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How Pole Vaulting Helps with Better Hiring Decisions

pole vaultMy last blog about change focused on one very good reason change is hard – it is literally tiring. Innovation is Good, Change is Bad…Oh, Wait…

Another reason change is hard: we can’t see an upside, even when the upside is right in front of us.  Consider pole vaulting.

Pole vaulting is a pretty amazing

sport that depends on biomechanics and the pole. Poles were originally

bamboo, then steel.  American Don Bragg won gold and set a world record

at the 1960 Olympics using steel. His teammate, Ron Morris, won the

silver medal with steel.  After the Olympics, attempts at besting

Bragg’s 15 feet 9 ¾ inch jump regularly fell short.  It seemed that

steel was as good as it was going to get.

Then Bragg’s record was broken by

George Davies…using a fiberglass pole.  Bragg hardly embraced the new

technology.  In fact he fought it, unsuccessfully lobbying track and

field rule makers to ban the fiberglass pole from competition!  They


Ron Morris, on the other hand, jumped

on the fiberglass technology and learned to use it. In 1962 Morris was

the number one pole vaulter in the world.  Another vaulter, John Uelses,

also adopted fiberglass and on February 2, 1962 he broke the 16-foot

barrier at Madison Square Garden clearing 16 feet ¼ inches.  The very

next night in Boston, he vaulted 16 feet ¾ inches – a height thought


The current pole vault record is 20 feet 13⁄4 inches, set in 1994 by Ukrainian Sergey Bubka who described his work this way to Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith:


love the pole vault because it is a professor’s sport. One must not only

run and jump, but one must think. Which pole to use, which height to

jump, which strategy to use. I love it because the results are immediate

and the strongest is the winner…”

Talent selection is the same: hiring

managers and human resource professionals have been using steel for a

while, but they now have a choice of talent decision technologies and,

as Bubka would say, choosing demands thinking, not just running and


After some 100 years of scientific

research, we pretty much know the strategies and tools that

substantially reduce error in the prediction of employee performance –

it is the match between the job requirements and the cognitive,

personality, and work culture preferences of the candidate[2].  Not experience.  Not education.  Job match.

But companies and many HR pros

continue to rely on a set of implicit (and inaccurate) beliefs that

inhibit the adoption of selection technology that will deliver

significantly better results.  In the next few blogs, we’ll take a look

at the beliefs that get in the way of better selection and successful


First let’s explore the difference between what people believe about selection and has been proven by scientific research.

The Gap Between Belief and Knowledge

It is widely known that certain human

resource (HR) practices are consistently related to organizational

productivity and firm financial performance.[3]

HR practices really do make a bottom line difference.  Yet

organizations do not adopt the practices that will improve business

performance.  One big reason is that there is a gap between what HR

practitioner believe and research evidence – the gap was best

demonstrated in a knowledge survey of HR professionals[4].

When asked about selection procedures,

70 percent correctly understood that structured interviews are more

effective than unstructured.   But there was a great deal of

misunderstanding about other important aspects of selection like the

role of intelligence, personality, and values.

When asked whether intelligence is

actually a disadvantage for performing well at low skilled jobs, 47

percent believed this was true – it is not – and 12 per cent indicated

they were uncertain.  So 59% of the respondents did not know that

intelligence (cognitive ability) is the best predictor of job success

for any job, low skill or C-suite.

There is also a difference between

scientific evidence and belief about personality factors and job

success.  When asked about assessing personality, 52 percent believed

there is very little difference among personality inventories with

respect to how well they predict job performance.  They believed that an

assessment like Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) evaluates the basic

dimensions of personality.  The MBTI actually examines only one

dimension of personality and the MBTI was not designed for (nor does it

claim) to predict job performance.

When asked about assessing values, 57

percent incorrectly believed that companies screening job applicants for

values have higher performance than those that screen for intelligence –

they do not. In fact research has not yet found any relationship

between candidate values and later on-the-job performance.

So one barrier to adopting selection

best practices is the gap between what we believe and what has been

proven.  The solution?  Get familiar with the human resource research

literature – the strategic HR exec can then recommend adjustments in the

selection process that save time and deliver better results.

In the next blog, I’ll look at the

myth of selection expertise and how it is that we do not get better at

making hiring decisions, no matter how many we have made.

[1]Maule, Tex.  He Could Do It On Bamboo. Sports Illustrated February 26, 1962.  Available at

[2]Highhouse, Scott.  2008. Stubborn Reliance on Intuition and Subjectivity in Employee Selection.   Industrial and Organizational Psychology 1: 333–342.


Sara L., Amy E. Colbert, and Kenneth G. Brown.  2002. HR Professionals’

Beliefs About Effective Human Resource Practices: Correspondence

Between Research And Practice. Human Resource Management 41 (2): 149–174.


survey was based on dimensions covered by the Human Resource

Certification Institute’s “Professional in Human Resources” (PHR) exam

and the respondents are all SHRM members.

Written by: Dr. Deborah L. Kerr

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