Costly Turnover results when HR executives undervalue mental skills.

Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch some water. Jack and Jill each had a 5 gallon container. Jack’s container was shaped like a jug with a small mouth opening while Jill’s container was a pail with a very wide opening. On the way up to the top of the hill, Jack challenged Jill to a race to see who could fill their container the fastest and then get back down to the bottom of the hill first.

When Jack and Jill reached the top of the hill, they both rushed to fill their respective containers. Because Jill’s wide-mouthed pail was easier to fill than Jack’s jug, Jill was headed down the hill before Jack barely had his jug half-filled.

General Mental Abilities Impacts Employee TurnoverWhile charging down the hill, Jill’s pail was swinging wildly and water schlossing right out of her pail. By the time Jack filled his jug, Jill was nearly at the bottom. He ran as fast as he could although at a much slower pace than Jill. He was very cautious not to lose any water.

Jack finally caught up to Jill. “What took you so long”, Jill said with a broad smile and sarcastic tone. “But who has the most water in the container?”, Jack shouted back. Jill looked down to see her pail was only half-full. She leaned over to peer down Jack’s jug to see that his container was filled to the brim. “You may have beat me down the hill but I’ve got the most water”, Jack snickered.

Who won the race? If the goal was to get to the bottom of the hill first, Jill won. If the goal was to finish with the most water, Jack won.

Now you may be thinking – who cares about Jack and Jill’s race. If you hire, train, manage, or coach employees, you should. This Jack and Jill story mimics what every manager of people must assess when it comes to qualifying how “smart” an individual must be to function effectively in a job.

Identifying employees who can think on their feet and learn on the fly. 
What most managers mean when they talk about “smart” is something called general abilities or cognitive skills. What most managers actually try to assess is intelligence and education.

General mental abilities identify  how quickly and how accurately an individual can think logically and sequentially through formulas, read and comprehend new information, think on his/her feet, and visualize and conceptualize in three dimensions. They determine how quickly and accurately an individual can work with complex numbers, complex documents and complex blueprints and schematics. The higher the abilities, the faster and more accurate an individual is likely to get the correct answer or understand what is said or written. In the words of one client, general abilities helped us ID employees who could “connect the dots, get it, think on their feet, and learn on the fly”.

Low mental abilities don’t mean an individual is a dolt, can’t get the correct answer, find a mistake or solve a problem. They just identify how long it might take to get there. Not all jobs require speed, or it is not as important in one job as another. A bank teller may need to be good with numbers but does not need to compute them as quickly as an air traffic controller during heavy traffic or an Emergency Room physician or nurse on a Saturday night in an urban trauma center.

General abilities merely determine how accurately an individual might reach a conclusion or make a decision when time is an issue or when he or she is unfamiliar with the situation. The more time-sensitive a situation, the more likely an individual with lower abilities either will make a mistake or be that “deer caught in the headlights”. (You know the type. You ask an assistant to make changes in a report and they look at you like you’ve just landed from another planet. This reaction by the way can either be plane old stubbornness or low abilities. Not knowing often leads to costly performance mistakes.) This reaction is very different from the high abilities individual who is calculating ROI (return on investment) for a client before a client has even given him all the details. General abilities basically assess how quickly individuals process data and turn it into information when they find themselves in new and more complex situations.

Hiring employees who “get it” and training those who don’t

Now what does all this have to do with Jack and Jill. Jill represents the high abilities individual. She reached the top of the hill quickly, filled her pail well before Jack, and reached the finish line far ahead of Jack. But while it took Jack much longer to fill his jug, when he reached the bottom of the hill he retained much more water. The reality is that both Jack and Jill each had 5 gallons of water after they filled their containers.

Individuals with higher abilities “get it” quicker but they may also lose it quicker as well. (No jokes about losing it as we get older although in a way this is exactly what I’m talking about.) They get it and begin to move on. Higher ability minds work faster but don’t stop when the information is absorbed. Their thoughts and many times their actions move on to new things. Lower ability individuals absorb the information slower but with training and practice, often times become the skilled employee – until the job changes.

We are finding that a significant source of high turnover in some positions is due to over-hiring. High abilities individuals may process new information like a 4Ghz computer chip but get bored and lose concentration easily when the job is no longer challenging. Hiring a fast learner for a moderately challenging job bores the high abilities individual to tears as soon as they learn the job.

One advantage to hiring fast learners is that you can cut down training time. The disadvantage is that you likely will have higher rates of turnover which turns into more training more often to new employees which results in non-productive dollars.

While assessing one individual for a promotion, one client recently discovered that her absenteeism was related to her very high abilities for a routine job she currently held in accounting. She admitted during her interview that she was able to do the five day job in only two days. So she just stayed home rather than be bored at work.

How can an organization benefit from understanding general abilities of employees?

1. Both under-hiring and over-hiring for general abilities costs money. Under-hiring obviously means lower production and more mistakes but over-hiring may mean higher turnover and boredom.

2. Training new skills is one of the most expensive investments an organization makes in its employees. Getting an ample return on this investment absolutely requires that the pace of training and the level of mentoring required for an individual to reach peak performance is directly related to his or her general abilities. Lower ability employees may hear what they learned in a half-day program but rarely understand it well enough to implement it or make the change. Higher ability employees on the other hand get it quickly and get turned off in training workshops when the pace is slowed down for others to catch up.

3. Identifying general abilities helps identify potential fast-track employees who might be otherwise overlooked for succession opportunities as well as those employees who might be promoted into positions that over-challenge them.

Assessing general abilities used to require expensive and specialized testing. With technology and advanced psychometric testing, assessing workplace general abilities and personalities is convenient, cost effective and provides a great return on investment for employee selection, development and succession.

Ira S. Wolfe, founder of Success Performance Solutions, is a Certified Professional Behavioral and Values Analyst and an expert identifying talent and developing employees. To learn how your organization can match the right people to the right jobs, improve communication and reduce conflicts in your workplace, contact Ira at 717.291.4640, email: or visit