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Cognitive Ability - A Needlessly Elusive Asset

by Jim Houran
June 2012

Cognitive ability is often undervalued by organizations that otherwise strive for high performance and a competitive advantage. A renewed focus on nurturing this competency will strengthen talent management across all employment levels.

Hospitality professionals across all employment levels arguably need the ability to make effective decisions to be successful in their roles. Decision-making or problem solving often makes or breaks guest experience and therefore makes or breaks brand equity and profits. Improving cognitive ability (to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, and learn quickly1) is often easier said than done, but a strong business case can be made for identifying and nurturing the ability in potential and existing team members.

It starts with focusing on cognitive ability in the selection process. For example, the graph below shows the typical skills profile for a General Manager based on HVS’ industry norms testing with the industry-specific 20|20 Skills™ assessment (scored 0-100, n = 1459). The profile reveals a moderately-high level of Creativity (score = 82), but Problem Solving (decision-making) hovers one point above the average of 75.

Table 1: Aggregate GM Profile on the 20|20 Skills™ assessment

This result is not an isolated event… our norms reveal that the industry may not focus enough on cognitive ability across many roles. This agrees with other research indicating that managers do not necessarily value cognitive ability when hiring4. In fact, managers often underemphasize the importance of certain traits or competencies for entry-level service work, because they underestimate the knowledge and skill required for successful performance in these jobs. This is a critical issue since job-specific knowledge and skill requirements for entry-level jobs are greater than generally realized by managers5. Managers often devalue specific traits or competencies for entry-level service work because the contextual dimensions of performance take precedent. Contextual performance means behavior that affects the broader organizational, social and psychological environment3. These behaviors include helping and cooperating with others, supporting organizational objectives, persisting with extra enthusiasm in completing work, volunteering to perform extra work, and adhering to rules and procedures when not personally convenient. Managers typically believe that these tasks are largely based on motivation and employee personality, as opposed to cognitive ability. But research shows this view to be simplistic and misguided -- cognitive ability and job-specific skills and knowledge areas are stronger and more consistent predictors of job performance than personality testing2,6.

Hiring with a focus on cognitive ability is just the beginning; the next step in evaluating the level of necessary cognitive ability in critical roles throughout the organization. Doing this will produce more effective succession planning. Managers and development professionals can finally work to bolster cognitive ability in incumbents at all levels. Of course, developing cognitive ability and improving problem solving and decision-making is another issue. Some useful decision-making tactics include:

  • Brainstorming
  • Nominal Group Technique
  • Delphi Technique
  • Brainwriting
  • Group Decision Support Systems

You can easily learn more about each tactic in Wikipedia. Let me leave you with one of the most practical and highly effective techniques for improved problem solving: “Devil’s Advocacy.” In other words, it is important when generating ideas or solutions also for idea generators to contemplate the weaknesses of their ideas. This helps one to think dispassionately and practically about ideas, outcomes and consequences. Remember the trap… ideas are like babies -- none are so beautiful as your own.

  1. Gottfredson, L.S. (1997). Intelligence and social policy. Intelligence, 24, 1-12.
  2. Morgeson, F. P., Campion, M. A., Dipboye, R. L., Hollenbeck, J. R., Murphy, K., & Schmitt, N. (2007). Reconsidering the use of personality tests in personnel selection contexts. Personnel Psychology, 60, 683-729.
  3. Motowidlo, S. J., Borman, W. C., & Schmit, M. J. (1997). A theory of individual differences in task and contextual performance. Human Performance, 10, 71-83.
  4. Rynes, S. L., Brown, K. G., Colbert, A. E. (2002). Seven common misconceptions about human resource practices: Research findings versus practitioner beliefs. Academy of Management Executive, 16, 92-103.
  5. Schmidt, F. L. (2002). The role of general cognitive ability and job performance: Why there cannot be a debate. Human Performance, 15, 187-210.
  6. Tracey, J. B., Sturman, M. C., & Tews, M. J. (2007). Ability versus personality: Factors that predict employee job performance. Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, 48, 313-322.

About the Author

Dr. Houran, a veteran in applied psychological research, joined HVS Executive Search in 2005 as head of the company's 20|20 Skills Assessment™ service. He is a recognized expert on peak performance, online testing and interpersonal and organizational compatibility. In his current role as Partner, he leads the North America Performance Management service. He has authored over 100 articles, and his award-winning work has been profiled by a myriad of media outlets and programs including the Discovery Channel, A&E, BBC, Court TV, NBC's Today Show, USA Today, New Scientist, Psychology Today and He remains a member of the American Psychological Association, the American Psychological Society, the Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International and the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

About HVS

HVS is the world’s leading consulting and services organization focused on the hotel, restaurant, shared ownership, gaming, and leisure industries. Established in 1980, the company performs more than 2,000 assignments each year for virtually every major industry participant. HVS principals are regarded as the leading professionals in their respective regions of the globe. Through a worldwide network of 30 offices staffed by 400 seasoned industry professionals, HVS provides and unparalleled range of complementary services for the hospitality industry.
Forfurther information regarding our expertise and specifics about our services, please visit


James Houran, Ph.D.
516.248.8828 x 264

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