chief executive."

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Simon Goodley, for The Guardian on Friday 31st January 2014 15.52 Europe/London

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