Contribution of Intellectual Abilities to a Manager’s Success: Correlation Between the Results of Ability Tests and Assessment Centers

Svetlana Simonenko,
PhD in Psychology

Over the past forty years academic literature has repeatedly debated the attributes that are most significant for a manager’s success. Countless research performed by independent authors and also major international consulting companies have proposed various lists of key personality traits or competencies (Stogdill, 1974; Handy, 1985; Den Hartog et al, 1999; etc.).Even though these lists differ materially, most of them contain such traits as the mind, intellect or analytical skills of the manager. It goes without saying that if we strictly apply the tenets of psychological science, we can see principled differences in these names. However, this group of attributes, irrespective of the specific name accorded to them, is related in some way or other to the intellectual abilities of a manager. Following the publication of works on transformational leadership and emotional intellect, research into the role played by a manager’s intellect in his effectiveness was put on the back burner. Moreover, in some cases authors even called into question whether intellectual abilities have any influence on effectiveness (Bass, Avolio, 1994; Blanchard, Hodges, 2003; Goleman, 1995; Goleman, Boyatzis, McKee, 2002). However, after studying these works, we are forced to admit that until now we have not been able to leverage strong arguments attesting to the leading role of the intellect in a manager’s success or the exact opposite owing to a shortfall in experimental findings. In order to clarify whether intellect is key to a manager’s success, we performed the research described below.

Within the scope of this research we formulated the hypothesis that there is a correlation between the intellectual abilities of the manager and the individual’s effectiveness.

In the period from 2007 to 2010 inclusive we assessed the leadership competencies of senior management from a number of companies, which are part of Russia’s largest holding companies from different areas of business. They ranged in age from 27 to 62 years. We assessed in total 211 people. The assessment was performed using a method designed by the Assessment Center. In addition, all the Center’s participants completed the ability tests.

The leadership competencies, which served as the basis for the Assessment Center, were developed using the analytical methods applied in work in each company. In other words, in order to determine the behavior that should be demonstrated by an effective manager in an organization, the strategic objectives of the specific company were identified, while the methods for achieving these objectives were determined, as well as the actions required from leadership to attain them. In addition, the external medium was analyzed (social, ecological, economic and political factors). On this basis unique competency models were developed for each company. The success of a top manager at each of these companies is contingent on their possession of such competencies at the required level.

In total each model had six competencies, for example:

For the purpose of assessing these competencies, the managers participated in the Assessment Center. The exercises for the Assessment Centers were selected so that each competency could be assessed as a minimum through two different methods. Consequently, in order to assess the competency models, each company used its own set of exercises. In all four to five exercises were used at the Assessment Centers. In the exercises the managers had to carry out the following tasks: hold a group discussion, simulate a conversation with a subordinate, simulate a conversation with a client, analyze business scenarios on the basis of submitted information and take a decision, collect information on the problem and take a decision within time constraints.

Tests developed by the company ONTARGET, in particular the information analysis battery, were used as ability tests. This battery consists of two tests: Analysis of numerical information and Analysis of verbal information. The tests are designated for candidates in the position of top managers and senior managers of large companies.

In order to determine whether there is a link between intellectual abilities and managerial success, we calculated the Pearson correlation between the aggregate rating on competencies received during the assessment center and the results of ability tests, represented by the total of the T-scores for the two ability tests, which amounted to 0.2 at a significance level of 0.01. To break down the contribution of intellectual abilities to a manager’s effectiveness, we split the results of the ability tests of all respondents into five groups presented in table 1.

TABLE No. 1 Breakdown of managers by groups based on the results of the ability tests.

Group Total of the T-scores Number of people
1 High From 133 to 120 22
2 Above average From 119 to 106 45
3 Average From 105 to 91 59
4 Below average From 90 to 78 57
5 Low From 77 to 64 28

We made the assumption that if the possession of high-level intellectual abilities is mission critical for a manager, the correlation between the results of the tests and the assessment of competencies will weaken, if we eliminate the high group from our calculations. However, after removing the two upper groups based on the results of the tests from the calculations, contrary to our expectations the correlation ratio increased to 0.310, while the significance level remained at 0.01. To be more accurate, it can be stated that the significance even increased. Such dynamics in the change in correlations attest to the fact that high-level intellectual abilities are not a defining factor for a manager’s success. On the contrary we can observe that the inclusion in the sampling of managers from high-performing groups and above average groups weakens the link between the intellect and the assessment of competencies.

After repeating the same procedure for the calculations and eliminating the low group and the group below average, we did not receive any correlations (coefficient of the Pearson correlation 0.056 at a significance level of 0.5). These results indicate that no correlation was identified between intellectual abilities and the effectiveness of managerial behavior. Consequently we can perceive that the correlation between the intellect and assessment of competencies strengthens when we consider groups with average results or below average results in the ability tests and disappears when we consider groups with average and above average results.

Such data allow us to conclude that there is clearly a correlation between human intellect and an individual’s effectiveness as manager. However, it is non-linear in nature, which we can describe as follows. Low-level intellectual abilities adversely affect the effectiveness of a manager’s leadership behavior. Furthermore, this influence is so important that we can consider the ability tests as an indicator of the existence of leadership potential and build forecasts regarding the success of specific individuals as a leader. Furthermore, a high development level of intellectual abilities does not result in an increase in leadership effectiveness, and does not increase the likelihood that the owners of such abilities will be more successful than managers who possess average levels of intellect.

Consequently, we are able to assert that the intellect makes a material contribution to the effectiveness of leadership in organizations and may be recognized as a universal quality that is required by a successful manager. At the same time, however, the level of intellect required by a successful manager should be no lower than average, which implies a standard score of no less than a T-score of 40, 16 percentile or 3 sten. These figures are cited for one test or for the assessment of one ability. As we used two tests in our research, we used the total of the T-scores on the two tests.

When talking about the level of intellect, we must bear in mind that the results of ability tests can be used to benchmark the results of specific managers, including the indicators of the standardization group, in other words with the results of other managers who previously completed these tests. Furthermore, the group of people defining the test norms (the norm group), should be similar to our candidates in terms of the key criteria (sex, age, profession, work record, etc.). It would be extremely wrong to assert that we can use a single universal scale to assess the intellect of people holding different positions in an organization, who come from different educational backgrounds, belong to different professions and possibly have a different social status. The level of intellectual abilities is critical for the effectiveness of leadership behavior and may only be used as an indicator for forecasting the individual’s leadership potential in cases where the following terms and conditions have been met:

  1. the assessed abilities are relevant for the performance of activities where the individual realizes himself as a leader, and
  2. their level is determined by benchmarking them against the level of these abilities held by the people in individual’s entourage or who may be his or her followers.


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