What if PMs had job interviews?

Leadership has been splashed all over the papers this long weekend, in various contexts, one of them being the ever-increasing numbers putting their hand up to be considered in the running for leader of the Tory party and the top job in government.

It’s a funny type of recruitment process.

Recruitment differs between organisations: a job analysis of what the role is if you’re lucky, job descriptions and person specifications as fairly standard, and then an assessment and selection process which varies. Big management consultancies tend towards psychological tests which say they measure personality and leadership style. The NHS clinical psychology jobs I’ve mostly applied for usually involve a mix of interviews (with staff, managers and people who use the service) and some job-related tasks, like reading a vignette of a potential patient story and saying what I would suggest as next clinical steps. Medical doctor recruitment has changed in the last ten years, with integration of situational judgement tasks and standardised machine marking of application tests, to try to step away from favouritism.

Whilst there are still some potential problems with more standardised processes, as unconscious biases can be accidentally built in, there are also significant gains from making processes fairer and more job-specific.

Whether we recognise someone as a leader, on the other hand, is related but not limited to their ability to do a job. Our ideas about leaders go way back.

Leadership is often studied in relation to the leader themselves: what character traits do they need? How charismatic are they? Are they doing a power pose in the loo in an attempt to boost their confidence? But organisational psychology research is increasingly considering the follower and the relationship between the two.

Leader-follower relationships relate to beliefs about leaders and leadership that we each hold, our implicit leadership theory (ILT). As a follower, if my implicit ideas of leadership are congruent with how a leader presents, I’m more likely to have a good relationship with them and rate them more positively. I’m more likely to follow.

Our ILTs are a schema about the world and others around us: they’re a cognitive framework into which we fit our perceptions. Our schemas don’t come from nowhere. Our internal templates of a “good leader” relate to cultural and social norms and to our earlier experiences. We can re-learn and update schemas as we go, but some of what we look for, even implicitly, is likely to be influenced by our first experiences of being led. And here we are again, back in our childhood, where arguably our first leaders were family members: parents and siblings.

So we’ll be able to tell something about the implicit leadership theory of the Tory party from who they vote for in the next few weeks. How well that maps onto the ability of that person to do the job of PM is a very different question. It will be fairly unsurprising if they don’t match up at all.

How do we escape this self-limiting situation where leaders only repeat the tropes of the past? Imagine how different it would be if PMs, party leaders and ministers responsible for different departments were recruited as for other jobs, using processes based on experience and skill and involving multiple people.

Imagine a minister of education who had been a teacher, a health secretary who had worked in the NHS, a PM who had led large and complex social enterprises, a foreign secretary with significant international experience and cultural sensitivity…. Or if not direct experience of the fields themselves, then at least a demonstrable history of evidence-based decision making, ability to sort opinion from reliable data, ability to listen. Imagine too, interview panels who decide on appointments to particular departments which include significant proportions of people who use the services that the leader will be shaping.

A more standardised process wouldn’t totally avoid unconscious biases and irrational decisions, and there is always some judgement in the mix as to whether someone can credibly be followed, but imagine some more roadblocks in the way to guard against a totally subjective popularity contest.

How weird it is that this is such a weird framework to imagine.

When it comes time for the next general election the closest we have to rational deliberation is careful comparison and analysis of manifestos, for what those promises are worth. Looks like it might not be that long until we are all part of the recruitment panel.

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