Executive Performance and Potential: Work and Cognitive Performance

By Paul Barrett and Maretha Prinsloo on October 29, 2019

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Authors: Paul Barrett & Maretha Prinsloo


As part of the ongoing validation of our assessments, we often come across findings which might be of interest to others. The three blog articles in this series show the relevance of three Cognadev assessments to understanding and helping develop executive performance. In this first blog, we look specifically at the intellectual functioning of executives as based on Cognitive Process Profile (CPP) results. The second blog in this series deals with the values and world views of executives as based on the Value Orientations (VO) assessment, and the third blog focuses on the motivational drivers of high-performance executives as indicated by the Motivational Profile (MP).


Some Background Details

A large international building/infrastructure/materials manufacturer provided ‘outcome’ ratings on 218 executive employees in leadership roles. Almost all the executives have long corporate histories of around 15 to 20 years, the majority of whom have also been involved in the manufacturing/production industry for many years. Almost all have post-graduate or multiple degrees – especially in science and/or business, and the majority are males between the ages of 40 and 60.

The ‘outcome’ ratings’ comprised a Job Performance rating:

  • Below Expectations
  • Meets Expectations
  • Exceeds Expectations
  • Outstanding Performance

and Leadership Potential rating:

  • Stable/Static
  • High Potential
  • Very High Potential

The employees were working/rated in four geographical regions:

  • Switzerland
  • USA
  • South America
  • India


1. The frequencies of rating categories assigned, and the relationship between Performance and Potential Ratings within each region.

In the two graphs below, the percentages are calculated as the number of cases at a rating option for a particular region divided by the total number of ratings assigned across all regions for that rating option.

What we see from the above graph is that the percentage of “Outstanding” ratings assigned in India far exceeds the percentage assigned in the other three regions.

Likewise, the assignment of Very High Potential ratings in India, where 80% of all High Potential ratings are assigned to executives.

Exploring the comparability of these ratings across regions a little further, we calculated the Gamma ordered-class correlation between the performance and potential ratings within each region, looking for evidence of at least a similar relationship between the two sets of ratings.

The Indian and South American ratings are clearly discrepant from the remaining regions in terms of relationship to one another.

This is important because these are the two criterion variables against which Cognadev attribute relationships will be investigated. If the criterion variable relationship is not consistent across regions, then any ‘global’ analysis using all available data aggregated across regions could be compromised.

Therefore, for the CPP analyses below, only data from regions other than India and South America will be used.

For the Performance ratings, only a single case possessed a “Below Expectations Ranking” and a single case an “Outstanding Performance” rating in the total dataset sample size of 82 cases, therefore, analyses were confined to “Meets” and “Exceeds Expectations” ratings.

For the Potential ratings, only three cases possessed a “Very High Potential” rating in a sample size of 76 cases, therefore, analyses were confined to “Stable/Static” and “High Potential” ratings.

It should be kept in mind that the organisation in question shows a distinct performance-based culture characterised by periodic performance appraisals by various evaluators. It is therefore unlikely that underperforming employees will end up in executive roles.


2. The CPP Stratified Systems Theory (SST) current and potential work environment classification frequencies as a function of rated performance expectations

As summarised in the model below, in the World of Work two domains can be identified, the Operational and Strategic. The model is holonic in that subsequent levels or systems incorporate and transcend preceding levels or systems in terms of the complexity involved. The nature of work may entail any of five overall Work Environments. Towards the right the environments become increasingly strategic, complex, chaotic, uncertain and vague. Strategic contexts require the capacity to look more at possibilities than practicalities and suspend a focus on detail to become more aware of the dynamics of the situation. This increasing complexity requires a long-term orientation, integrative thinking and intuitive judgement when making decisions.

The CPP identifies a work environment best suited to the way in which an individual currently applies their judgement (where they are currently comfortable and effective in applying their cognitive capability) as well as the environment where the individual shows the potential to effectively apply their judgement. A person’s cognitive functioning is enabled or constrained by certain values as well as cognitive, emotional or meta-awareness factors.

The competency and the complexity requirements of the executive roles within the organisation in question, were analysed using the Contextualised Competency Mapping (CCM) job analysis tool of Cognadev. According to the job experts involved in the evaluation, the majority of the executive roles reflected Parallel Processing (SST level 4) requirements.

Next, the current and potential levels of cognitive functioning of the executives were measured using the CPP. The results are visualized in the two graphs below. The percentages are calculated as the number of cases at a CPP Level of Work classification for a fixed performance rating option (e.g. “Meets”) divided by the total number of cases assigned that rating option.


There is a clear monotonic relationship between the percentage of cases and increasing CPP Current Level as well as CPP Potential level of work rankings, except for the Pure Strategic level. As indicated, executive performance as measured for the purposes of this study primarily involved Parallel Processing work requirements instead of Pure Strategic work requirements. It should be pointed out that very few individuals show the cognitive preferences and capabilities to apply a Pure Strategic information processing approach.


3. Cognitive functioning: Median ranked cognitive styles and performance ratings

The CPP Cognitive styles of the executive groups were also analysed. As mentioned, the group comprised of professionals, mostly with multiple degree in Science and/or Business. Only those who were rated as meeting or exceeding expectations of job performance were included in the analysis. Preferred cognitive style rankings varied between 14 (most preferred) to 1 (Least preferred).

It was found that the “Exceed” performance candidates consistently applied Logical, Analytical, Memory and Learning styles. Very few cases in this group showed a preference for Random (Trial-and-error) and Impulsive (Reactive) styles. For the “Meets Performance Expectations” group, the Pearson correlation between the median CPP Rank for the styles (as ordered) and the order position {1-14} is 0.91. For the “Exceeds Performance group” (Exceeds + Outstanding; n=80), the correlation is 0.98.

This is very clear evidence of the substantive ‘sense’ of these cognitive styles. If style-preferences were random we’d be looking at two straight lines with a constant median value of 7.


4. Cognitive functioning: Median ranked information processing competencies and performance ratings

Whereas cognitive styles as measured by the CPP indicate broad cognitive preferences and capabilities, the CPP information processing competencies (IPCs) are more specific and reflect functional categories of processing tendencies at various levels of complexity.

Here, we are plotting the median information processing competency (IPC) scores of the CPP in descending order, using the “Exceed” rating group’s median IPC-score monotonic order.

Very similar results were achieved in terms of the cognitive processing scores as with the styles in that the following processes were most commonly and effectively capitalised on:

  • Logical reasoning (characterised by a process orientation; use of factual detail; tendency to find logical proof; tendency to follow arguments through; tendency to converge arguments or generate new options);
  • Analytical skill (work with detail and precision; subdivide wholes into their building blocks; differentiate between subcomponents; establish relationships between elements; show a linear processing approach; show a rule orientation; being systematic);
  • Quick Insight Learning (tendency to explore new or challenging information and relatively quickly grasp the requirements; cognitive modifiability and flexibility; curiosity; attention; interest);
  • Memory (concentration; retention and recall of information);
  • Rule orientation (careful application of the task requirements); and
  • Complexity scores.

The above-mentioned processing constructs (in that order) best correlated with the Performance (r = 0.96) ratings of those who met or exceeded the criteria involved. These results indicate the highly rigorous and logical approach of this educated group of executives, as well as their reliance on knowledge and experience (as is often associated with the tendency to capitalise on memory).

From these results it seems that the executives mostly deal with interactive and dynamic systems, requiring a Logical and an Integrative approach, as is typical at the SST Parallel Processing level. Typical Pure Strategic work, however, normally requires dealing with chaos and emerging patterns as it is involved in identifying philosophical trends and macro-economic considerations across industries. A highly Intuitive approach is therefore mostly relied on in Pure Strategic contexts.



This sample of approximately 200 executives from a global production firm, all of whom meet and exceed the performance requirements of their roles (which largely reflect a Parallel Processing level of complexity), showed the following cognitive tendencies as measured by the CPP:

  • An intellectual inclination of a professional, logical-analytical nature. This orientation was also highlighted by the Value Orientation (VO) and Motivational Profile (MP) results.
  • A principled, compliant and rigorous cognitive approach as evident from knowledge- and rules-based tendencies.
  • A goal-directed, intentional and highly energetic approach. Cognitively it involved the tendency to concentrate, focus and follow arguments through. This finding was further confirmed by the MP and VO results.
  • A Parallel Processing approach to dealing with complexity involving the clarification and integration of dynamic systems.
  • An empowered, practical approach and the tendency to implement plans, monitor processes and achieve results as indicated by the cognitive, values and motivational assessment profiles.


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