Smarter Employees Perform Better, but Will They Stay?

Topic: Evidence Based Management, Talent Management, Turnover
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (AUG 2010)
Article: A conceptual and empirical analysis of the cognitive ability-voluntary turnover relationship
Authors: M.A. Maltarich, A.J. Nyberg, and G. Reilly
Reviewed By: Benjamin Granger

Cognitive ability is one of the best predictors of employee job performance across jobs, but there are other important organizational outcomes besides job performance that cognitive ability may not predict as favorably.  One such possibility is voluntary turnover. Unfortunately, previous attempts at linking cognitive ability to voluntary turnover have shown that the relationship is not as simple as “high cognitive ability employees are more likely to leave voluntarily than low cognitive ability employees”.

Maltarich et al. (2010) argue that this important relationship is better understood when the cognitive demands of employees’ jobs are considered.

In their study of over 5,300 adults from the “National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1979 cohort”, Maltarich et al. analyzed employment data collected in 1994, 1996, 1998 and turnover data up until 2000.  As expected, the cognitive demands of employees’ jobs plays an important role in determining how cognitive ability impacts voluntary turnover.

For jobs high in cognitive demands, low cognitive ability employees were the much more likely to voluntarily leave than those with moderate levels of cognitive ability, suggesting that low cognitive ability employees get pushed out of jobs that have high cognitive demands.

Interestingly, though, voluntary turnover tended to increase for the highest cognitive ability employees, suggesting that while very smart employees might indeed be drawn to the high cognitive demands of a job, externals forces such as other job opportunities may also pull them away from their jobs.

For jobs low in cognitive demands, the relationship between cognitive ability and voluntary turnover is more strait-forward; voluntary turnover consistently drops as cognitive ability increases.  In other words, even though the smartest employees may have more opportunities elsewhere, they tend to be the least likely to leave jobs with relatively low cognitive demands.

Maltarich et al. note their results cast doubt on the “folk wisdom” that employers should eliminate candidates with high cognitive ability for jobs with relatively low cognitive demands for fear of them becoming bored and leaving. On the contrary, their results suggest that some high cognitive ability employees choose jobs with lower cognitive demands and may actually be least likely to leave voluntarily.  After all, there are many factors that employees take into account when assessing the desirability of a job (e.g., location, flexibility, organizational culture fit) other than the fit between their abilities and the cognitive demands of the job.

Overall, Maltarich et al. found that for jobs low in cognitive demands, high cognitive ability employees are the least likely to voluntarily turnover. For complex jobs, however, there does appear to be a risk for very high cognitive ability employees to turnover voluntary, especially if they are dissatisfied with the job.  Maltarich et al. conclude that organizations must individually weigh the potential benefits (e.g., increased performance) and risks (e.g., greater likelihood of voluntary turnover) of hiring very high cognitive ability candidates and take great care in assessing the satisfaction of their most valued employees.

Maltarich, M.A., Nyberg, A.J., & Reilly, G. (2010). A conceptual and empirical analysis of the cognitive ability-voluntary turnover relationship. Journal of Applied Psychology, Advanced online publication.