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You don’t succeed or fail a psychometric test.

There are no pass and fail marks. There are ways to get the best from a test.

If a boss asks you to take a psychometric test, the chances are they want to know if you are right for a job. If you don’t match their needs, they may find a suitable opening elsewhere.

Psychometrics make the best use of employees

Some bosses use the tests like the Hogwarts sorting hat to make the best use of employees.

Supporters think the tests reveal attitudes and beliefs as well as personality. They can put empathic workers with good communications skills in front of customers. They can keep miserable bastards in the back rooms where they won’t upset anyone.

This is controversial. Not everyone agrees psychometric tests have value. Reducing personalities to a handful of key terms is handy. But it oversimplifies. It can lead to wrong assumptions about how people react to various circumstances.

Also, people change. If you take the same test on two different days you may get different results.

 

Cheating pointless

While it is possible to game a psychometric test: to show the personality needed for a plum job, cheating is hard and pointless.

Well-designed psychometric tests have subtle cross-references to tease out inconsistencies and spot cheats. Testers know when replies are not genuine.

Showing up as flaky and dishonest is not good (unless perhaps you are seeking a career where these traits are an asset). Alternatively, you may just end up looking like you’re confused or crazy.

This aside, cheating a psychometric test is pointless because the purpose is to decide whether you are a good fit for a particular job.

Why would you want to trick your way into a role which, by definition, you are unsuitable? Not only will you make yourself unhappy, but you’ll almost certainly doom yourself to failure.

So, what can you do to get the best from a test?

Ten tips for getting a good psychometric test result:

  1. Have a good sleep before your test. You’ll think clearer.
  2. Relax. Calm those nerves. This isn’t going to hurt. You’ll give a more accurate picture of your personality if you’re in relaxed frame of mind.
  3. Read the instructions carefully. Read the questions carefully. Reread anything that’s unclear. If the tester says anything you don’t understand before the test starts ask for clarification.
  4. Make sure you are comfortable.
  5. Don’t hurry. Psychometric tests are rarely timed, so work through the questions carefully and consider each answer before ticking the box or clicking the mouse.
  6. The testers want to know what you are like as an employee, so answer the questions based on what you are like at work and not at home or in private.
  7. Answer the questions based on how you feel now and not in the past or in the future. The company wants to use your current personality.
  8. Don’t read too much into each question. Individual questions don’t have hidden underlying  meanings, the subtlety lies in how the questions mesh together.
  9. Avoid making too many extreme answers. If you have to mark things on a scale of one to five make sure there are more twos, threes and fours than ones or fives.
  10. After the test is over ask the tester to discuss the results with you. While you may not get the job in question, the test may offer insights in to more suitable career options.

psychometric tests

Psychometric testing is controversial.

That hasn’t stopped it being popular with human resource managers and recruiters. They see it as a quick, efficient way of sorting people.

From their point of view CVs, interviews and references only show a person’s skills and experience. Uncovering their personality – in particular their ability to mesh with a corporate culture – is harder.

That’s the sales pitch. In reality stressed recruiters use a barrage of tests, including psychometrics, to speed hiring.

Some tests are automated. Candidates sit computerised psychometric tests – perhaps in a recruitment company’s offices. In other cases professionals supervise paper-based tests.

Psychometric testing a waste of time?

Without a qualified, experienced professional to interpret results, psychometric tests are a waste of time.

The results are complex to interpret and sensible analysis is beyond a layperson. It might be fine to hire a cleaner on the basis of an automated test, sane people wouldn’t hire knowledge workers that way.

I met psychometric testing a decade ago.

After a series of intense interviews for a senior position, I was asked to take a series of tests. The session lasted four hours, almost without a break. I warmed up with what looked like IQ tests and moved on to logical reasoning exercises.

A long and vaguely baffling exercise followed where I had to choose from seemingly random pairs of job titles in order of preference. For example, the test might pair ‘janitor’ and ‘rocket scientist’.

Picking one of those isn’t hard. In fact, the test was obviously designed for an American audience and included some job descriptions that, while not incomprehensible, certainly were not familiar.

Not difficult

Finally the real psychometric tests – I suspect the job-ranking test might be a form of psychometric exercise too. Answering the questions isn’t difficult; indeed, the tester asked me not to think too hard but to go with my first response to any question.

By the end of the four-hour test session I was emotionally drained, physically exhausted, thirsty and hungry. After a 30-minute lunch break I returned for a task-specific question and answer session.

A few days later an industrial psychiatrist called me to discuss the tests. He discussed my longer-term career prospects and plans and made suggestions that I hadn’t otherwise considered.

I worried the tests might show him that I was an employment basket case – or worse. In fact the news was largely positive and insightful. It turns out I’m far better at certain things that I previously thought. As it happens I got the job, but that’s another story.

Some merit

Going purely on my experience, I can see some merit in the ideas behind this kind of testing. Personality is the most important factor when hiring an executive, more important than skills and experience and as important as aptitude. It makes sense to establish objective benchmarks that go beyond the kind of human prejudices we can all be, even unwittingly, guilty of.

I have two concerns. First, despite what the professionals say, it is possible for people to learn how to answer psychometric tests in a way that portrays them in a favourable light.

Many years ago I interviewed John Wareham a New Zealand-born recruitment expert who helped develop these tests, he said the trick people quickly learn is to avoid the extremes.

Most tests ask you to rate things on a scale of 1 to 5 – if you want to get a good job make sure the bulk of your answers cluster around the centre of this range. On the other hand minor alarm bells ring if you fail to tick any extreme answers.

Wareham also said the tests quickly detect any dishonesty by cross-referencing, so answer truthfully or you’ll be exposed as a phony.

My second fear is that managers often use it as a way of offloading decision-making responsibility. External objective measures are good, but they can’t make decisions. There’s a temptation to just look at printouts and test scores and not go beyond this to look at other, possibly more compelling, evidence.

Grant Frear writes about the demise of the knowledge worker after reading Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind.

Pink says people in rich countries need to move away from left-brain (linear, organised) thinking towards more right-brain (or creative) thinking.

Frear says; “Well maybe not a complete demise but most certainly a geographic shift”. So we won’t accuse him of an exaggerated report of the death of knowledge work.

Automation

Frear says work involving logical, repeatable left-brain tasks is better done by computer. Bosses can offload tasks which aren’t easily automated to Asia where there’s a cheaper workforce, hence the “geographic shift”.

It makes sense.

Low-value work has moved from Australia and New Zealand to Asia for at least a decade. How often have you rung telephone banking and spoken to someone with a strong Indian accent?

To make up for this geographic shift, Frear (or more accurately Frear quoting Pink) says people in richer countries need to work on their right-brain activities which are largely creative, non-linear and conceptual.

The problem he identifies is most rich-world employers favour left-brain thinking. They reward people based on these values and not on their creativity. All of this is true.

Knowledge work, left-brain right-brain

Frear (or maybe Pink) assumes knowledge work is a left-brain activity.

It can be but is not always: writing is creative, but a form of knowledge work.

Also, while there are people who seem 100 percent left-brain or right-brain, in reality most show a healthy mix of both.

Rather than requiring a disorienting binary switch from one type of thinking to a totally different one,  a smarter strategy might just be to steer one’s thinking more towards creativity.

If Frear and Pink are right, the good news is that in the future there will be less boring knowledge worker jobs in the richer world and more stimulating work.

Demise of the knowledge worker « Mutterings of a consultant

Knowledge workers are taking over.

A third of American employees are already knowledge workers. The number is lower in Australia and New Zealand, we’re catching up.

In developed, developing and even in some undeveloped countries knowledge workers are the fastest-growing employment group.

Knowledge workforce outnumbers industrial

In the developing world knowledge workers already outnumber industrial and agricultural workers. In more advanced countries they outnumber these two groups added together.

America has roughly as many knowledge workers as service industry workers. In most rich countries knowledge work is the most important economic sector in terms of economic and political clout.

Knowledge worker is a new idea

The idea that people can earn a living dealing purely with knowledge has only been around for 50 years.

Writer and management expert Peter Drucker is often credited with inventing the term. He first used the term ‘Knowledge Worker’ in his 1959 book “Landmarks of Tomorrow”.

Drucker modestly claims to be only the second person to use the phrase. He says the honour belongs to Fritz Machlup a Princeton economist.

Nevertheless, Drucker popularised the term and has spent many of the last 40 years expanding on the original idea and explaining its implications.

Misunderstood

Although the term is widely used and people generally understand what it implies, there is still much misunderstanding about its exact meaning — even among knowledge workers.

One common misconception is the term applies exclusively to people working in the information technology industry or elsewhere using products created by IT workers.

While almost all IT workers qualify, they are only a subset.

Anyone who makes a living out of creating, manipulating or spreading knowledge is a knowledge worker.

Broad church

That’s a wide definition. It includes teachers, trainers, university professors and other academics. You can categorise writers, journalists, authors, editors and public relations or communications people as knowledge workers. We’ll put aside for one moment arguments about whether the knowledge created by these people is accurate. Lawyers, scientists and management consultants are all included.

One key difference with other white-collar workers is the level of education and training. There may be knowledge workers who don’t have a formal tertiary education or high-level training. They are a minority.

You need a degree, mostly

As a rule, knowledge workers have a minimum of a university undergraduate degree. That’s not always the case. Older knowledge workers tend to have less formal qualifications than younger ones. That’s partly because higher education wasn’t ubiquitous when they started out — university isn’t the only path to knowledge.

Another reason is that practical experience counts for a lot. The key here is knowledge workers each individually posses their own reservoir of accumulated knowledge they apply in their work.

Compared with other groups of workers, they are well paid. Some are extremely well paid. Knowledge workers can be union members. But are often not organised in that sense.

This can lead to forms of genteel exploitation. Few knowledge workers are paid overtime. Yet employers expect most to voluntarily work for considerably more than the basic 40 hours a week.

Mobile

On the other hand, knowledge workers are more mobile than industrial workers and can often take their skills elsewhere at the drop of a hat. They often do.

Any employer who abuses knowledge workers’ professionalism is likely to see their most important assets walk out of the door. This applies as much today as it did when there were more jobs around.

Few governments have come to terms with the implications of having a highly mobile, highly educated, knowledge workforce.

Just as knowledge workers can quickly find a new employer if necessary, most can move freely between countries. Any nation that doesn’t look after its knowledge workforce can expect to lose it.

New Zealand

This is particularly applicable in New Zealand, which operates a so-called progressive income tax system that, at times, appears deliberately designed to alienate knowledge workers.

To understand this, compare the marginal and absolute rates of income tax paid by most New Zealand knowledge workers and you’ll notice they are substantially higher than in many competing nations.

Australia looks particularly attractive.

If anything the flow of knowledge workers migrating to more benign economies is accelerating.

Drucker distinguishes between classes of knowledge worker. High-knowledge workers include professional groups such as doctors and teachers deal mainly in the realm of the mind while the knowledge technologists work with their hands and brains in the IT industry, medicine and other areas. Although both categories of knowledge worker are growing, the bulk of growth comes from this second group.

Commenting on Starbucks’ radical decision to close 61 Australian stores (note the terminology: stores not cafes) the Australian Newsagency Blog’s Mark Fletcher says while he doesn’t enjoy the company’s coffee he admires its business model and goes on to ask “If Starbucks can reach this decision with key factors – range, margin and buying power – working for them, what is the situation newsagents face?”

Starbucks’ coffee is distinctly average by Australian and New Zealand standards. Its cafes are so-so and its prices are sky-high. So with hundreds of small, local cafes providing better coffee, service and all-round experiences at lower prices why would anyone patronise Starbucks?

Well the chain grew fast in America because by US standards it was high quality, albeit at a premium price in a market where fragmented competition performed poorly.

Australia and New Zealand already had a coffee culture, so Starbucks simply doesn’t offer the same value proposition in this part of the world. Some time ago an US business magazine ran a story about small, boutique neighbourhood coffee shops going head-to-head with Starbucks in America and winning. In effect, that’s exactly what happened in Australia.

My local Starbucks in Australia was the branch inside the Borders Bookstore at Hornsby. Sitting down with a bucket of overpriced, weak milky coffee somehow seems more acceptable when you’ve a pile of books to check out and you’re deciding which ones to buy.

There’s an obvious link here with newsagencies — Borders competes for at least some of the business. It may make sense for large magazine specialist newsagents in prime retailing positions to offer a Borders plus Starbucks-like coffee and magazine experience.

But that’s not the answer to Mark’s question. Are newsagents in a similar situation to Starbucks?

Probably not.

First, Starbucks is large. It can standardise, it has buying power and marketing clout that small firms like newsagencies can never achieve on their own (if they acted together things might be different). But what it simply can’t do is deliver a quality customer experience at the local level. Nor can it respond to individual needs or rapidly changing tastes. Newsagencies can do both.

Despite the company’s best efforts, its coffee tends to be dished up by bored teenagers who, beyond uttering ‘have a nice day’ mantras, don’t care about customer service. That’s never going to be as good as coffee served up by cafe owners, their families and the people work with them. Newsagents have the power to ensure the customer experience is first rate.

Second, Starbucks is a corporation. It has to pay all its costs and salaries then deliver a substantial return on capital to shareholders — they probably expect something like 20 percent, anything less would have made them vulnerable to private equity firms before the US financial markets turned nasty. Newsagents need to make a capital return, but something like a 10 percent return on money invested would satisfy most owners. Maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe that’s the lesson here.