How We Use Our Minds at Work: It Changes

Mind and Varieties of Intelligence

Over the course of our lifespan, we adaptively develop and deploy diverse mental, social-emotional, and physical abilities for intelligent, practical action at home, in the community, and at work. The capabilities we rely upon early in life are not the same as those we rely on later in life. The roles we take and the challenges inherent to the situations we face make demands on us for adaptive development.   

One domain of intelligent action with which knowledge workers in the professional and managerial ranks identify deeply is cognitive ability. And as Figure 1 illustrates, the sources of our cognitive ability change over time.   

Gf & Gc reduced.jpg

Fluid Intelligence (Gf) represents our “native”[1] abilities to recognize relationships and to reason, as well as the speed with which we do both. By contrast, Crystalized Intelligence (Gc) is our bank of acquired knowledge and our learned abilities to apply it. As we age (A to B1), Gc increases and represents a larger share of our overall practical intelligence, judgment, and action.   

The distinction between fluid and crystallized intelligence (authored by Cattell in the mid-20th century and further developed by Horn in the 70’s and 80’s) was an advance over the single-factor model (G) of intelligence developed by Spearman in 1904. Moreover, it led to further specification of many more specific kinds of cognitive ability that are contained within these two broad categories. And our ways of conceptualizing cognitive ability and other kinds of intelligence did not stop there.    

We’ve increasingly come to appreciate the implications of the fact that we are “minded”[2] creatures, and that self-identity emerges initially and continuously in a social context. So, in the 80's when William Gardner conjured his theory of multiple (8) intelligences, he included interpersonal and intrapersonal kinds of intelligence. Then in the 90’s, Daniel Goleman popularized the scholarship of Mayer and Salovey and others on emotional intelligence. He highlighted the distinct contributions of EQ and IQ and made the case for attending to the social-emotional variables in leader and organizational development.     

In parallel with these theoretical developments, there have been impressive advances in neuroscience and “interpersonal neurobiology.”[3] Beyond the basics of left/right brain function and neuroplasticity, this research indicates how brain, mind, and overall adaptive intelligence are shaped by interpersonal relations starting early in life. The research gives us good reason to be optimistic about our freedom to adaptively change tendencies of personality and behavior that may otherwise constrain our growth.       

Implications for Ability Assessment and Development

These advances give us reason to pause and reflect upon our practices in assessment and development. I summarize just a few implications below. Although there is an important role for technical expertise in these matters, what we’ve learned in the last two decades is that leader development implies ongoing identity development. Moreover, at critical inflection points, development takes on a transformational quality, a deeper development which occurs in and through the crucible of relationships.      


  1. Cognitive assessment instruments are, at best, proxies for what we would hope to learn were we to actually observe the demonstrated abilities of candidates to perform the real work associated with the roles for which they are candidates.   
  2. Prudential judgment (practical wisdom) is a cultivated ability that develops from experience with issues in a context, and based upon the personal maturity of the individual in deliberating upon principles, contingencies of action, and their consequence.    
  3. Assessing ability and potential by means of well-designed stretch assignments, action learning, and multi-rater feedback provides a “situated” assessment of candidates in a real-world context in which personal efficacy and job performance are ultimately validated.   
  4. Equipping and training supervisors and management with skills to assess practical ability and potential in a situated context best leverages the expertise of psychologists, HRD professionals, and management in the talent and leader development area.    
  5. Use of assessment instruments should be guided by a situated perspective, i.e., what is it we need to better understand and measure to a) design stretch assignments & action learning projects, and b) assess candidate performance and development needs?      

A thoughtful course of action based on these considerations will improve the a) validity, b) practical relevance, c) business impact, and d) the developmental efficacy of your assessment and development practices. You'll increase your capacity to attract and develop more diverse talent too, while minimizing adverse impacts. Why? Because it improves both the technical and face validity of your processes, and that will reduce "false negatives," which can plague assessment of diverse talent.       

In conclusion, it seems that the more we learn about the contingencies of human capacity development, the more we learn how simplistic some of our well-intended technical practices have been. Also, we come to see that we must not mistake our conceptual constructions (abstract assessment) for the thing itself (situated assessment). Whenever feasible we should prefer the more situated to more abstract assessment because it most closely resembles the actual scene of challenge and is most relevant.


[1] I place “native” in quotes because theorists have argued that it largely represents genetic endowment, however, it is rather difficult to imagine how we might can totally exclude the role of early childhood development and other sources of learning

[2] “Minded” creatures are beings with an inner, subjective life of the mind, who are capable of self-consciousness, the capacity to recognize and interact with others in ways that acknowledge that they too have an inner life and a capacity for reflection, social emotions, and rational choice, which distinguish them from other creatures who lack this rich inner life of the mind and the capacities to relate with one another inter-subjectively as free agents.

[3] Daniel Siegel (psychiatrist) and Allan Schore (psychologist), two prominent researchers and theorists, have done a lot to translate this research into practice. Both have emphasized the important role of relational dynamics.