Assessment Centers Help Companies Identify Future Managers

Psychologists transform a military method for evaluating spy candidates into an accurate predictor of managerial potential for industry and local governments.


Borrowing methods used by the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA) to select agents in the Second World War, psychologists have been instrumental in bringing the assessment center method to industry and government to evaluate job applicants and to aid in the development of managers and executives. Assessment centers, which simulate real situations in the workplace, are widely used in identifying individuals who have the abilities and skills to succeed in managerial and executive jobs and to help guide the development of managerial skills and talent.

The content of assessment centers varies somewhat across organizations, but there are a number of assessment exercises that are widely used and that convey the essential features of this method (See Thornton citation for more detailed descriptions). For example, the Leaderless Group Discussion is often used to evaluate emergent leadership and social skills. This exercise involves assembling a group of examinees and asking them to discuss a specific topic for a set period of time. No formal roles are assigned to examinees, and assessors observe how each examinee reacts to and attempts to impose structure on this ambiguous situation. Another typical exercise is to use role-playing, where, for example, examinees might be asked to play the role of a manager interacting with a difficult employee (who might be a confederate of the assessment team).

Psychologist Douglas Bray, PhD, implemented the first industrial use of assessment centers in 1956 as part of a research study involving AT&T. In 1974, Dr. Bray and fellow psychologists Richard Campbell, PhD, and Donald Grant, PhD, published the long-term effects of the AT&T program. Their findings showed that assessments done early in a manager's career were still valid predictors of performance and valid indicators of strengths and weaknesses twenty years later. Additional analyses of assessment center effectiveness by psychologists Winfred Arthur, Jr., PhD, and colleagues, Barbara Gaugler, PhD, and colleagues and John Hinrichs, PhD, all support the conclusions that assessment centers provide valid and useful assessments in organizational settings.


The selection and development of managers and executives had long been conducted on a fairly haphazard basis, relying on the experience, hunches and biases of decision makers in organizations. Standardized tests have not been widely accepted in selecting and evaluating managers and executives, in part because of the seeming gap between the simple skills measured by tests and the complex skills (especially people-oriented skills) believed to be critical for managers and executives. The assessment center method provides a sort of wide-ranging, multidimensional assessment that has a strong record of both research significance and practical effectiveness to be accepted by participants and decision-makers alike.

Practical Application

Assessment centers are often the method of choice for selecting senior leaders in government and municipal jobs, including police chiefs and fire captains. Because assessment centers give candidates opportunities to demonstrate behaviors and skills that are manifestly job related, the results of these evaluations are more readily accepted by candidates and by the individuals they will lead than the results of equally valid objective tests.

The results of assessment centers are increasingly being used to guide the type and sequence of developmental activities candidates for managerial and executive jobs go through. For example, many organizations have detailed succession plans, and assessment centers are a key component of identifying the sorts of job experiences and assignments a potential future executive should have in order to develop and demonstrate specific job-related skills.

It is common for candidates for many managerial and executive jobs to participate in assessment centers that might last for up to several days, involving a combination of individual testing and evaluation and group-based exercises. Assessment centers usually provide a profile of each individual's strengths and weaknesses (e.g., assessment centers used by AT&T provided ratings on 25 separate dimensions of performance and effectiveness), and organizations often target training opportunities and job assignments toward developing areas noted at time of assessment as relative weaknesses. These assessments usually provide information about a variety of job-related skills (e.g., planning, setting priorities) and more generalized skills in dealing with others (e.g., oral communication, empathy), and they may also provide information about the values and preferences of examinees.

Cited Research

Arthur, W., Day, E.A., McNelly, T.L. & Edens, P.S. (2003) A meta-analysis of the criterion-related validity of assessment center dimensions. Personnel Psychology, Vol. 56, pp. 125-154.

Bray, D. W., Campbell, R. J., & Grant, D. L. (1974). Formative years in business: A long-term AT&T study of managerial lives. New York: Wiley.

Gaugler, B. B., Rosenthal, D. B., Thornton, G. C., III, & Bentson, C. (1987). Meta-analysis of assessment center validity. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 72, pp. 493-511.

Hinrichs, J. R. (1978). An eight-year follow-up of a management assessment center. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 63, pp. 596-601.

Thornton, G. C., III. (1992). Assessment centers in human resource management. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Additional Sources

Collins, J.M., Schmidt, F.L., Sanchez, K.M., McDaniel, M.A. & Le, H. (2003). Can basic individual differences shed light on the construct meaning of assessment center evaluations? International Journal of Selection and Assessment. Vol. 11, pp. 17-29.

Klimoski, R., & Brickner, M. (1987). Why do assessment centers work? The puzzle of assessment center validity. Personnel Psychology, Vol. 40, pp. 243-260.

Spychalski, A. C., QuiƱones, M. A., Gaugler, B. B., & Pohley, K. (1997). A survey of assessment center practices in organizations in the United States. Personnel Psychology, Vol. 50, pp. 71-90.

American Psychological Association, May 20, 2004