Few decisions an executive makes will have more impact on the future of the organization than will those regarding who to hire, who to promote, or how to develop. One tool that has been the subject of intense debate for decades is the psychological test. Two sources that serve to demonstrate the nature of the problem managers face crossed my desk in the past few weeks.

An Associated Press report begins, "Personality tests used by some businesses to assess job applicants are backed by flawed research, and generally tests fail to predict job performance." While the December issue of Personnel Journal reports, "Psychological testing is making a comeback . . . experienced business psychologist claim that psychological testing can predict performance accurately in at least 85 percent of cases."With such conflicting claims, what is a manager supposed to think or do? That same disparity in claims came from those pro and con polygraph examinations until they were finally outlawed for use in employee selection. For many, the ongoing controversy surrounding the testing question has little or no relevance anyway.

The vast majority of hiring decisions are far less scientific, based primarily on information and impressions gained in an interview or on the recommendation of an associate, or on the quality of a resume that was probably prepared by someone else.

Both of these strategies have been proven less predictive of future performance than would be chance or random choice, to say nothing about the inherent tendency of the interview method to be influenced by stereotypes, bias, the interviewer's personality and a host of factors that can lead to serious legal problems.

Testing appears, on its surface at least, to be an answer for the executive who is concerned about the motivation, the honesty, the drive, the attitude or the intelligence of those being hired or promoted. Unfortunately, these are the factors difficult to test and most difficult to relate to on-the-job performance or potential.

Testing also suffers from its frequent intrusions into a person's personal past, which raise privacy and relevance questions in the eyes of most candidates (what do they want to know this for?).

An alternative to the psychological testing and interviewing approach that has gained wide use and respect is the position simulation. Similar techniques have been used for many positions for decades. Simulation tests are available for typists, skilled trades, programmers, musicians, TV commentators, for example.

The use for sales and supervisory or managerial positions is newer. Once a fairly easily administered analysis of the position is completed, a series of exercises or simulations that are quite similar to the tasks a the candidate would actually perform on the job is chosen.

For example, a problem may be presented that tests the candidate's ability to analyze problems or to make judgments, or perhaps to organize a project. Known by a variety of names, the technique is generally called or adapted from the Assessment Center Method. The technique can be used to assess the skill, the readiness or the potential of any number of candidates. The beauty of the technique is its flexibility.

A process can be designed for implementation by internal personnel, or if a limited number of candidates are involved, it can be administered one-on-one by outside professionals. Although more expensive than other paper and pencil techniques, the high predictive validity makes it worth the investment, because it uses actual demonstrations of skill in a variety of settings, and the evaluation is done by more than one trained evaluator.

The behavioral technique is more thorough, more credible, more objective and more neutral in terms of racial, age or sex bias than any other technique yet developed. A number of Salt Lake-area firms and organizations have used variations of the technique for years, including NEC, Intermountain Health Care, Western Zirconium, Mountain Fuel and others. The use of the technique for individual one-on-one assessments is a more recent innovation, however.

A growing number of small businesses have begun to use the technique as a tool for coaching leaders and managers. The assumption is that if an accurate survey of skill can be attained for the purpose of selecting and planning people, the same evaluation is valuable for diagnosing skills for learning and development.

Because most organizations cannot afford internal training departments, they either ignore the need for training or limit their training to an occasional course at a local university or from a marketer of seminars and workshops. The hit and miss method seldom works. A professional can put a manager through a behavioral assessment, however, generate a detailed diagnosis, and conduct a one-on-one coaching session that is targeted directly at this person's individual strengths and weaknesses.

A self-development program of study and experience can usually be provided that brings about immediate improvements in performance. The individual cannot take or leave the diagnosis in the same way he can ignore the content of a class or seminar.

There is little question that the future will bring us fewer managers and supervisors, and fewer levels of managers and supervisors with far broader span of control than anything seen in the past. On the other hand, these managers and supervisors of the future will need be far more competent and skilled and far more oriented toward growth and development than have the "bosses" of the past. A process of behavioral skill evaluation and coaching can help to this end.