Essential Cognitive Skills When Hiring for Potential Across Sectors and Seniority Levels

Discover which are the essential cognitive skills when hiring for potential across sectors and seniority levels.

Jiaying Law

People Scientist

To keep society running, various jobs have emerged, each requiring distinct abilities and skills. In this article, we’ll explore essential cognitive skills when hiring promising candidates across sectors and career stages.

Do cognitive abilities accurately predict training success?

First and foremost, we assess whether cognitive abilities can accurately predict training success in different fields. According to Bertua and colleagues (2005), general cognitive ability tests prove to be strong indicators of training success across various occupations. For instance, their validity ranged from 0.64 for engineering-related roles to 0.47 for drivers. 

Similar results were obtained in another study by Salgado and Moscoso (2019). They found that general cognitive abilities can predict training success across low-, medium-, and high-complexity occupations, with validities of 0.58, 0.61, and 0.64, respectively.

Since it’s proven that cognitive abilities strongly predict training success, we’ll now examine needed skills in two ways: based on job complexity and seniority.

Job Complexity: Low vs High

Cognitive abilities play a role in everyday tasks. However, the level of cognitive abilities needed changes based on the task. For instance, planning a grocery list is easier than creating a project timeline, which requires fewer mental resources. In simple terms, you don’t need extremely high cognitive skills for a grocery list; it’s a task that most individuals can handle.

The same concept applies to job complexity. Although previous research indicates that cognitive abilities can predict training success across occupations, it’s essential to consider the required levels of ‘potential’ based on job complexity.

For high-complexity tasks, such as those in professional, scientific, or upper management roles, we indeed expect individuals to utilise their cognitive abilities to the fullest potential. Selecting people with the highest cognitive potential is vital, as they may need to employ their capabilities later in their careers.

However, the question arises: Is it necessary for people to demonstrate high potential for low-complexity tasks as well? 

According to the table below (Schmidt & Hunter, 2004), while cognitive abilities can predict training performance across jobs with almost all levels of complexity, the same cannot be said for on-the-job performance. In positions with lower complexity, the everyday tasks may not require high cognitive abilities.

Table from Schmidt & Hunter, 2004

Table from Schmidt & Hunter, 2004

To sum up, the required level of cognitive abilities differ for various tasks and roles. Recognising these differences helps in choosing the right people for specific positions.

Before assuming that higher cognitive abilities always lead to better outcomes, it’s also important to be aware of how an excessive level of cognitive aptitude can backfire. A longitudinal study conducted by Wilk & Sackett (1996) revealed that job mobility was influenced by the alignment between individuals’ general mental abilities scores and the objectively measured complexity of their jobs (Schmidt & Hunter, 2004).

To put it simply, if you hire someone with high cognitive abilities for a job that’s not very challenging (like doing repetitive tasks), they might get bored and quit because they want something more interesting. On the other hand, if you hire someone with lower cognitive abilities and give them a really hard job (like managing lots of teams), they might feel overwhelmed and step down to an easier role that suits them better. Either way, replacing them costs you more money as you have to start hiring again.

In summary, when hiring based on potential, it is crucial to consider job complexity in addition to training performance. Avoid using a sledgehammer to crack a nut; instead, strive for a balanced fit between an individual’s cognitive abilities and the complexity of the role they will be handling. This approach will help ensure long-term success and avoid unnecessary turnover costs.

Seniority: Entry-level vs Managerial Positions

Undoubtedly, the potentials required at different phases of career paths are not entirely the same. In the following section, we will focus on two common phases of a career—entry-level and managerial positions.

Entry-level positions

When hiring for entry-level positions, we often expect fresh graduates to apply for our vacancies. However, how do we make sure they’ll be good for our company when we don’t know how they’ll do in a real job? Frequently, we choose to rely on easy aspects like, such as school degrees, which may not necessarily be the best indicators of their potential or job performance.

Looking at research findings (Fleming et al., 2008; Coll & Zegwaard, 2006; Pang et al., 2019), the most sought-after employability skills in fresh graduates, according to employers, include: 

  • the ability and willingness to learn
  • teamwork and cooperation
  • taking initiative
  • analytical thinking
  • interpersonal skills.


Indeed, the ability to learn and analytical thinking fall within the scope of cognitive abilities. The advantage of cognitive abilities is that they can be objectively measured, making them essential for screening a high volume of applicants and selecting candidates to proceed to the next stages of the hiring process (Read more here). 

In summary, when hiring for potential within entry-level positions, including assessments of cognitive abilities (e.g., the ability to learn and analytical thinking) in the hiring process can prove beneficial.

Managerial positions

Often, when there is a vacancy for managerial positions, promoting individuals from within the organisation may be a priority to save time in reintroducing the company culture. However, there are instances when we need to hire someone externally to meet our specific requirements.

So, what predictors should we consider when determining a person’s potential to be a good manager or leader?

From the dynamic managerial capabilities perspective, to contribute to organisational performance, we expect managers to have these capabilities, of which are all related to cognitive abilities (Adner & Helfat, 2003; Helfat & Peteraf, 2015; Durán & Aguado, 2022; Helfat & Peteraf, 2015):

  • Sensing: it refers to the ability to recognise and create opportunities. In order to do that, managers need to equip themselves with perception skills (e.g., perceiving opportunity, uncertainty, and hostility) and must invest their attention intensively in their work. 
  • Seizing: it refers to the ability to make strategic moves to seize opportunities and address emerging threats. Succeed in seizing opportunities requires problem-solving skills, divergent thinking, and reasoning abilities. 
  • Reconfiguring: it refers to the ability to align resources and overcome resistance to change. This rely on language, communication and social cognitive skills


In conclusion, to assess whether a person is suitable for your managerial positions, we strongly encourage implementing cognitive abilities tests in your hiring process. This will help identify candidates with the necessary cognitive capabilities to excel in managerial roles and contribute significantly to your organisation’s success.

Time to put hiring for “potential” first

We have introduced the multidimensionality of potential, which consists of fundamental, growth and career dimensions. Derived from the fundamental dimensions of potential, we further explored the relationship between cognitive abilities, training performance and job performance. 

We discussed cognitive abilities tests, as a predictor for training success and a maximum performance test, which can tell us about a person’s capability to learn and what exactly they can do. Furthermore, we took a close look at the key cognitive abilities to hire high potential people in low-complexity versus high-complexity jobs and in entry-level versus managerial positions. 

Now, it’s time to reconsider and enhance our approach to identifying and nurturing talent.


Adner, R., & Helfat, C. E. (2003). Corporate effects and dynamic managerial capabilities. Strategic management journal, 24(10), 1011-1025. 

Bertua, C., Anderson, N., & Salgado, J. F. (2005). The predictive validity of cognitive ability tests: A UK meta‐analysis. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 78(3), 387-409. 

Coll, R. K., & Zegwaard, K. E. (2006). Perceptions of desirable graduate competencies for science and technology new graduates. Research in Science & Technological Education, 24(1), 29-58.

Durán, W. F., & Aguado, D. (2022). CEOs’ managerial cognition and dynamic capabilities: a meta-analytical study from the microfoundations approach. Journal of Management & Organization, 28(3), 451-479. 

Fleming, J., Martin, A. J., Hughes, H., & Zinn, C. (2009). Maximizing work-integrated learning experiences through identifying graduate competencies for employability: A case study of sport studies in higher education. International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning, 10(3), 189. 

Helfat, C. E., & Peteraf, M. A. (2015). Managerial cognitive capabilities and the microfoundations of dynamic capabilities. Strategic management journal, 36(6), 831-850. 

Pang, E., Wong, M., Leung, C. H., & Coombes, J. (2019). Competencies for fresh graduates’ success at work: Perspectives of employers. Industry and Higher Education, 33(1), 55-65. 

Salgado, J. F., & Moscoso, S. (2019). Meta-analysis of the validity of general mental ability for five performance criteria: Hunter and Hunter (1984) revisited. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 2227. 

Schmidt, F. L., & Hunter, J. (2004). General mental ability in the world of work: occupational attainment and job performance. Journal of personality and social psychology, 86(1), 162. 

Wilk, S. L., & Sackett, P. R. (1996). Longitudinal analysis of ability‐job complexity fit and job change. Personnel psychology, 49(4), 937-967. 

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