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Mar 12, 2019

I’ve been testing many different, modern assessment technologies for the past few years. I must have tested over 25 different assessments, ranging from the traditional questionnaire to gamified questionnaires, from game based psychometric and cognitive assessments to linguistic assessments, social media assessments and micro expressions. I’ve written about several of them on ERE, as I usually look at them from a recruitment perspective.

Recently however I came across an assessment that cannot be used for recruitment. It sounds scary and crazy, but might be very interesting for talent management and development: DNA based assessments. As far as I know there is one company providing them, with two different brand names, Braincompass that just does assessment, and Goldmen Genetics, that offers additional services like leadership development training. Both are based in the Netherlands, where much of the research is done at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

Much of the information in this article comes from interviewing Albert Akkermans, one of the founders of these companies.

How it works

The basics are the same as the heritage tests by Ancestry, MyHeritage or 23andme. You spit into a tube and send it to be analysed. From this, they isolate about 22,000 genes that differ among humans and then they look for markers in these genes. Do you have them? Are they active? Things like that. For several genes science has been able to determine, usually in combination of three or four genes, that are linked to specific qualities.

What can DNA measure?

DNA does not measure behaviour, despite the fact the science behind DNA based assessments is called behavioural genetics. What it does indicate is a genetic predisposition for certain behaviours and talents.

However, developing these talents and behaviours has much to do with nurture and the environment in which an individual develops – grows up in. DNA tells us you have the talent. The nature is there. If the talent is nurtured, developed and stimulated is a totally different question.

The influence between nature and nurture differs per subject and there is no scientific consensus on which is more determinative. In many cases, however, it’s impossible to be really good at something if the nature isn’t there. Even if the nature is there, but you never nurtured it, you will not have the skills either.

Nature vs. nurture

Perhaps it’s best to explain nature and nurture with an example almost everybody can probably relate to — sports. As Robert Plomin writes in Blueprint, scientists have isolated a specific gene that is active in probably less than 1% of all humans. However, this gene is active in 70% of all professional athletes. The gene’s role is to help in recuperation. It speeds up recovery after heavy training. This doesn’t mean that everybody with that specific genome can be a professional athlete, but it does mean that it’s extremely hard to become one without it.

When you have enough talent, when your genes — and not just this one gene of course — are ordered right, then, as Malcom Gladwell shows in his book Outliers, it’s all about practise. It’s a combination of both – natural talent nurtured by consistent practice. (Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be the best.)

So genetics can measure not only your talent for sports, but also for music. It can measure linguistic and arithmetic insight and spatial awareness, according to Plomin. You still need to develop the skills, but DNA assessments can tell us if you will be able to or how easy it will be for you.

But in your DNA is also programming about how you deal with rejection. This is a specific trait that almost always does has an impact on someone’s behaviour.

The rejection gene

Let’s take a look at the effect of this gene. This gene helps determine how you deal with rejection. Do you cope with it or you are terrified of rejection and take it very personally? This can make a difference between a hunter and a farmer in sales. Someone who handles rejection well can be a great hunter. This person is not afraid to ask the “Do we have a deal” question. People like me who fear rejection tend to want to nurture existing relationships with clients, since it’s a lot safer and the chance of rejection is much lower. This comes from DNA and this is one of the genes that’s actually been identified.

DNA based assessments don’t really tell us much of anything about actual behaviour, except maybe in the case of the “rejection gene.” But for development purposes they can be extremely useful. Wouldn’t it be great to know if someone has the ambition to become something you knew he or she at least had the genes to be good at it?

Gene testing for potential

The premise of this gene testing is that you can actually assess a person’s development potential, whether you train them or not.

The Chinese are looking at this kind of technology with above average interest. Genetic testing is part of their Olympics selection process.

What if you test every five year-old to see if this person has the genetic potential to become a star athlete or musician? Would it be possible for China to win all Olympic gold medals one day? And what if you develop children academically based on their strengths? There are all very creepy ideas probably, but things we do need to think about. The technology is developing.

Much still unknown

Let me be clear, there is still a lot unknown about this technology. In a recent discussion of the modern assessment technology I described DNA assessments as “just conceived” on a human life scale. But knowledge is growing exponentially.

There are many laws prohibiting companies from asking or requiring DNA testing. But will these laws hold when for example we can define the genes that make a man a pedophile and we can prohibit them this way to become a kindergarten teacher? And when we open the gates in one sector, it won’t stop there.

Right now we are at the dawn of this technology. The technology will move forward. It’s one to keep an eye on and think about the potential for your talent development program.