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Secrets of the Success of Assessment Centres

Ever since the pioneering studies some half a century ago in major American organisations like the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) and Standard Oil of Ohio, assessment centres have enjoyed the reputation of the ‘Rolls Royce’ of assessment methods. However, for many years, there has been uncertainty as to whether assessment centres work in the way originally envisaged, that is by accurately measuring the competencies that will be required in the job.

The alternative and seemingly simpler and more elegant explanation is that assessment centres are accurate predictors because they get as close as they can to sampling the work that the person would be doing if hired. They therefore offer a preview of performance. If negotiating with customers is an important part of the role then include a customer negotiation role play in the centre. If contributing to strategy is vital, then have a strategic analysis exercise. And so on. In other words the validity of assessment centres comes from them having a point to point correspondence with the job itself. Unfortunately, all too many centres fail to grasp this essential characteristic and include weird exercises that have little or nothing to do with the future job. As consultants, we still hear of centres for future managers that include outdoor ‘assault course’ type exercises that might be a delight to the person designing them but are unlikely to predict anything of work relevance.

Point to point correspondence means that assessment centres work as predictors despite imperfections in them as measures of the competencies presumed to underlie performance at the centre and the job. The correspondence also makes them a far more direct predictor than psychometric measures of traits and abilities presumed to lie behind the behaviours of performance at centres and at work.

A recent paper by a group of psychologists led by Anne Jansen of the University of Zurich (Jansen et al., 2013) attempts to delve deeper into why point to point correspondence works apart from both the assessment centre and the job performance requiring the same ability and personality determinants. The authors go into some detail on the importance of candidates ‘reading’ both the assessment centre exercise and the job role in the same way. They draw on the distinction between nominal and psychological situations. The nominal situation is how most people would see a situation, the consensus viewpoint. The psychological situation is how the particular individual perceives it, resulting in their particular response. For assessment centres to be accurate predictors, candidates must perceive the psychological situation of the exercise similarly to the psychological situation at work.

Jansen et al. believe people differ in their ability to decipher situational demands and assert that cognitive ability will be advantageous to this task. They suggest that the ability to read situations can be indexed by comparing the individual’s psychological reading of the situation with the consensus or nominal take on the situation. They say that three conditions must be met for people to respond to situations. First they must know they are being evaluated – that the situation matters; second there must be cues to the situational demands; third it must be clear they are expected to respond. In our view, ensuring that these conditions are met unambiguously and in the same terms in both the assessment centre and at work is a prerequisite for point to point correspondence. In other words the psychological situation at the assessment centre and the job must be the same. To the extent that people are left mystified as to either what the assessment centre is looking for or what they are meant to do at work, the centre will be a poor predictor of performance because the situation at the centre might well have been read differently to the situation at work.

Jansen et al. look at people’s abilities to come up with the consensus readings of situations. In their empirical study they show that people’s accuracy at perceiving situational demands (indexed by how close their individual reading of a situation matches the consensus) was related both to job performance and assessment centre performance thereby contributing to some of the relationship between assessment centre scores and performance.

Jansen et al. recommend measuring the accuracy of perceiving situational demands and using it as predictor of job performance. Of course, this ability might be important to performance and therefore worth measuring. However, one could equally take away from the study the need to remove the ambiguity from situational requirements particularly at assessment centres. Centres should faithfully reflect the culture and values that people will work within if they join so that candidates are not left guessing, for example, whether cooperation or extreme assertiveness is the requirement of a group exercise. It needs to be clear to them the game they will be expected to play at work and see if they are capable of playing that game at the centre.

How Can Human Assets Help?

Human Assets are at the forefront of assessment and development centres in the UK, with an international reputation. Our book, Development and Assessment Centres: Identifying and Developing Competence (Woodruffe, 2007) now in its fourth edition, has been a standard text for more than 20 years and has been translated into several languages.

We provide clients with centres that work because they have the necessary point to point correspondence. This is achieved by having bespoke centres. How could an off-the-shelf centre hope to compete for accuracy? It is also achieved by having real-time centres, replicating the stream of work and issues with which the person will be confronted if offered the job. Most importantly, it is also achieved by a sophisticated understanding of the sorts of issues raised by Jansen et al.’s research.


Jansen, A., Melchers, K. G., Lievens, F., Kleinmann, M., Brändlki, M., Freaefel, L and König, C. J. Situation assessment as an ignored factor in the behavioural consistency paradigm underlying the validity of personnel selection procedures. Journal of Applied Psychology, 2013, vol 98, no 2, Pps 326 - 341. Woodruffe, C. Development and Assessment Centres: Identifying and Developing Competence, 2007


May 2013

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