Recruitment in complex times

Fit-to-role, clarity, & VUCA skills

Strong predictors of senior & executive recruitment success

Mental ability is by far the best predictor of recruitment success — across the board.* During the 20th century, aptitude tests were the mental ability metrics of choice — but this is the 21st century. The workplace has changed. Today, leaders don’t need skills for choosing the correct answer from a list. They need skills for coping with complex issues without simple right and wrong answers. Aptitude tests don’t measure these skills.

Today, success in senior and executive roles is best predicted by (1) the fit between the complexity of leaders’ thinking and the complexity of their roles, (2) the clarity of their thinking in real workplace contexts, and (3) their skills for functioning in VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) conditions.

Fit-to-roleFit-to-role is the relation between the complexity level of an individual’s reasoning and the complexity level of a given role. Good fit-to-role increases well-being, engagement, effectiveness, and productivity.

ClarityClarity involves the degree to which an individual’s arguments are coherent and persuasive, how well their arguments are framed, and how well their ideas are connected. Individuals who think more clearly make better decisions and grow more rapidly than individuals who think less clearly.

VUCA skillsVUCA skills are required for making good decisions in volatile, uncertain, complex, or ambiguous contexts. They are…

  • perspective coordination—determining which perspectives matter, seeking out a diversity of relevant perspectives, and bringing them together in a way that allows for the emergence of effective solutions.
  • decision-making under complexity — employing a range of decision-making tools and skills to design effective decision-making processes for complex situations.
  • contextual thinking — being predisposed to think contextually, being able to identify the contexts that are most likely to matter in a given situation and determine how these contexts relate to a particular situation.
  • collaboration — understanding the value of collaboration, being equipped with the tools and skills required for collaboration, and being able to determine the level of collaboration that’s appropriate for a particular decision-making context.

Please note: Some of the criteria described below have shifted a bit since this article was written (update November, 2020).


Getting fit-to-role right increases well-being, engagement, effectiveness, and productivity. Our approach to role fit pairs an assessment of the complexity of an individual’s thinking — when applied to a wicked real-world workplace scenario — with an analysis of the complexity of a particular workplace role.

The Lectical Scores in the figure on the left represent the complexity level scores awarded to eight job candidates, based on their performances on a developmental assessment of leader decision making (LDMA). The fit-to-role score tells us how well the Lectical Score fits the complexity range of a role. Here, the complexity range of the role is 1120–1140, represented by the vertical teal band. The circles represent the Lectical Scores of candidates. The size of these circles represents the range in which the candidate’s true level of ability is likely to fall.

The “sweet spot” for a new hire is generally at the bottom end of the complexity range of a role, in this case, 1120. There are two reasons for this.

  • The sweet spot is where the challenge posed by a new role is “just right” — just difficult enough to keep an employee in flow — what we call the Goldilocks zone. Placing employees in the sweet spot increases employee satisfaction, improves performance, and optimally supports learning and development.
  • An existing team is more likely to embrace candidates who are performing in the sweet spot. Sweet spot candidates are likely to welcome support and mentoring, which makes it easier to integrate them into an existing team than it is to integrate candidates performing at higher levels, who may be viewed as competitors.

In the figure above, teal circles represent candidates whose scores are in or very near the sweet spot — fit to role is excellent. Yellow circles represent individuals demonstrating marginal fit, and red circles represent individuals demonstrating poor fit.

We can use circle color to help us figure out who should advance to the next level in a recruitment process.

The first cut

Based on the results shown above, it’s easy to decide who will advance to the next step in this process. Red circles mean, “This person is a poor fit to the complexity demands of this role.” Therefore, candidates with red circles should be eliminated from consideration for this role. Celia, Amar, Chilemba, and Jae-Eun, just don’t fit.

However, this does not mean that these candidates should be ignored. Every single one of the eliminated candidates has high or acceptable Clarity and VUCA scores. So, despite the fact that they did not fit this role, each one may be good fit for a different role in the organization.

It’s also worth noting that Jae-Eun demonstrates a level of skill — across measures — that’s relatively rare. When you identify a candidate with mental skills this good, it’s worth seeing if there is some way your organization can leverage these skills.

The second cut

The first cut left us with 4 candidates that met basic fit-to-role qualifications, Jewel, YiYu, Alistair, and Martin. The next step is to find out if their Clarity and VUCA scores are good enough for this role.

Below, you can see how we have interpreted the Clarity and VUCA scores for each of the remaining candidates, and made recommendations based on these interpretations. Notice that YiYu and Alistair are recommended with reservations. It will be important to take these reservations into account during next steps in the recruitment process.

What’s next?

Let’s assume that, Jewel, YiYu, and Alistair move to the next step in the recruitment process. Once the number of candidates has been winnowed down to this point, it’s a good time to administer personality or culture fit assessments, conduct team evaluations, view candidate presentations, or conduct interviews. You already know the candidates are equipped with adequate to excellent mental skills and fit-to-role. From here, it’s all about which candidate you think is likely to fit in to your team.

As soon as we have it, my colleagues and I either publish our reliability and validity evidence in refereed journals or conference presentations or present them on our web site. We believe in total transparency regarding the validity and reliability of all assessments employed in the workplace.

*Schmidt, F. L., Oh, I.-S., & Shaffer, J. A. (2016). Working paper: The validity and utility of selection methods in personnel psychology: Practical and theoretical implications of 100 years of research findings.

Award-winning educator, scholar, & consultant, Dr. Theo Dawson, discusses a wide range of topics related to learning and development.