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K Ramkumar, known to his friends as Ram, has an enduring passion for triggering a discussion and joining in with gusto on a range of themes. He believes that every person has an inalienable right to express his/her view no matter how different it is to anyone else. In his book no view is unworthy or big or small. Every view from everyone deserves a consideration without getting caught up with the tyranny of agreement or disagreement.
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How intelligent are our methods of judging Capability

Our understanding of what constitutes human capability is so sketchy that in management and leadership education, very little attention is given to comprehend this. This is strange especially the heart of running any social institution be it commercial or others, is leveraging human ability to make capital create surplus for economic and social progress. Yet we do not have a common understanding of what aspects of human capability drives what kind of performance. So we end up using non-specific, unreliable and inadequate methods to check out human capability. This is like using a thermometer to figure out the performance of the human body. This also makes capability development hit or miss activity.

Let us take a case in point to examine this hypothesis.

Take a look at the selection process to the best B-Schools in the world. The selection process is weighted heavily on the analytical aspects of human ability. It is also loaded heavily on someone’s academic track record as proof of learnability. There is at best a cursory weightage given to emotional and social abilities, almost none to conceptual abilities.  This is despite the central mandate of B-schools being development of a student as an entrepreneur and a leader and not an analyst.

The unstated belief seems to be that for someone to be successful in running social institutions; commercial and others, cognitive abilities override emotional and social abilities. Add to this our unshakable faith that the best verification of someone’s cognitive ability comes from what are popularly known as intelligence tests, which challenges someone’s, numerical, verbal and spatial comprehension & manipulation abilities and are simulated by inducing difficulty by limiting the time.

Thus we conclude that management or leadership success is largely driven by problem solving abilities to the exclusion of others. We also conclude that superior problem solving abilities comes from analytical abilities (logico-mathematical). We also believe that strong analytical ability is a credible predictor of someone’s conceptual and envisioning abilities (perspectives and imagination). So much for our over simplification of predicting or judging cognitive abilities!

We also believe that we have devised a method to judge cognitive abilities in a more reliable and valid manner, hence the method is objective. We also believe that our ability to objectively judge emotional and social capabilities is suspect (the reliability and validity is poorer) hence we will either ignore it or attempt to assess it cursorily. So we will assign lower weightage to emotional and social capability assessment metrics. The fallacy in this assumption by now should be stark to the readers.

Should we not pause and ask the question; which any “logical and analytical” person will ask; when all things are equal, what is the discriminating capability that determines success in business?  Who succeeds more often in say negotiating deals; the cognitively more proficient or the emotionally and socially more proficient? Who succeeds more often when designing a product; the analytically proficient or the conceptually more proficient? Who succeeds more often in coordinating and driving execution of large and diverse teams; the analytically more proficient or interpersonally more suave? The answer to all the questions is complex. We will have to conclude that in all cases, it is a combination, though loaded more in favour of the latter propositions in each of the 3 scenarios.

I know in most commercial organisations if the leaders are Ivy leaguers, they despite their great intellect, oversimplify the definition of human capability predictors, with over reliance on academic marks, specially mathematics and intelligence tests.  The fact is there is no one size fit all judgment method of human capability. Paradoxically, these leaders grossly under value the contribution of their own conceptual, visualisation, emotional and social abilities to their leadership success.

Often oversimplification of a complex phenomenon makes people blind. This has led to these leaders over attributing the contribution of logical and analytical thinking to their leadership success. It is time for us to therefore examine the origins and the function of intelligence tests and put it in context. This is important because for close to 60 years, every organisation has without any application of mind, adopted intelligence tests, as the sole determiner of the human capability required for all kinds of roles.

In early 1900’s the French Government had passed laws requiring all French children to attend school. It therefore became important to identify children who would need special assistance. Faced with this challenge the French Psychologist Alfred Binet along with his colleague Theodore Simon, set out to find what would best predict success in school.

He soon found out that some children were able to answer questions which were that of advanced levels, while few could answer questions only at the level of children younger to them. So Binet and Simon suggested that there could be a measure of intelligence based on average abilities of children calibrated to certain age groups; in a way it was categorising children as par with their age group and above or below their age group. It was a concept based on, what is the mental age development of a child, when compared to her chronological age.

It is important to note that Binet himself did not believe that his psychometric instrument could be used to measure a single, permanent and inborn level of intelligence. He insisted that intelligence is influenced by a number of factors, changes over time and can only be compared among children with similar backgrounds.

In 1916 the Stanford-Binet intelligence tests became the standard intelligence tests in US.  This gave birth to the famous “Intelligence quotient” or the “IQ”. The US army during the 1st World war faced with the challenge of screening candidates adapted this as Army Alpha and Beta tests. The US further used the IQ test to screen new immigrants, as they entered US through the Ellis Island. In due course of time, IQ scores became a badge of honour or should we say brag badge, for the accomplished adults in politics and business.

The irony is that during the last 70 years, all types of institutions have in one way or other been using a variant of the Binet intelligence tests, with no understanding of what they are seeking to predict or judge.

Are they trying to understand the mental age of the prospective recruit? Are they trying to understand the learning advantage or handicap a prospective recruit is likely to have? Or are they trying to judge the probability of success on job; in which case should we not ask which job? We can pardon the B-Schools for assigning higher weightage on intelligence tests because they are at least using it for admission to an academic institute, even though unlike Binet they are using it on adults.

But the sheer misapplication of intelligence tests by commercial organisations is inexplicable. They use this as a socially acceptable tool to reject candidates than predict job success. No wonder that after so many years of use of these tests, there is no credible research to substantiate their ability to predict job success in any industry or any role. As a wicked aside, let me pose a challenge to the ivy-league CEOs who swear by academic track record and intelligence tests, to now take one of these intelligence tests or even GMAT or CAT and check out their scores.

Let me narrate a hilarious story in which I was the protagonist.

At ICICI Bank in the early 2000’s we were using a type of intelligence test designed by a well-known multinational testing organisation. We were using this test to select the first level managers from the B-Schools and laterals.  I was proud that the degree of comprehensiveness and difficulty of this test made it a good discriminator to select the best managers. Then 2 cycles into it, in 2003, Mr.Kamath the then MD & CEO of the bank had a conversation with me. He asked me, how was I sure that this test was not actually losing for ICICI Bank competent managers and selecting the wrong ones? He then posed a challenge to me to administer this test to the top 100 managers in ICICI Bank, Board level and 2 levels down. His proposition was that about 15 to 20 years of track record as successful managers and leaders, got these 100 managers where they have reached in the Bank. We should be able to compare their intelligence test scores and validate whether the test we were using had predictive validity. As they say the rest is history. Out of the 100 senior managers who have built ICICI Bank over the past 15 years, people with outstanding academic track record from the best institutions, only one manager could clear the cut-off we had set for the fresher’s.

Similarly, if we were to administer CAT or GMAT to 100 top CEOs and compare their performance in percentile standing terms with the younger aspirants for B-schools, I have no doubt that 90% of these successful CEOs would come a cropper. If we have such unshakable faith in these tests to predict success in management roles, should we not set up this experiment once to prove their predictive validity for management and leadership jobs? My argument cannot be twisted perversely that CEOs lack intelligence; it is more to substantiate that the tests, we use have no ability to predict what we are seeking to predict; performance and success in a variety of management, entrepreneurial and leadership roles.

This opened my eyes to the blind adoption of intelligence tests to assess ability and also using one size fit all tests, with no proof that they predict performance in a variety of jobs. It helped me understand that we do not have clarity on, what abilities predict success for what job. In fact we do not even have any idea about human capabilities and its link to performance in various spheres of life.

It made me ask, why I was using intelligence tests on adults who have had 2 years in pre-primary, 10 years in secondary, five years in under graduate education. What will I find about them that 17 years of formal education certification does not vouch safe, even granting for all the issues around these certifications?  It was more foolish for me to have used it on Post graduates.Binet and Simon would have disapproved of my foolish endeavour.

More than all this, the clincher is that there is no proven link between intelligence test scores and performance in any job or role as a manager or a leader in any business. There is enough and more evidence that emotional and social abilities in fact are the success differentiators in leadership roles. We have ironically adopted and propagated a method, without applying our intelligence, when we were testing others for their intelligence!

18 comments on “How intelligent are our methods of judging Capability
  1. T V Rao says:

    Excellent article. David McClelland has proved after a series of reviews and investigations in his classic article (Testing for Competence than Intelligence) in 1973 some of the points Ramkumar made in this article supported by his own experiences. We have a long way to go to learn lessons from all these and implement- specially the B-Schools. Institutions like the SCMLD take low scorers of CAT and turn them inot leaders with character. At least a good attempt.

    • K.Ramkumar says:

      Dear Sir,

      Comming from you as any student will, I feel humbled. I grew up reading your works and was strongly influenced by your thoughts.

  2. Sai says:

    Ram Sir’s personal example is mind blowing. It gets inside deeply and creates an impact.

  3. Raghunanda says:

    Excellent article. It will definitely provoke everyone to rethink on intelligence tests.

  4. Sheik Dawood says:

    The problem has been very well articulated by Mr. Ram Kumar. Thanks for his insight into this issue. I am wondering what leaders need to do to address this issue; what happens to those who are affected by these tests? Do we have alternative solutions?

  5. sai prasad somayajula says:

    Seems our obsession for objective assessment comes from basic human disposition to do what is easy as against what is good for us. No wonder many world class entrepreneurs are high school or university dropouts who never headed to work place and haven’t been subjected to these tests. It is time to shun this preference for logical intelligence over emotional intelligence. Logical reasoning can only lead to delta (marginal) improvements, whereas creativity can lead to quantum leaps.

  6. This article is so direct, simple and clear that you cannot help but get a feeling of ‘deja vu’ after reading it. Thankyou, sir, for rolling the dice!

    Here is my view to add on:

    Agreed, the intelligence tests alone are imperfect, but so are the social skills of most of us at a younger age. Many of us do not still grow fully, and are still struggling to find ourselves at that stage of life, trying to catch the worm that will declare us as the ‘early bird’. The maturity, the calmness, the ease of dealing with yourself and the others comes in much later. Of course, the signs of such emotional intelligence are also visible early.

    So, any tests to determine a person’s suitability for employment must be a mix of his or her intelligence, both cognitive and emotional, with ability to also filter out the smart and intelligent with an overambitious streak that could be damaging to the organisation at a later stage.

  7. Nachhiketa says:

    Character is always rated above intellect or IQ. Strong characters make great leaders, strong IQ- scientists, analysts. In none of the entrance exam, psychologically- some one is studied. Bunch of marks, ranking supersedes everything. It is one long marathon. IQ is like good sprinters, great characters and leaders are long distance ultra runners- which needs strong mind and will

    • KBS says:

      I feel all recruiters use these tests as a crutch!

      When you interview a person you should look at all parameters but different people evaluate emotional and social abilities differently- it is difficult to establish a methodology that that would be comparable across all and appear logical. Hence both HR and the interviewer use the crutch of analytical methods as a safer way to recruit and not be responsible for failures.

      In reality analytical tests should be used as a support but the final selection responsibility needs to be on the recruiter and not the test score!


    Excellent article. It will surely make people to rethink on intelligence tests.
    Sir: I really liked the article.
    Superb !!!

  9. Sajan Thomas says:

    Another amazing note on the other view. Thank you Ram. This raises the level of our expectations from you on two things. Can we go deeper on measuring emotional, social, interpersonal and conceptual abilities to predict success and what abilities predict what job for success. Certainly, a never ending conversation but good to begin.

  10. Mandar M Tambe says:

    Very well articulated, Ram. You are on dot when you observed that “it is also loaded heavily on someone’s academic track record as proof of learnability. There is at best a cursory weightage given to emotional and social abilities, almost none to conceptual abilities.”
    I can’t help remembering what Mahatma Gandhiji observed about himself. He said that he was a very average individual and he confessed that he was not intellectually brilliant. However, he observed that there are limitations to the development of the mind ( read ‘analytical abilities’ in your article) but there are no limitations on the development of the heart ( read ‘emotional and social abilities in your article). That is why Mahatma could champion one of the greatest and well known political movement (and yet one of the finest but not-much appreciated marketing campaign ) of “swadeshi’ which is the first ever attempt to ‘manufacture and market the goods at the bottom of the pyramid” against all odds. Regards

  11. Dear Sir,

    Our measurement of human ‘capability’ is a continuous strive – starting with physical attributes in ancient times, to measuring of ‘skull’ a couple of centuries back (Book: The Mismeasure of Man).

    The points you make are valid.

    At the same time, I feel – IQ tests, while having significant flaws – are still better at measuring capabilities – in the absence of a credible, accessible, and scalable alternative.

    In the book ‘Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life’ – a landmark book on IQ – the authors give credible evidence that intelligent people – as so measured by IQ tests – do make better choices in life, and consequently are more well-off, etc, etc. (The book though got mired in controversy because of people’s perception that the book implied IQ as a result of hereditary.)

    EQ – Emotional Intelligence – testing for the same – is a much recent concept, as compared to IQ – and in due course we will see a more widespread use of it along with IQ – for a better measurement of human capability.

    Attempts by psychologists continue on this front.

    A 27 August 2014 Harvard Business Review article (https://hbr.org/2014/08/the-problem-with-using-personality-tests-for-hiring) drawing on a study by Frank L Schmidt and John E Hunter, suggests that Multi-measure Tests (cognitive ability + personality + interest) seem to be the best predictor of performance (71% accuracy), followed by (just) Cognitive Ability Tests (65%), (just) Emotional Intelligence Tests (24%) and so on.

    This research has found resonance in Google’s hiring strategy too, as evident from a reading of Work Rules! by Google’s head of “People Operations” Laszlo Bock. (Chapter 5: Don’t Trust Your Gut).

    In due course, we will see a more widespread use of such multi-measure tests.

    Anil Karamchandani
    Author – 21 Office Situations & How to Deal with Them

    • K. Ramkumar says:

      I have in my ensuing book devoted an entire chapter on Human capability. I cannot use any of it now till it is published in June.

      This having said we should understand the following before we use any test or assessment tool:

      1. What are we assessing?
      2. Are we using a tool which is meant to assess something else?
      3. Have established by proper verification methods that the tool is predicting what it is meant to predict and with what levels of confidence?
      4. Like some of the readers have commented, since this domain has lower predictive validity and reliability what supplementary methods should we use with any test?

      In the end the moral of the story is lazy copy cat methods will do very little value addition to decisions on people’s capabilities

      • K. Ramkumar says:

        Anil we should be careful when we use Intelligence test for judging fitness for learning, or a course or a job. Intelligence tests and IQ for example will add very little value if you want to predict performance in say sales or service jobs. It may have some value if you are predicting performance for an analyst job where cognitive abilities mainly analytical abilities are the differentiators. So the question is not whether Intelligence tests and IQ are usefull, it is indeed useful to predict what?

  12. Colonel Naresh Sinha says:

    Hello Ram,
    Thank you a very wonderful perspective and a beautiful write up.
    Something which has always bothered all of us is the methodology of deciding / judging who is better. Unfortunately sometimes this thought strikes us only when something goes wrong and never when everything is going very right; in fact when everything is fine I even pontificate on the fairness of the system….
    Holistically viewing from the need of judging capability either during selection or for promotion ; we use tests that are seemingly conducted to make the process as objective as possible with the premise that we humans knowingly or unknowingly are biased and by nature would be subjective. This especially proves true when I am in power wherein I may use my so called “gut feel & wisdom” to select or promote.
    The problem in my view lies probably both in the selection of the appropriate tools and the efficacy of reading/understanding the results of the used tools. Today the OPQ is used extensively. However we do not have suitably trained / competent people who can decipher it. The same thing happens for interviews. We are not so very accountable. We unfortunately do not even plan our interviews, they are conducted on the run as we are very “busy with other important things”. Very few actually ask for the profile of the person to be interviewed, study the requirements (K_S_A_) for the new role assess, the type of team members and go for the perfect fit. We blatantly expect him to “fit in”. For the promotion boards a practise of assessment centres was used very effectively till some organisations junked it as “useless”.
    To use the IQ as a easy measure of intelligence, at least theoretical if not the applied intelligence one could act as a base for filtering. The previous academic/sports performance sometimes gives a feel of the nature of perseverance of an individual and need not be side stepped so very quickly ; however a more robust methodology of checking out the other parameters could be evolved.
    Though well known allow me to share the model used in the army. When I went for my Selection board (SSB) as early as 1971. I had to clear a small GK, Arithmetical, English test to qualify for the board.
    At the SSB there were three independent tests; the aptitude test (by a trained psychologist); the group test (a trained Group testing officer who had undergone a very rigorous year long training) and the interview (the interviewing officer) . These independent results were discussed only just before the candidate came up for the results. Though the interviewing officer was the senior most and also the rating officer of the other two, no changes were made unless there was a remote possibility of review. If all three agreed only then the candidate was selected.
    Today the Indian Army is running short of 13,000 officers however there is no desperation for the target to be met. There is a perfectly reviewed laid down criteria to be met as far as the selection is concerned and this is to my knowledge is strictly adhered to.
    In view of the foregoing there is definitely a case for an Institute / Academy to be set up where we could train & certify personnel in areas of selection and promotion to make the capability method of judging others more relevant.

  13. Anirudh Mithal says:

    Dear Sri Ramkumar,
    Brilliant. I am 77 years old – mechanical engineer by profession, retired from Indian Railways as General Manager and have been associated with number of organizations like Siemens, Reliance and Escorts etc. after retirement and therefore can claim to have reasonable experience.
    You have very rightly observed what makes one an outstanding manager is not his IQ .There are very different qualities required to be successful and be an asset to an Organization. My experience of IR has been that people who are professionally successful are those who are in the middle ranks neither rankers nor the guys who are at the bottom, in the so called entrance level. I can tell you we were recruited as Special Railway Apprentices through a written competitive exam. conducted by UPSC , Intelligence and Mechanical aptitude test by Army and final interview by UPSC. Most of the boys were position holders but finally it were not the rankers who did the best in their career.
    I do not what the solution is but problem enunciated by is very real.

  14. GAURAV MAHAJAN says:

    The example of senior team members undergoing a well designed test is very direct, lively and gripping.
    “The process of assessment need to be complex to be successful”…all the educationist,managers, leaders think so because they believe the standard for which they are seeking this actually requires it to be complicated whereas an easy and simple task can be done by any one.Thus the differentiation is required to create a line between – Needs improvement/ Average / Excellent/ Outstanding.

    But in today’s highly engaging world the system should be developed which encourages participation and makes assessment as an integral part of day-to-day operations. This might bring in innovation and new avenues of hunting better methods of judging capabilities.

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About the Author

K Ramkumar, known to his friends as Ram, has an enduring passion for triggering a discussion and joining in with gusto on a range of themes. He believes that every person has an inalienable right to express his/her view no matter how different it is to anyone else. In his book no view is unworthy or big or small. Every view from everyone deserves a consideration without getting caught up with the tyranny of agreement or disagreement.
Read more »