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“Aptitude assessment should be left to humans”

Prof. Dr. Martin Kersting talks to SUITS. Consultant Alexander Ebert about the digitalisation of Executive Search, trends in aptitude diagnostics and the dark side of leadership.


What about the future of Executive Search? Will Executive Search someday be replaced by artificial intelligence?

Kersting: Digitalization is changing the work of Executive Search, but it is not taking it away from us. Some process steps, such as certain aspects of the search and approach, and above all candidate management, can be (partially) automated. However, the actual aptitude assessment should be left to humans. The possibilities offered by big data and artificial intelligence – given that they are legally and ethically sound – should certainly be exploited. Even if it is only to be irritated in a positive sense in his own judgement.

Psychometric tools play an important role in the selection and assessment of the most suitable candidates for a position. In your opinion, which competencies are indispensable for top management? What does a CEO need in today’s “VUCA” world, where requirements change rapidly and complexity increases?

Obviously, the world of work is changing at a rapid pace in some areas. One of the consequences of this is that it is no longer possible to rest on one’s qualifications and skills, and success to date is no longer the sole guarantee of future success. Thus, generalized abilities and characteristics move into the focus. What is needed is a pattern of thought and behaviour that makes it possible to organise oneself and successfully cope with situations characterised by instability, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. This includes the ability to learn, intelligence and motivation. Depending on the field, the ability to communicate, the sociability and openness are also important. In order to record these generalised characteristics, there are indeed very good questionnaires and tests which can be integrated into an overall process of management diagnostics.

Recently, there has been a strong increase in the availability of aptitude diagnostic instruments on the market. How can I, as a client, tell whether the instrument used by the consultant meets scientific quality criteria?

It is not easy to recognize this. For this reason, even processes of dubious quality are often economically successful. For the evaluation of an instrument it is important to realize that the quality of the instrument can ultimately only be evaluated on the basis of parameters that have been calculated in empirical investigations. A first indicator of quality is therefore the documentation of these empirical studies. If there are no studies at all on a procedure or if these are classified as “secret” with flimsy arguments such as “company secret”, one should keep one’s fingers off the instrument. If there are studies, the accuracy of the report is an important indicator. Is it merely claimed that “many managers” have been examined or is it shown exactly how many and which persons were examined when and how? In accordance with DIN 33430 – a DIN standard for personnel selection – the Diagnostik- und Testkuratorium der Föderation Deutscher Psychologenvereinigungen has precisely defined which information must be available for a test or questionnaire. It is extremely questionable if an instrument provider does not provide this information or even denies its importance.

And as a candidate, what should one be aware of here?

As a candidate, you should insist on being comprehensively and completely informed about all instruments used in personnel diagnostics. Transparency is a sign of quality. In addition, in a procedure, be it an interview or a questionnaire, only things that are clearly related to the position in question may be discussed. If one misses this reference, one should inquire and insist on a plausible answer.

How do you basically see the acceptance of psychometric instruments in the field of management diagnostics? Has this acceptance increased among candidates and clients, for example due to easier implementation – keyword mobile assessments – or is there less and less time for a comprehensive assessment in the selection process?

The acceptance of psychometric procedures depends on many factors, such as one’s own interest in the position or personal preferences for certain methods such as interviews or tests. Psychometric instruments such as cognitive competence tests score particularly highly because of the fact that they are regarded as scientifically sound and protect privacy. What is decisive for acceptance is what I have already mentioned with regard to the candidates: It must be obvious to the candidates what the relationship is between the instruments and the position under discussion.

You have theoretical and practical insight into current research. Where do you see the trends in management diagnostics and occupational aptitude diagnostics?

There are numerous trends that are exciting; the increasing digitalisation of aptitude diagnostics is certainly particularly drastic. New types of data about candidates and employees, such as communication behavior on the Internet, are analyzed using complex and, if necessary, self-learning algorithms. This opens up enormous possibilities and at the same time raises difficult legal and ethical questions. We are at the very beginning of development and must set the course in such a way that progress in knowledge does not mean a step backwards in ethical and legal terms.

And what do you think of newer practice-oriented and media-effective approaches such as the language analysis approach of “Precire” and other AI-based selection instruments?

At the moment there is a bit of a Wild West atmosphere, what the machine can do is being done. What is necessary, however, is that we do not throw our principles overboard and adhere to legal regulations and ethical rules. Data must be restricted to what is necessary for a specific purpose and requirement. For information that I can obtain with a conventional questionnaire, I do not and must not use a machine that collects and processes far more data. Candidates must also be able to deliberately control at any time which information they disclose. Finally, it should be noted that relevant personnel decisions must not be based exclusively on automated data processing.

Finally, the media are full of reports about top managers who make amoral and antisocial decisions with sometimes devastating consequences. How do you explain this phenomenon? And what possibility does a diagnostician have to uncover tendencies in personality that indicate such misconduct?

Research is currently very intensively concerned with the “dark side of leadership”. It is assumed that a combination of the personality traits narcissism, machiavellianism and psychopathy (the so-called “dark triad”) is jointly responsible for the misconduct of managers. I am very fascinated by this research, but in practice I must point out that despite the media presence of individual cases, fortunately only a few managers have this unholy trinity. It certainly does no harm to pay attention to these aspects, authoritarianism and a hostile attribution style when assessing aptitude. But it is equally important to live a culture in organisations that makes it unlikely for an individual to show this kind of misconduct. This includes the support of executives, the collection of regular feedback and the establishment of ethical principles. I am a big fan of aptitude diagnostics, but the example of “derailed” managers also shows that personality alone is not decisive. There is always an environment that allows derailment.


Prof. Dr. Martin Kersting has accompanied the Executive Search sector as a diagnostician for many years. As professor for psychological diagnostics at the University of Giessen, test author (e.g. SMART, Wilde-Intelligenz-Test 2) and before that as scientific director of the Kienbaum Institute for Management Diagnostics, he knows research and practice. (Foto: Hardy Welsch)