In Response to Elite Selection Practices

September 2, 2016 | By Maretha Prinsloo

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As discussed in the recent blog by Dr Paul Barrett, the graduate recruitment and selection practices of elite firms are currently characterised by:

  • A focus on certain elite educational institutions which are linked to certain elite firms
  • Selection interviews which are conducted by partners who are mostly not professionally trained in psychology
  • An emphasis on the extracurricular activities and high status connections of candidates to ensure a cultural fit of the candidate to the organisation
  • Psychological profiles are, however, assumed to be less important [1] [2].

How can such practices be improved? Do we need a brown shoe revolution?

The organisational culture of elite employers

Culturally, many of the so-called elite firms emphasise the importance of success, status, positional power, technology, hierarchy, ambition and profit. These values largely reflect the “Orange” and “Red” value systems as described by the Spiral Dynamics (SD) model of Clare Graves.

The SD model represent eight (and ever emerging) worldviews or value systems, that are organised along a spiral, where each system incorporates and transcends its predecessors. These systems, represented by different colours, can be described as perceptual and decision making frameworks that determine our views, feelings and behaviour. Additional insights regarding value orientations are provided by a number of developmental and consciousness theories such as those of Wilber, Kohlberg, Perry and Piaget, Loevinger, May and others, all of which largely overlap with the Spiral Dynamics model[3].

The Orange and Red values of the SD model show an individualistic, competitive, energetic and realistic approach to life: Red is largely associated with energy, power and control and Orange involves an abundance mindset, performance orientation and resilience. These two orientations in combination, meet most of the requirements of the competitive business environment, but can also be criticised on a number of counts. At times their focus may shift towards creating short term viability at the expense of long term sustainability. In addition, self-interest may take precedence over social and environmental considerations and under demanding circumstances this may result in questionable business practices.

Given the relative effectiveness of Red-Orange values in commercial contexts, though, the question arises as to whether the selection practices of elite firms optimise the potential benefits of Red-Orange cultures.

The implications of elitist selection practices

An interesting paradox tends to emerge here. The essence of the Orange value orientation is its high performance mentality, flexibility and adaptability. However, by recruiting seemingly like-minded people based on elitist criteria such as extra-curricular activities and connections, which are unrelated to work, the opposite values of what is aimed for may actually be proliferated. These selection strategies are aimed at building high performance and elite cliques, but the practice in itself gives rise to clannish and conservative attitudes as well as informal norms which encourage “group think”, in-group loyalty, a reluctance to challenge the status quo and even tribalism, all of which represent the shadow side of elitist social systems. This can potentially inhibit initiative and contribute to stagnation as it is the complexity and variety of a system which determines its resilience and adaptability.

Although the issue of cultural fit is important, it should therefore not be pursued at the detriment of the systems principles of anti-fragility. According to Nassim Taleb[4], systems may benefit from shocks. They require risk, variety and uncertainty and develop resilience in the face of volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors. People management practices aimed at excluding minority groups and those who do not fit the cultural mould of the organisation, limit the benefits that, in complex environments, can be obtained through diversity of opinion and perception.

Elitist strivings may also give rise to complacency and even arrogance. The latter is usually associated with certain blind spots including reduced objectivity and the tendencies to trivialise risk, relax controls, ignore compliance requirements and neglect preventive action. Complacency which limits risk awareness and a proactive orientation, can significantly impact on the viability of a system.

What would be more effective?

A new principle-based selection approach anchored in technically informed and socially responsible people management practices, is hereby suggested to replace current elitist practices.

What people have to offer in terms of their talent and energy, needs to be integrated with work-related goals. For this the nature of the people and the work need to be understood. In addition to information on a person’s knowledge and experience, psychological characteristics such as cognitive preferences and capabilities, worldviews, levels of awareness and motivational profiles also need to be measured. What is measured, can be managed.

Given the goal of creating viable and resilient systems, the issue of worldviews, values and perceptual frameworks thus needs to be addressed. This is a prerequisite for creating a diverse, robust and coherent system which shows abundant capacity for innovation and adaptability. Here, the Value Orientations (VO) instrument comes in handy. The VO is based, amongst other theoretical models, on the Spiral Dynamics model as briefly described above.

In addition, the measurement of cognitive preference and capability, is of critical importance in selection decisions. Cognition is a prerequisite for work performance, especially in complex environments, and addressing it, significantly reduces placement risks. For the measurement of the cognitive potential of Generation Y and Millennials, Cognadev suggests the use of the Learning Orientation Index (LOI). The LOI differs completely from existing intelligence tests. It is a simulation exercise that externalises and tracks the cognitive preferences and capabilities of candidates according to thousands of measurement points. These results are algorithmically analysed by an expert system and an automated report is provided.

The benefits of assessment-based selection practices

By knowing the personal preferences, capabilities, values and motivational drivers of job applicants, one can optimise their work-related functioning and job satisfaction, ensure ethical business practices and contribute towards the adaptability and responsiveness of the organisation.

[1] Rivera, L.A. (2012). Hiring as cultural matching: The case of elite professional service firms. American Sociological Review, 77, 6, 999-1022.

[2] Rivera, L.A. (2015). Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[3] Prinsloo, M. (2012). Consciousness models in action: comparisons. Integral Leadership Review, Integral Publishers.

[4] Taleb, N.N. (2012). Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder. Random House. United States.