Cognitive Assessment Scores in Selection – Can You Handle the Truth?

Kris Dunn Assessments, Candidate Pool, Good HR, HR, Kris Dunn, Recruiting

“Pick the shape that best represents a continuation of the pattern displayed below.”
What the… Oh boy – if you’ve seen these instructions recently, odds are that you are one of the following:
1. An industrial psychologist geeking out in the lab while creating some new assessment designed to protect the world from bad hires.  Godspeed to you, Skippy.
2. A candidate who just wanted to apply for a job – but you’re being asked to do mental gymnastics before you can get to the interview stage. Grrrr…
3. An HR pro taking an assessment to decide if it’s right for your organization, and now you’re worried about your own score.  Rightfully so, by the way.
4. An applicant being assessed for inclusion in a government program called Treadstone. You aren’t sure about the program, but that guy you met in the lobby named David Webb sure seemed nice, right?
Since you’re not a lethal killing machine and most of you don’t have a PhD, that means you’re probably an HR pro or a candidate. And if you’re reading the question at the top of this post or something like it, it means the assessment you’re taking has a cognitive component.
Mama Always Said Life Was Like a Box of Chocolates
If you score low on the cognitive component to any assessment you take related to your employment, does that mean you’re stupid?
That’s a loaded question. As someone who uses an assessment with a cognitive component on a weekly – if not daily- basis, I’m quick to answer no. I don’t care what the PhD types will tell me about that, because linking a cognitive score in the workplace with the concept of smart vs stupid or IQ is a quick way to lose talent and friends.
Instead, I like to think about the cognitive dimension as measuring the ability to learn. Some of you will no doubt challenge that assessment. To you, I say “google”, which means that Google the company has agreed with my assessment in the past. Here’s a reference to the cognitive dimension in employment screening from an interview with former Google CHRO Laszlo Bock from 2014.  This interview with Bock indicated Ability to Learn on the fly was the #1 hiring criteria at Google:

“There are five hiring attributes we have across the company,” explained Bock. “If it’s a technical role, we assess your coding ability, and half the roles in the company are technical roles. For every job, though, the No. 1 thing we look for is general cognitive ability, and it’s not I.Q. It’s learning ability. It’s the ability to process on the fly. It’s the ability to pull together disparate bits of information. 

That represents my safe place for explaining the cognitive dimension to candidates and employees alike. People with high cognitive scores have the ability to take in large amounts of data and make quick, accurate decisions. Many cognitive portions of an assessment feature a timer on the screen and a progress monitor indicating you probably won’t finish all the items in the timed portion of the assessment.  #suckstobeyou

The timer is there to put pressure on you to be quick. People with high cognitive scores have the ability to get through a higher number of these questions/items while answering correctly. People with low cognitive scores do poorly on this type of section, because they need time to process/contemplate before making a decision on the items in front of them.

How to Spot a Low Cognitive Score Teammate (Without Really Trying)

I took a cognitive assessment 8 years ago and scored pretty high.  I’M NEVER TAKING A COGNITIVE ASSESSMENT AGAIN UNLESS MY FAMILY IS HUNGRY AND I HAVE TO. Once you get that high score, you never want to take one again – just in case your score is not – um – repeatable.

But you don’t need an assessment to spot a teammate on the “low cog” spectrum. Totally unscientific, but my observations about teammates who score in the bottom half of the bell curve for cognitive processing speed are pretty consistent.

Those candidates usually display the following:

1. They have a 2-3 second delay when a lot of data is flying in and they’re a part of the conversation. There’s a rapid-fire conversation going on, and someone hits them with data and then stops. The obvious expectation is that they contribute to the riff/dialog. There’s a delay. Their preference is to take their time on the analysis. The pregnant pause is noticeable by those around them, and over time, by the individual in question.

2. They may have a form of Professional Tourette’s, which I define as someone who’s trying to process quickly blurting out conversational reactions that really don’t match the conversation going on (against their natural preference to take their time and come back later with analysis). I see this happening a lot once low cog teammates understand that speed is preferred by the team they’re on. They’ve attempted to do things on the fly and their response is just a bit off – the contextual understanding isn’t there. They needed more time.

Your Business Track Meet Has Many Different Events, Right?

Being “low cog” isn’t a death sentence – although it might be at Google based on the above quote. Low cog teammates can contribute great things – they just need managers who put them in a position to succeed and don’t expect them to win mental sprints.

They’ll win the mental version of the 10K or the marathon. Just be sure to enter them in the race they can win.

FOT Note: This post is brought to you by the good folks at Caliper (a leading provider of employee assessment and talent development solutions) – who like us enough to be an annual sponsor at FOT for all content in our assessment and development track (and don’t expect that we run any of this by them ahead of time). Check them out, friends. Use them to help you select the right person, then maximize performance once they’re on your team.