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Assessment Center Exercises

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What are Assessment Center Exercises?

Rick Michelson

Several basic exercises have become fairly standard in today's assessment centers. They are:

l. The In-Basket
2. The Group discussion/Leaderless group
3. The Interview Simulation; often called the Role play Em­ployee counseling session
4. Oral presentation (often a personal biography)
5. Written exercise
6. Panels/Oral Boards

Note: Panels and Orals are not considered part of a true assessment center, but youll likely encounter them in most cases. You may as well get ready for them!)

Actually, the exercise could be almost anything as long as it can be shown to be job related.

WHAT ARE DIMENSIONS?
Dimensions are those behaviors that are (job-related) observable, measurable and specific to the position being tested for. They may also be referred to as tasks or traits. They are also some­times known as KSA's (Knowledge, Skills and Abilities.)

An actual dimension then of Planning, would be the how and what a candidate did to demonstrate that they had a satisfactory grasp of this dimension. The observers then would observe this behavior and record it for a rating scale later. For example, using the same analogy of Planning, let's say candidate A "used a Daily Planner to schedule meetings". Candidate A also "made a list of things to complete prior to the meetings," and "delegated tasks to subordi­nates to accomplish with specific instructions or deadlines." This is just a brief example, but the key is that you must actually demonstrate those behaviors!

These dimensions should be things you are intimately familiar with, particularly if you have done any studying or reading about the position you are applying for. For example, just what are the basics of supervision? Of Management? If you break them down into identifiable behaviors, you will find they suddenly become very clear. As supervisor, you plan, schedule, organize, etc. Remember the old acronym PODSCoRB? If you havent heard of this, you should be familiar with it if you are a supervisor or manager:

Planning
Organizing
Staffing
Directing
Coordinating
Reporting
Budgeting (Gulick and Urwick, 1937)

It is a good example of specific dimensions that assessors will be looking for you to demonstrate! We will now look at a few of the more common exercises and see how the behaviors and dimen­sions are related.

The In-Basket

This exercise is often found at a midlevel or higher management position. We see them for both fire and police testing. They arent going to go away, but they may be hopefully, more reflective of the actual type of in-basket you would actually encounter on the job They may range from an hour to several days! But generally, they give you a scenario where you are the new super­visor or manager and you have a very limited time frame to go through about 30-40 memo's, reports, telephone notes, letters that have to be dealt with within the given time frame as you are "scheduled to leave on a extended trip". Some will be items that are critical and must be handled immediately.

Some may be entirely irrelevant, or can be handled by either a subordinate or can be "tabled" until your "return". The important point is that you prioritize the items within the time frame. You will be asked later to give your reasons why you did or didn't handle a specific item. You need to be alert though to those items which may be related somehow. You may want to put notes on most of the papers indicating what type of priority you have given it, and what you plan to "do" with it; i.e., either delegate, hold, sign and forward on, or hold for some future date. The key is that no one will know anything if you don't communicate via your notes!

Remember you are going to be leaving soon on your "trip" and won't be around to answer any questions. If you are a mid-manager or manager, you want to give some thought as to whom you want to replace you while you will be "gone".  This must be communicated to the fictional staff. You will usually get an organizational chart and a calendar so you can delegate, advise, inform, etc., and schedule meetings, due dates and follow up on projects.

In-Basket Dimensions

You may find the following dimensions measured in this exercise are:

Comprehension ability
Written Communication ability
Planning and organization
Problem analysis
Ability to take risks
Judgment
Decisiveness
Delegation
Initiative

In effect, the candidate should:

Be able to organize/prioritize the items in the exercise
Be able to work through most if not all, of the items in the time frame allowed
Arrange to delegate most items (to a subordinate)
Give clear and concise instructions
Give reasonable and timely deadlines when delegating
Insure follow up methods
Use the calendar properly; schedule meetings, arrange for due dates and follow-ups
Manage conflicts by planning/scheduling/delegating
Make decisions

Leaderless Group

This exercise may include either an assigned role or an unassigned role (or a facilitated LGE) for the candidate. Generally, the group is given a series of problems or information that must be acted on. The group is to come to a mutually agreed upon decision. For example, the Chief tells all of you who are Sergeants or Fire Captains, that you are to meet with your peers and come up with a plan to implement some new training that has been mandated by the state. The dilemma most of us face, is that we think we know what the assessors are looking for, and we may forget the true purpose of the exercise. In reality, the raters are really just looking to see how well YOU helped the group move forward to a consensus, agreements, moved them forward when they got behind and whether your role was helpful in achieving the goal the Chief asked you to do. Thats all. You dont have to stand on the table and wave your arms and shout to be heard. Just follow the instructions and be yourself, keeping in mind the dimensions that are being assessed. The truth is this: you really may nor may not have the ability to help the group or add anything to the group. Thats not unrealistic if you have never had anything to do with group dynamics, is it? The key then would to get as much experience as you can in teaching, giving presentation, running small mindmapping exercises with your cohorts. After all, these are just skills that are learned over time. There no mystery to the exercises once you take a hard look at the job description and the dimensions that are listed.

The assessor should, if at all possible, have put the program together to reflect a set of scenarios that are realistic and relevant to your present organization. The issues should be timely and reasonable concerns supervisors or mid-managers would have in a normal work setting. Keep in mind that most assessors have done a job analysis of the rank and know what a good Sgt, Lt., Bn. Chief, etc., should be able to actually do. The more you can demonstrate that, the better supervisor youll be, regardless of the testing process.

What Should your Role be?

What types of dimensions would you be expected to demonstrate here? Being a good listener? Being able to summarize a point? Being a facilitator, a mediator and keep everyone else on track? Being organized, speaking clearly, and being persuasive are also clear dimensions in this exercise. You want to show the assessors these dimension, and you must participate in order to succeed! You cannot sit back and simply watch the other participants engage in the discussion. Not if you want to demonstrate any behaviors that would lead them to believe you would make a good Sergeant, Lieutenant, Fire Captain, Battalion Chief or ??? Always keep in mind though, that this whole group of exercises is the only chance the assessors will have to "judge" you. So make it count!
 

Group Discussion Behaviors

In addition to the dimensions mentioned above, which of the following behaviors would you be demonstrating?

- Interpersonal relations - Flexibility
- Problem Analysis - Stress tolerance
- Initiative - Judgment
- Persuasiveness - Oral communication skills
- Productivity - Tenacity

Keep in mind that the behaviors demonstrated ought to be reflective of the job dimensions. Which behaviors would you demonstrate?

- Keeps them on track - Monitors time
- Supports others - Gets others involved
- Initiates discussion - "Sells" or sways the group
- Recaps key points - Clarifies issues

The Counseling Session

This exercise is very common and is often a "role-play" scenario where you act as the "supervisor" or "manager" and have to discipline a wayward employee. The assessors are watching you to see how well you demonstrate that dimension critical to this type of action.

You should be aware of some of the major problems underlying most behavior patterns that result in disciplinary action: They generally are:

l. Job dissatisfaction
2. Marital problems
3. Financial problems
4. Alcohol or drug problems [1]

These are just to name a few. You can see how complex this exercise could become. During the exercise, imagine youre talking to that person as though they really were having the types of problems that come up. What would you want to do? How would you present your ideas for them to get back on track? Would you:

- Give them specific goals?
- Include specific completion/due dates?
- Build in some form of monitoring their progress?
- Let them know what your expectations are?
- Be specific as to what will happen if they fail to meet your goals or expectations?
- Try to elicit a verbal contract or a least some form of buy-in and ownership of the problem and the solution?
- Conclude on a positive note or a negative note? After all, think of how you would feel after coming away from the session.

How are you Rated?

It is crucial that you understand that if you do not demonstrate the behaviors outlined in the various dimensions, you do not give the assessors much to work with. Generally, you are rated with a minimum scoring of 1-4, with a one being low. In effect, a "4" would mean that you clearly demonstrated those behaviors outlined in the dimensions. A "1" would then mean that you either demonstrated a small amount or even none of the dimension.

Remember: What will they write about your performance? Its up to you to get ready for the jobNOT the Test!
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[1] GETTING READY FOR THAT ASSESSMENT CENTER, Brian T. Page, Sweets Corners Press, NY 1983
 

About the Author
Rick Michelson is the director of KSA, Ltd., Knowledge, Skills & Abilities, Ltd., and specializes in one day workshops for public safety personnel who have to attend an Assessment Center Classes are generally by prior arrangement. For information on classes or the textbooks, visit their website. http://assessmentcenter.org/ Rick may be reached at 619-203-3073 or via email;rmichels@cox.net.

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