Researching Elite Performance In the last blog I discussed how serendipity can be shaped through our use of time (who we associate with), finding and pursuing passion in our work, and small moves smartly made. I closed by commenting on how surprised I was that Bob Wilson came out as a natural entrepreneur. Floyd made a pivotal observations about how ‘we are not defined by the role that we do but who we are in that role’ and in effect seemed to be hinting that elite performance is sociological as well as psychological by nature. My apologies Floyd I then, must have had time on my hand, and got a bit carried away with my response. I also posed a couple of questions what is it about sport and elite performance that develops entrepreneurial talent and what are the implications of the 2012 legacy. Another question was how would you compare the elite performers in sports to the elite performers in business? On that Floyd’s response was that ‘there is a common thread/theme that runs between all individuals, teams, and organisations that are elite.’ The difference between them in Floyd’s opinion is minimal. Now I don’t entirely agree on that and will pick that hot potato up towards the end of the discussion over the next week. An aside which will be returned to later and worth a posting in its own right is ‘how come the number of Floyd’s ex SAS colleagues who have run their own businesses or performed significantly in business is staggering.’ On reflection, mea culpa, I have jumped ahead. So in this post I’d like to take a step back before revealing my learning from Bob Wilson by outlining the approach taken to the research. About the research approach my view is that the major problem relating to drawing conclusions about elite performance, talent and success is that people, particularly experts tend to view issues from their own experiences, and have hobbyhorses. Situations and success too often only make perfect sense when you’re looking back and apply ‘retrospective coherence’. Success and winning though the obvious outcomes are rarely simple to explain away. Behaviour does not take place in isolation but is mediated by the context. This is a point underlined by Times journalist Matthew Syed in his outstanding book Bounce. Reflecting on his own rise to fame, modest as he is like many great champions, he argues that we like to think of sport as a meritocracy- where achievement is driven by ability and hard work – but it is nothing of the sort. As he writes ‘practically every man or woman who triumphs against the odds, is on closer inspection a beneficiary of unusual circumstances, The delusion lies in focussing on the individuality of their triumph without perceiving –or bothering to look for the powerful opportunities stacked in their favour.’ Ericsson a psychologist specialising in success uses the term iceberg illusion in another context to describe how when we witness extraordinary feats we are witnessing the end product of a process measured in years. We miss out on understanding the ecology or sociology of success, what Matthew Syed describes in one chapter as the hidden logic of success. So what made me believe I could be more precise in identifying the personality characteristics and Talents that distinguish elite performers, World champions, CEO’s and those who have attained the top of their field from the rest? The short answer is firstly the psychological perspective the Saville Wave (More of which later and if you are interested in this area may I recommend a tour of their website hasn’t been used pervasively at this level. However psychometric tests can predict workplace effectiveness in other roles so why wouldn’t they work in elite areas to help us get to grips with the mind of a champion? Also there is no other test that I know of that has been designed for the 21st century World of Work and has specifically researched and identified entrepreneurial skills. Well if there is do let me know. – I’m missing a trick. Secondly I returned to my roots as a behavioural scientist (I started my career by undertaking an ethnographic study of the Xerox Sales Culture) in adopting a derivative of action research as one element of the research methodology. This approach originated through social scientist Kurt Lewin (along with a former PsyOps specialist from the Korean War he was one of the founders of Organisation Development) who came up with the elegant formula that behaviour is a function of the person and the situation. In simple terms, action research for him was best characterised as “learning by doing” and about creating change. It’s accepted that the researcher, is not neutral, but openly acknowledges their bias. The developmental process is of following the idea, seeing how it goes, and continually checking whether it is in line with what you wish to happen. In terms of action research the process is that I have tried to be open minded but not so open minded as Eysenck a famous psychologist once said on TV to an obtuse interviewer, so open minded that my brains have fallen out .At a personal level I accept too I am more than academically interested in the findings from the research and process of writing. I want to use the results to make me more productive and learn from the best in their field. As, showing my age film critic Barry Norman used to say, ’and why not?’ Well what do you do after a brain tumour? You might as my thoughts were do something you are passionate about, know something that has the potential to create significant value and change. In summary then without getting too academic about it, the intent from the outset was to blend quantitative with qualitative methods and go for a pragmatic action research outcome. With the emphasis in the first instance personal action learning …..that would have a wider validity and usefulness for others in enhancing their effectiveness. In this way the output of the research was designed to encourage the debate as to precisely how does personality at work contributes to success at elite levels. What are the common factors across disciplines and where are the differences? Are all World champions made of the same ‘right stuff’, what is the role of personality and talent and how is it guided by nature via nurture? These were the original aims. I was also interested in the degree to which ordinary people could learn from legends and the extent to which there really was and is a War for Talent.’

Richard thank you for your thoughts so far and I am very interested in the next instalment. My thought so far on what you have covered are that psychometrics are a guide ONLY, they give a picture of where someone may like to perform and their type and traits at a given moment in time. However, what they do not show is a person’s adaptability and ability to work outside their preferred operating system. In short we answer questions based on our super strengths, our best way of operating. They do not always show us the flexibility we have to adapt and change our styles to obtain the results/Win. My thoughts are that there are a number of basic areas of performance that I try to be expert in. I will explain what these are for me at a later date. However, by doing these basic things well it gives me flexibility to adapt to the needs of the situation and be creative where necessary, it enables me to compassionate and ruthless if I need to be. It allows me to understand the risks involved and also to seek the correct support when I am vulnerable. Vulnerability is key, it is not something to be afraid of, it is a start point from which to work from. Those individuals with the most flexibility control the system. Therefore my question would be how do we capture not only someone’s strengths in a questionnaire/analysis but their adaptability because surley adaptability is the key to success?

4 thoughts on “Adaptability

  1. Floyd
    I tend to agree with you that depending on the psychometric test used they can be extending your analogy ‘rough guides’, out of date guides, sometimes from the fifties or up to date Ordnance Survey types. In that sense they can be maps of the territory of personality at work, yet like most maps they represents a version of reality and are inevitably a force in creating the reality (or not) to be described. I’d also emphasise that just as the poetry is in the passion, the power in the psychometric is in the interpretation rather than the precision of prediction alone. As you might know most tests are based on the big 5. No for those not familiar with the jargon, not to do with Lion, Rhino,. Cheetah, Buffalo, and Elephant. The big Five is the mnemonic OCEAN. Standing for Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. The Big Five have been replicated in a variety of languages and cultures. There’s even out of interest one survey called the CPQ for chimpanzees. One study comparing chimpanzees in Japan to those in US and Australia even found that older chimpanzees of the sample of 246 had higher dominance and lower extraversion and openness.

    By my interpretation at any rate the Big Five is a model in the descriptive sense only. It’s also important to acknowledge that the term personality trait is narrower than the everyday usage of the term. There are many aspects of personality that are not subsumed within the Big Five. Motivations, emotions, mental strength, mentors, attitudes, values, self-belief, social roles, environmental influences autobiographical influences, and life stories are just a few of the other aspects that can be studied. Some of these may link to the Big Five traits, but they are conceptually distinct. For this reason, even the best most predictive profile of somebody’s personality traits can only be a partial description of personality. In other words we should always be cautious about interpretation and the inferences we draw.. Having said that it has to be acknowledged and can be substantiated by the Psychs (and our study of sales effectiveness did) that job-relevant and well-constructed personality questionnaires not just the Saville Wave used here can successfully measure what a person will do in real-life situations. Appropriately used, combined with other techniques they do improve decisions about people at work. Slightly different but relevant when we used assessment centres we found that they were better at predicting second level potential and on this I have my suspicions they created self-fulfilling prophecies.

    By the same token a confession. Just in case you consider I’m a complete psychocrat, I appreciated the limitations of Psychometrics at an early stage in my career. Well I made an almighty error. At great expense we launched a programme, to attract high calibre first line managers. Aspiring Captains of Industry were subjected to a battery of exhaustive tests. We received cogently written reports in ludicrously beautiful bindings from the Headhunter. The problem was out of the psychologists control it has to be said and I was raw in judgement in those days. Out of 12 selected only one survived more than eighteen months. That was because due to delays in recruitment he didn’t become tarnished by the label and poisoned chalice of high potential. As I recall he played rugby too. We’d neglected to consider a critical success factor. The culture bit back. No matter how skilled or bright you were if your face didn’t fit or you didn’t have a powerful insider as sponsor you were in the argot of those anti-intellectual, politically incorrect and macho days ‘dead meat’.

    Most critical for me too when I deployed them in recruitment taking attrition down from 40 to 18 per cent we did conduct a validation study and the output informed our interviewing approach rather than ruled it. More importantly as the late Easy Rider actor Denis Hopper once said ‘anyone can cut off their ear like Van Gogh but not everyone can be a Van Gogh.’ In the same way not everyone then or now was cut out to sell office technology. In retrospect the real value of the personality test then was as much in reducing risk, screening people out who didn’t possess the basic attributes, deciding who was the better training investment more than predicting who would make it. And that was a significant value of the test. Gut feel is fine but in dealing with five testosterone fuelled Sales Managers somewhat subjective.

    In terms of helping individuals understand themselves for me a major benefit of psychometrics is that there will always be times when you meet round pegs in square holes. And that’s where their use can create a more productive discussion as to an individuals strengths and limitations. Once such person who benefited was a likeable ex accountant who had found himself a refuge in Xerox as a Keyboard Specialist (selling electronic typewriters)after his business had failed. Recently divorced, he’d just handed in his notice. Normally joining a competitor he would have been straight out of the door. His boss a couple of his colleagues and good friends instructed me to persuade him that he shouldn’t leave Xerox and join Kodak. a competitor. He wasn’t cut out for it. They insisted I talk to him that Monday morning. I can recall now looking shocked at the spikes in the profile of the test and querying whether he seriously believed that out of the frying pan into the fire was the right option. He was too sensitive. He was behavioural by nature and not at all competitive. He didn’t stand a chance of success. What did he really want to do? He wanted to go into training. Fuelled by the data on the profile which suggested he would be an excellent trainer and professional services sales person I took a risk fixed an interview up with the Training Director on the spot. This person had talent. He was just in the wrong role. It changed the direction of his life as well as protecting the company’s investment. And sticking to what he is good at he hasn’t changed nor has he ever looked back. There’s nothing as satisfying as having made a positive contribution to someone else career and life.

    Out of interest how have you or others gained value out of psychometrics?
    And have you any worst practices such as my doomed high potential recruitment to share?

    • Richard we have often discussed people at the top of their profession who have completed an assessment. However for me that just allows/enables a validaiton of their current characteristics and traits after years of development. I was once in another country where a number of scientists developed a series of tests to select special forces soldiers. Their main aim was to make the selection process more cost effective and reduce the numbers who began the course. The tests were complex and in my opinion of little relevance. In truth I was only 30 yrs old, had been in the SAS for 8 years and I would have stuggled to pass most of the tests. My point therefore is that all of these tests are to give people a start point on their journey to develping their own strengths and becoming flexible in the process. I have seen many examples of tests being used inappropriately when selecting individuals for various roles. As with all elements of selection they give a view point which then has to be balanced with objective data and other subjective elements. Just typing this as I move through an airport lounge so will elaborate on another occassion.

  2. An interesting point on how people respond on the questionnaire relative to their super strengths and adaptability . What I have found is that some of the top people I have profiled have both great strengths and in some cases what others might describe as weaknesses or areas they prefer not to pay attention to that might derail others. In fact what comes out of such discussions is fascinating insight into how they view the world and the espoused and actual values. As the research progresses I am finding (apologies for being esoteric but I may explain this as a learning later) that the repertory grid technique, nothing to do with theatre it was created by Kelly.) is as important as the test.

    As for flexibility on the profile emotional, behavioural and social adaptability are covered through the Resilient, Flexible and Supportive sections respectively. Resilient is comprised of Self-assured, Composed and Resolving dimensions, all of which underpin emotional adaptability. Self-assured facets cover self-confidence, self-valuing and internal locus of control. – By that is meant whether someone believes that their destiny is controlled by internal factors, personal decisions and efforts or by external forces (such as fate, or luck) . It’s often a good indication of how they cope with setbacks and learn from experience. Refering to adaptability as key to success. This can depend on the role under consideration. So for example I have found that what distinguishes leading Head Coaches who have made it to be significantly better at coping with uncertainty than others and most players who prefer a more structured existence. I’m also finding that for some roles it pays not to be supportive. Head coaches are not noted for their tolerance and this could be connected to their high performance standards. What’s also evident is some are highly sophisticated in the constructs they use to view the world and it’s a package of talents that count. It also appears that the elite of the elite know how to manage their emotions better. – On the field of play they just don’t show them unless they are on Strictly Come Dancing when it’s culturally OK and de rigeur as a rite de passage to show emotions.

    Just as an example skier’s and those in motorsports, and the SAS tend to be significantly higher on composure than most sports. And that makes sense. One mistake or loss of composure and lives are at risk.

  3. Floyd

    Hope you are enjoying the rays in Dubai! Here whilst I am typing it is cold and freezing.

    Regarding your Nov 27 post ,your experience of one country going over the top in inflicting psychometrics on prospective SAS recruits makes me consider they should have just started with a couple of outings on the Brecon Beacons. It would have been a lot cheaper and had more face validity! It reminds me of their application years ago in Air Force selection in another country. There they found that in selecting pilots, the most predictive question was did you build a model plane when you were young…..and did it fly?

    I have to say an exhausting testing regime can be counterproductive (as I mentioned in another come .jobs for the shrinks.) I remember a scene in book The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s story about the Mercury astronauts when one of the astronauts was presented with a blank sheet of paper to analyse. He picked it up and said you’ve got it the wrong way round! Guess what he flew to the moon.

    In sending expats to far and distance places such as Lagos, Latvia, Kazachstan, Sofia , and Modipur, and post Chernobly Kiev as well as Moscow in the late 80’s psychometric tests went out of the window More important to see how they coped with the locals, meet their wife, and understand their motives. Put it like this we paid for mistakes. So about the misuse of tests I agree….…And I could add some real horror stories. I agree too about how tests should be used as a start point although they can also be used as a check point with individuals in making a transition from one role into another. It’s good to have some ‘scientific’ data which in my view is food for thought and a great prompt for considering focussed development actions.
    More recently I have to say with some help, more of which later I’ve been looking at the difference between those in ‘club class’ (semi-professionals), top of their class ‘ internationals/first class and legends – those in a class of their own as well as those just starting their career. In other words I’ve learnt from the early research and modifying my approach. In addition I’ve gone back and profiled some of the successful people I have consulted/ worked for 20 years ago) including some who made it big in industry. The most amazing one so far is an 82 year old parachutist, who proclaims to ‘still think like a young man’ closely followed by the larger than life personality of one of Britain’s fastest growing companies. In one sense the more things change the more, they stay the same. In another they have changed ,there is obvious wisdom, experience and in depth knowledge at play. The 82 year old was brilliant at 62 but he’s just not stopped learning. The same go’s for his younger colleague.

    Enjoy the rays


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