Why are you hiring “can do” when “will do” is what you’ll get?

Superhero or Superzero? True performance is less obvious to predict than you think.

Research confirms what most already know: When it comes to job performance, there’s a real difference between “can do” and “will do.” But how much does "can do vs will do" really influence the way you are hiring? Which person do you think shows up for your interview? Is it possible that we have a significant problem of hiring for “can do” when what we’ll eventually get is “will do?”

In scientific literature this is referred to as “Maximum” vs “Typical” performance. One of the most clever studies published illustrating the difference between Maximum and Typical performance came about partly by accident. The researchers, led by Paul Sackett, were interested in designing a valid way to assess and hire cashiers in a retail grocery store. For simplicity’s sake, I take the liberty of referencing the actual study from a story-teller’s perspective instead of a researcher’s. (Researchers, please cut me a little slack)

A given number of cashiers (say, 10) were instructed to do their best in terms of speed and accuracy when “checking out” the exact same lot of groceries. They knew they were being assessed; heck, their “supervisor” stood over them with a stopwatch! After all 10 of the cashiers had completed checking out the same items, these ‘subjects’ were thanked, business went about as usual and the study was concluded.

Or so they thought.

Later, unbeknownst to these cashiers, they were measured again for their speed and accuracy under identical conditions to the original assessment, except this time they did not know they were being assessed.

Once completed, the results from the first measurement (Maximum Performance) were compared with the results of the second measurement (Typical Performance). What would you guess the correlation to be between the two?

Almost zero!

The study found that the correlation, or relationship, between what people can do vs what they will do was a mere .14! Interestingly, this is about the same as the correlation between the typical selection interview and job performance. Coincidence?

Stop for a moment and consider the implications of this simple, but profound study. Essentially, there is very little in common between what a person “can do” versus what they typically “will do.”

So I ask again: Which person do you think shows up for your interview? And next, what are the implications for your carefully screened team?

Uh, Houston, ….

Experts in the science of psychology at work are well aware of this challenge. As for myself, I tell my clients that I assess for what people “will do” in addition to what they “can do.” Obviously, this requires special expertise since almost all job applicants want to make the best impression they can. It’s not easy to see through the “Sunday Best” they can maintain for a full day of interviewing or assessment.

However: It is possible for a trained and experienced expert in psychological assessment at work to distinguish the difference between can do and will do. But this is still something that many have a hard time doing – even experts.

So, for your next hire, ask yourself: “Am I really measuring this person for what they can do, or what they will do?” You might just find that an expert in psychological assessment can help.

Psychology at work: It really makes a difference.