Scientists predict management success

2007

A new method of predicting who is likely to succeed in a managerial role and who is likely to fail could herald a revolution in the way that organizations recruit and groom the managers of the future.

Predicting who will make a good manger is a critical task for organizations across the globe. Get it wrong and the consequences can be disastrous. But now researchers claim to have discovered a new way to predict who is likely to succeed in a managerial role and who is likely to fail.

Psychologists from the University of Toronto, Harvard University, the University of Hawaii and McGill University say that their new computerized measures of "executive intelligence" mark a breakthrough in predicting who will excel in a managerial role or in a competitive academic environment.

The research findings, published in the August issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that men and women who do exceptionally well at tasks that access the cognitive functions of the prefrontal cortex of the brain are also viewed by their supervisors as having a high degree managerial competence.

The reason for this connection is that good cognitive functions in the prefrontal cortex - often described as the "executive" of the brain – is what enables individuals to manipulate many ideas simultaneously, to plan for the future, to avoid impulsive actions and to react thoughtfully to novel situations.

"These abilities, described for decades by neuroscientists as 'executive functions', are clearly relevant to managerial and high-level academic performance," says Jordan Peterson, psychology professor at the University of Toronto and senior author of the paper.

"We took the description literally and started to apply executive function tests to normal people in practical environments."

"In the past, psychologists have used IQ and personality tests to predict managerial and academic performance, with real success," Peterson added.

"However, this is the first demonstration of the unique potential of prefrontal or executive function tests to more accurately determine who will and who will not excel."

Previously, such tests have been used by cognitive scientists only for experimental purposes.

Peterson and co-author Robert Pihl of McGill University first started using tests of executive function in the late 1980s to assess impulse control and decision-making among aggressive and alcohol-abusing teenagers.

Then Harvard Ph.D. candidate and lead author Daniel Higgins, who is also an engineer, realized the potential of these tests for more general applications.

"After the tasks were programmed, we started predicting academic achievement at Harvard, replicated those findings at the University of Toronto and then moved into the business environment," Jordan Peterson explained

Using formulas derived by Frank Schmidt (Iowa U) and John Hunter of (Michigan State), the studies' authors were even able to estimate the potential productivity gain associated with using executive function tests as predictors of performance.

Peterson says that because people differ widely in their individual abilities, even a small degree of accuracy in testing can produce significant economic gains.

Their figures suggest that using executive function tests as part of the recruitment process would result in productivity gain of 33 per cent per hired employee.

"Obviously, gains of this magnitude cannot be easily ignored," says Peterson.

"Neuroscience has revolutionized our understanding of the brain in recent years. Perhaps this is the beginning of the neuroscience revolution in management."