Intelligence Testing: Is It Always the Smartest Thing to Do?

Smart employees tend to be better at doing their jobs. This is considered one of the most important findings in the history of I-O research. Meta-analysis, which is a method of compiling results from many different researchers and studies, has shown that intelligence (or general mental ability) is associated with better job performance for basically any job. But there are other important components that make organizations successful besides narrowly-defined task performance (parts of a job that are in the job description). New research (Gonzalez-Mulé, Mount, & Oh, 2014) investigates whether intelligence can also predict other measures of workplace success.

Intelligence Testing: CWB vs. OCB

The authors conducted a meta-analysis to determine if intelligence is related to two major measures that are important to organizations:

  • Counterproductive work behavior (CWB) is anything that employees do that breaks organizational norms or expectations. This behavior can be directed at a coworker (i.e. bullying or harassment) or at the organization (i.e. stealing from the employer or unnecessary absences).
  • Organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) refers to anything that employees do that is not formally recognized in their job description. For example, helping out a coworker or suggesting a new way of doing things that can help the organization save resources.

The Results: Intelligence Associated More with OCBs

The meta-analysis found that intelligence was associated with more OCBs, meaning that smarter employees also went beyond their job descriptions more frequently. The authors explain that smarter people are typically better at seeing the big picture, for example they may understand that helping a coworker has benefits for the organization in the long run. Also, smarter employees may sometimes have greater capacity to help out others. They may be the only ones who are capable of devising a solution to a problem that eventually helps out the organization.

However, when it came to CWBs, there was no real relationship with intelligence. The authors had predicted that smarter employees would engage in less bad behavior because they are more readily capable of seeing the dangerous outcomes such as harming the company or harming themselves by getting caught. But the data didn’t support this conclusion.

Intelligence Testing vs. Personality Testing

The authors also compared intelligence testing with personality testing to see which was generally more useful for predicting success on the job. As predicted, intelligence testing predicted better than personality testing when the outcome was task performance, or the parts of a job that are listed in a job description. When using the other outcomes of job success (OCBs and CWBs), the authors found a different story. First, when it came to organizational citizenship behavior, intelligence and personality were about equally useful in predicting which employees will go above and beyond. When it came to counterproductive work behavior, personality was actually a better predictor than intelligence.

What Does This Mean for Organizations?

This study supports the idea that the best predictor of job success is general intelligence, specifically because it has the ability to predict good old fashioned task-performance. It pays to hire smart employees, but that’s not the entire story. The conclusions here also indicate that intelligence isn’t the be-all and end-all of how to hire employees. Organizations should also have the foresight to care about extra effort and misbehavior at work. If you want employees who strive to make the workplace better for everyone, intelligence testing may still help, but it is not any better than personality testing. But if you want employees who don’t misbehave, personality testing may be the way to go.