How can evolutionary theory be applied to and influence the ways in which we research and practice human resource management (HRM)?
In No Best Way, Professor Stephen Colarelli notes that the theory of evolution has been the theoretical bedrock of the life sciences for well over a century, yet it is has only just begun making inroads into the fields of psychology and organizational theory. No Best Way is Colarelli’s attempt to improve Human Resource Management, through an appreciation of evolutionary science.
Colarelli penned No Best Way back in 2003, and from my limited research Colarelli was one of the first social scientists to apply evolutionary theory to management. I picked up No Best Way expecting the book to be somewhat dated and limited in its application. However I was pleasantly surprised by how advanced Colarelli’s thinking was, and the philosophical depth to which Colarelli delved to. The book also provides an excellent overview of the history of organisational psychology.
An oversimplification of Colarelli’s thesis is this: despite organisational psychologists’ best efforts, modern ‘mechanistic’ hiring methods are no better at predicting employee performance than traditional hiring methods. Additionally, Colarelli argues that modern hiring methods frequently go against the grain of human nature, which helps explain their low adoption rates in industry. That is, they go against our preference for face-to-face interactions and to form intuitive judgements of people’s character; our aversion to statistics and abstract information; and our propensity to learn behaviours with higher survival and reproductive value. To improve hiring and training, organisational psychologists must take into consideration our evolved psychological dispositions, embrace variation and complexity, and abandon Utopian visions of organisations and society.
Colarelli argues that the discrepancy between the conditions of our distant ancestral past and that of modern organisations have resulted in a evolutionary mismatch (p. 122, emphasis added):
“The industrial revolution and the cultural, social and technological changes that accompanied it occurred at astonishing speed. Many of the newly developed selection methods were attempts to adapt to those changes. Yet human nature changes considerably more slowly than culture and technology. Hence, it is not surprising that people still prefer hiring methods- face-to-face interaction, observation, and narrative- that rely on our primary psychological mechanisms. Similarly, the inevitable politics and conflicts of interest endemic in organizations worked against the ideal that tests and test scores would be used impartially and by the book. The introduction of mechanistic hiring methods resulted in a mismatch between these new methods and human nature. Humans had evolved to survive in hunter-gather groups during the Pleistocene, and their fundamental psychological makeup had not changed with the advent of modernity, which sprang in the evolutionary blink of an eye.”
Through the lens of cultural evolution, Colarelli suggests that many unscientific management practices which don’t achieve what they’re intended to may have been retained due to some higher adaptive function. For example, training days may not actually teach employees anything new. However, training days help employees bond and boosts morale, thus increasing team performance.
The ‘Marital Compatibility Test’
One of my favourite parts of No Best Way is Colarelli’s thought exercise for his organisational psychology students, who Colarelli claims were unanimously contemptuous of traditional hiring methods (p. xviii).
To counter this attitude, I began posing the following question to my graduate seminars when we studied employment tests:
Assume that a test has been developed to match couples’ interests, backgrounds, and marital compatibility. Studies have shown that couples who score high on Marital Compatibility Test also score, on average, higher on a measure of marital satisfaction. Would you be willing to forego traditional dating and courtship, and choose your spouse through the use of this standardized test?
Uniformly, their answer was “no”. They preferred to stick to traditional methods, but they were at loss to explain why.
Colarelli’s graduates students were apparently equally averse to the hypothetical ‘Baby-Sitting Aptitude Test’.
Would you marry someone using a Marital Compatibilty Test, or do you find this dehumanising?
Of course on a personal level, choosing a future spouse and people who will care for your children are higher stakes than hiring an employee. However, Colarelli argues these experiments illustrate our evolved psychological dispositions to evaluate people through face-to-face interaction (Buss, 1999). Colarelli implies our preference for face-to-face interactions helps explain the low adoption rates of various mechanistic hiring practices in industry.
Modern Methods No Better Than Traditional Methods
Colarelli cites a meta-analysis conducted by Schmidt and Hunter (1998) covering 19 hiring methods, which analysed 85 years of quantitative research on the validity of hiring methods for predicting job performance.
The result? The average validity of traditional hiring methods was marginally higher than that of mechanistic methods. Work sample tests, a traditional hiring method, had the highest validity of all methods, whereas general tests of mental ability and structured interviews had the highest validities of mechanistic methods. Hiring methods that involve face-to-face interaction have on average higher validity than those that do not.
I was genuinely surprised by these findings. Think of the amount of resources the public and private sectors spends on modern recruitment methods, such as the assessment centre, when they are apparently only as good as cheaper, simpler traditional methods. As stated by Hinrich; “It makes little sense to use a sledgehammer to swat a fly!” (1978, p. 600, quoted p. 145).
So, how do these validity estimates hold after 13 years of research?
Subsequent meta-analyses suggest higher validity estimates for general mental ability tests (Bertua, 2005; Schmitt & Hunter, 2005), and lower estimates for work sample tests (Roth, 2005). However, there has also been a reported decline in validity estimates for assessment centres over the past 40 years (Thornhill & Gibbons, 2009). Subsequent analysis also suggests lower validity estimates for structured interviews, with unstructured interviews actually performing better (Oh et al, 2013).
Notwithstanding these revised estimates, one would expect modern hiring methods to have higher validity.
Colarelli also emphasises the perverse effects of cognitive and personality tests, and highlights that differences in cognitive test scores do not correspond well with differences in job or academic performance (p. 220).
As stated by Colarelli; “[e]xceptional performance requires more than innate intelligence or talent. It is common knowledge, as well as firmly established in the research literature, that practice, training, motivation, exposure to role models, and focused goals have a substantial effect on a person’s abilities and demonstrated performance.” (p. 283).
A case in point: Martin Luther King Jr.
Colarelli notes that Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is widely deemed one of the most influential pieces of writing on civil rights ever written, and that King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is regarded as one of the most brilliant speeches of the 20th century. Yet Martin Luther King scored in the bottom half of test-takers on the verbal portion of the Graduate Record Examination (p. 293).
As a dyslexic, I’ve witnessed the downsides of standardised cognitive tests first-hand.
I have taken numerous standardised cognitive tests for recruitment purposes, and I’ve only progressed to the next hiring phase for a grand total of one. (It is well known that having dyslexia skews cognitive test scores, which I largely attribute my poor performance on general mental ability tests to).
I initially took it personally, however I’ve now realised that organisations which rigidly implement cognitive tests in their selection process are making a mistake. Not only are general cognitive ability tests weak predictors of future performance, they also screen out talent from groups which historically haven’t tested well (such as various ethnic minority groups and the neurologically atypical).
Colarelli goes as far as to accuse organisational psychologists of hubris.
“The hubris of I/O psychologists about the merits of HRM interventions is unjustified for a specific reason: they have no historical record of tangible accomplishment. The historical record is not flattering to HRM, particularly in comparison with the historical record of other technologies developed recently. HRM achievements pale in comparison to technological achievements in transportation, communications, and medicine…” (p. xviii).
Arguably Colarelli is rather harsh in his critiques of organisational psychologists. Additionally, Colarelli notes that conventional organisational psychology is not necessarily in tension with evolutionary theory. Nonetheless Colarelli’s evolutionary perspective on hiring and training is a valuable contribution to the field.
Lessons from an Evolutionary Perspective
What should organisational psychologists and human resource managers take away from No Best Way?
Piecemeal social engineering: Embrace what Karl Popper termed ‘piecemeal social engineering’ (1996, quoted p. 73). That is, HRM interventions should be disengaged from grandiose ideals- from utopian visions of organisational, economic, and social progress. An argument against the pursuit of grandiose ideals does not mean that an evolutionary perspective is insensitive to human suffering. Alleviating particular problems is a workable alternative (p. 72).
Increase variation: A Key argument in No Best Way is that one of the most important priorities from an evolutionary perspective is the cultivation of variation. Variation has a positive influence on the viability of a system. In contrast to the mechanistic perspective which seeks to reduce variation so that an organisation can be moved to an envisioned ideal, the evolutionary perspective suggests the importance of enhancing variation. “We cannot predict the future, but variation buys us insurance. Variation improves the probability that within its broad repertoire, an organization will have the resources to cope with uncertain futures” (pp. 70-71).
Random selection above a threshold: For organisations where standardised recruitment processes are necessary, Colarelli suggests randomly selecting individuals from a pool of qualified applicants (p. 225). It deals effectively with enhancing diversity and acquiring talent. Beyond this, Colarelli argues it avoids inherent complications in making racial and ethnic categorisations; it is easy to understand and likely to be perceived as fair; and it is compatible with the organizational realities of complexity, self-interest and politics.
Drill and deliberate practice: Colarelli argues that much emphasis on technology which has dominated educational and industrial training has been misplaced. More important is something rather basic: practice (p. 290). Computers are not good at motivating people to practice, unfortunately. The critical components of effective practice are identifying skills and practising them in sustained, deliberative ways. But of course, practice isn’t sexy.
Train in groups: Frequently, psychologists and managers focus too much on the content of training, and neglect the importance of the means of training. For most of human history, people developed skills and abilities in small groups. One of the most important things one can do to promote learning is to create or join groups where people are engaged in the activity that interests them (p. 294).
Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business
*Updated 8th August 2016
Professor Stephen Colarelli is currently based at Hong Kong Baptist University, and Central St Michigan University.
Bertua, C., Anderson, N., & Salgado, J. F. (2005). The predictive validity of cognitive ability tests: A UK meta‐analysis. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 78(3), 387-409.
Buss, D. (1999) Evolutionary Psychology. Boston: Allyn & Bacon
Hinrichs, J. R. (1978). An eight-year follow-up of a management assessment center. Journal of Applied Psychology, 63(5), 596.
Oh, I. S., Postlethwaite, B. E., & Schmidt, F. L. (2013). Rethinking the Validity of Interviews for Employment Decision Making: Implications of Recent Developments in Meta-Analysis. Analysis, 297-329.
Popper, K. S. (1996). The Open Society and Its Enemies. Routledge.
Roth, P. L., Bobko, P., & McFARLAND, L. Y. N. N. (2005). A meta‐analysis of work sample test validity: updating and integrating some classic literature.Personnel Psychology, 58(4), 1009-1037.
Schmidt, F. L., & Hunter, J.E. (2004). General mental ability in the world of work: occupational attainment and job performance. Journal of personality and social psychology, 86(1), 162.
Schmidt, F. L., & Hunter, J. E. (1998). The validity and utility of selection methods in personnel psychology: Practical and theoretical implications of 85 years of research findings. Psychological bulletin, 124(2), 262. Available here.
Thornton, G. C., & Gibbons, A. M. (2009). Validity of assessment centers for personnel selection. Human Resource Management Review, 19(3), 169-187.