Thursday, 13 February 2014

Can psychology help pick winning politicians?

When she received a letter from the British Conservative Party Prof Jo Silvester had no idea that it would draw her into the world of politics and its psychology for years to come. In her keynote at the 2014 DOP conference, she described how she ended up helping the three main national parties modernise how they understand and select capable politicians.

Silvester drew our attention to the abundance of research on the characteristics needed for political success: just look at the biographies and analyses available on any US president you care to pick. However, most of it uses 'at-a-distance' methodologies - inferring qualities of a notable figure through analysis of political speeches and interviews, or ratings of the person's in-office decisions by expert historians. It's particularly hard to find politicians’ self-ratings, and this is understandable - they operate in a sensitive realm and are wary of divulging information that might come back to haunt them ("Brown Control-Freak: It's Official" would be top tabloid fodder). All in all, there is insufficient research on what drives good political performance, especially from a work psychology perspective.

So it’s perhaps unsurprising how political selection processes have also developed without much reference to improvements in mainstream employment selection, such as the ubiquity of explicit, formal criteria and processes for selecting between candidates. Silvester’s letter was from the Conservative's Director of the Development and Candidates Department, who was looking to improve their candidate approvals process and in particular to facilitate an increase in women MPs from their abysmally low numbers. Silvester quickly discovered there were no clear selection criteria and a heavy reliance on the personal judgment of committee members.

Taking the classic components of occupational psychology - role analysis, construction of competencies, and development of assessment activities - Silvester reconfigured this process into an assessment centre involving cognitive tests, structured interview and a group exercise. Assessors were trained and an evaluation showed that the centre recommended equal numbers of men and women. Additionally, ratings at the assessment centre correlated with candidate performance at the following (2005) election - Communication skills with overall votes, and Critical Thinking with both overall and swing of the vote. This suggests that the process was measuring something politically meaningful: vote-winning.

Silvester was subsequently contacted to work in a Labour-led initiative across local government, and then a project with the Liberal Democrats. These projects also identified important political competencies, and all parties showed substantial agreement that politicians needed to be resilient, people-focused and also highly analytic. There were some differences in emphasis: only local politicians emphasised Politicking as a stand-alone skill; and where the local and Lib Dem politicians emphasised Representation, the Conservatives placed their emphasis on Leadership.

The local government research also investigated personal traits through politician self-ratings, which as we’ve noticed is a rare harvest. They found that politicians judged by colleagues to be high performers were more conscientious, less neurotic, and more politically skilled. Against predictions, extraversion was not associated with success. Whereas gregariousness may be a stereotypical political trait, calmness and diligence are more key to the job.

In some ways, the talk highlighted how politics lags behind other sectors in terms of its HR practices. But Silvester cautioned us not to assume that best practice elsewhere makes sense here. Thanks to the obligations of democratic principle, a political party simply cannot operate like a business or even other public sector areas: objective criteria can take a candidate so far, but final decisions must be made through the will of the people. It also struck me that concerns about a narrowly clustered political class selected from Oxbridge grads and 'Spads' (special advisors) might only become compounded by an overtly assessment-focused approach to selecting candidates: career politicians could have another objective test to prepare to ace once their PPE finals are done. There is a balancing act to ensure that politicians are capable at their job but also reflect the body of the nation. As such, this is a fascinating field with many questions ahead.

If you find this area as interesting as I do, you may want to check out an interview with Prof Silvester in The Psychologist magazine, available to read here.

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