profiling for attitude
selecting for fit

Why hiring a “perfect” Susannah turned out to be a catastrophe?

High hopes…!

Susannah is a well-qualified, experienced project manager in her early forties. Her CV shows she has a successful twelve-year track record managing IT projects with several well-known global companies. For ExCel_ITO Limited Susannah seemed to be a perfect fit for running a dispersed, cross-functional, multi-cultural project team focused on the development and introduction of a new, company-wide customer service platform. Among other things ExCel_ITO has a culture of personal ownership of issues, encouraging the challenging of the ‘status quo’ and everyone has a voice.    

Managing such a complex project team in such a culture would require, in addition to good leadership, a very high level of communication skills.

Susannah’s competence in this area was assessed thoroughly, at least in the opinion of Mark, Head of the HR Department. In his interview notes he wrote, ‘During the interview Susannah spoke extremely well. She expressed herself willingly and clearly and expanded freely to direct questions. She came across as self-confident, energetic and pleasantly extrovert.’ Given her CV and performance at two interviews Susannah was offered the job.

Within weeks of Susannah being appointed, problems began to arise. The usually high energy, ‘buzzy’ team seemed to lose some of its sense of purpose and the level of excitement reduced. The usual spark of challenge and creative conflict disappeared, and the quality of output became noticeably lower. Along with other signals that all was not well, the overall performance of the team was markedly lower and team members were sometimes heard to say, “it just isn’t fun anymore.” Four months after Susannah joined ExCel_ITO, it was clear that the project was in jeopardy and was in danger of failing completely if something wasn’t done urgently.      

What went wrong?

When Susannah applied for the position and attended the interviews she was not pretending to be someone she wasn’t. She was well qualified technically and had experience with projects of similar scale and scope. She had been articulate, intelligent and convincing at both interviews. Given the critical importance of the project’s success to the company the leadership asked Mark to try and find out what was going wrong and where.

In discussion with team members he discovered that Susannah had an embedded way of communicating that was part of her character, her DNA. Her leadership approach was command & control and directive, and this was reflected in her communication style:

  • She tended to give orders, directions and instructions
  • She rarely asked questions of the team or sought team members ideas and suggestions
  • She avoided challenge and conflict shutting down such debates quickly
  • She focused on speed of action rather than quality of outcome, consequently she tried to keep any communication short and direct.   
  • She seemed uncomfortable communicating with large groups of people, especially where the dispersed locations of team members added to the complexity    
  • As the team became more disenchanted and increasingly unhappy, Susannah reduced the frequency of meetings, she was even heard to say they were a waste of time

The net result of this failure in real communication was a breakdown in trust, in purpose, motivation and commitment to the task within team members. Consequently, performance fell, and very quickly. Sandy Pentland, Head of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, has worked on communication in teams. He says you can listen outside the door of a team at work and just from the pattern, flow and intensity of communication (and without knowing anything about the content) you can tell if it is likely to be a high performing team.  And you can measure this.


Susannah was not a bad person, she was not ‘incompetent’ technically nor experientially. In another environment, in another company with a different culture, she may have been a great fit and very successful. But she was a fish out of water in ExCel_ITO’s culture. While the Susannah ‘problem’ might be addressed with coaching and development, Mark and Excel It did not have time – and a new project manager and a better way of assessing critical person requirements needs to be found as a matter of urgency.          

A different approach….

Psychological testing is an additional way to assess human abilities and behaviours. We all know something about psychometric testing. Usually an organisation selects (or has selected for them!) one of the popular psychometric tools but these generally tend to test for multiple traits or characteristics – whether you need them all or not. A better way is to know what EXACTLY it is you need, and select focused, psychological tests that assess just those particular aspects.        

There are scientifically researched and verified psychological tests that measure a person’s willingness to communicate.

We hear a lot about active listening but effective leaders need to be able to engage in active communicating. This is the ability that enables a person to go beyond just a simple transmit/receive communication process. People who are willing to communicate are open to the pattern and flow of communications. They are able to adapt their own approach to the situation and the people, needs and outcomes desired. They can stimulate the flow, speed it up, slow it down, delve deeper or switch topics with ease. They can accept, even encourage, challenge and debate and manage it effectively.  In short, they can sense the needs of both situation and group and use the right communication approach that meets the needs at the time. They are generally able to build effective relationships and generate higher levels of engagement in teams. They tend to be what Sandy Pentland calls a ‘charismatic connector.’       

An individual’s approach, their style, ability and sophistication in communicating can be measured. There are focused, psychological tests for just this purpose that can assess how a person is likely to communicate in given situations.

When accepting Susannah, ExCel_ITO interviewers made hiring judgements based on a relatively simple dyadic interaction that was not representative of the needs for the working environment. Applying a specific psychological test for this key requirement will have provided Mark and other with a key extra dimension and reference point for the hiring decision.         

In today’s economic climate, and because the way todays organisations get things done is increasingly through teams, it is imperative for employees to possess strong communication skills. Moreover, the way communication takes place is a key element in shaping the motivational environment. Better communication and higher motivation lead to higher performing teams. These are just few reasons to use professional, psychological tools to assess communication skills of your employees. Why not start using them right now?

Key Words:

Psychological Testing, Psychological Assessment, High Performance, Hiring, New Hires, Leadership, Team Management, Interview, Interviewing.    

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