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Advancement: The Deceptive Nature of the In-Basket Exercise

By Paul Patti,

Everyone who watched the ending of one of America’s favorite shows, the Sopranos, had to realize how masterfully David Chase, the creator and writer, fooled all us fans yet again.

The ending was deceptive, simple yet complex, and left you wondering what the hell was really going on. I think it wasn’t Tony Soprano, but the audience who got “whacked.”

That’s how I think of the in-basket exercise in police promotional assessment centers. Deceptive; simple and complex at the same time, and trashing the intellect and emotions of anyone who walks into its clutches unprepared for what they will find.

Walk in unprepared; you get “whacked.”

If you do an informal poll of police agencies and police promotional testing companies, you’ll find that anywhere from 20% – 50% of promotional candidates FAIL their first in-basket exercise. That’s because the in-basket assessment is one of the most deceptively simple exams you can give to a promotional candidate.

That is, they think it’s going to be simple, so they don’t prepare.

I’ve listened carefully to candidates explain to me what they thought the in-basket was. Here’s a quote I love, “You check some memos and phone messages and put them in the right order.”

Another dandy I’ll never forget is this one, “You have a few memos and stuff from the bosses you have to look over, then tell the interview panel how you’d handle ‘em.”

Right. Sure, that’s it. Whack!

Like a television viewer watching the Sopranos’ ending, those two guys are going to have a confused, blank look on their face when they realize the truth.

The truth is that the in-basket assessment quickly separates those who can really handle a supervisory or management job from the “wannabees.”

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You don’t just read a few phone messages and emails and jot down a few notes. An in-basket exam contains pages and pages of background material and takes a great deal of concentration and organizational ability, and the ability to work quickly under pressure. You must study 30 – 50 pages of material such as background narrative, complicated work scenarios, schedules, calendars and organizational charts, and you must take accurate and detailed notes. Then you are presented with a detailed scenario along with 10 to 20 (sometimes as many as 30 – 40) in-basket items, all the while a clock is ticking down the time. In-basket assessments can last from 60 – 90 minutes, sometimes up to 120 minutes. I’ve heard of a few even longer.

Some of the dimensions you are graded on in an in-basket assessment center exercise are:

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

At the conclusion of the in-basket you are interviewed by the assessors, your notes are reviewed and discussed with you, and you are judged on how quickly and thoroughly you analyze the material and scenarios, how quickly and accurately you complete the items in the exam, how accurate and complete your written notes are, and how professionally you assess each item and delegate or handle the material.

On our / Testing Center, along with 20+ management textbook exams, we have a computerized 90 minute in-basket that contains 13 items. Based on our computer records, out of 220 candidates that attempted this in-basket for the first time, only 31 have passed it. That’s right, only 14% survived their first attempt – 86% got WHACKED.

I’ve spoken with many of these candidates. They weren’t dummies. They were all just woefully unprepared for what they found. They were overwhelmed by the material and the complexity of it all, and when they looked at the clock and saw the time ticking down, they either panicked or just threw in the towel. And that’s exactly what the assessors are looking for, knowing that those candidates will never survive a career in police supervision and management.

Don’t be like those 86%. Don’t stare, confused, at a blank screen, waiting patiently for a good WHACK.

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