The in-basket exercise is a tool commonly used in selection and development processes. It tests an individual’s adaptive thinking, judgment, problem-solving skills, planning and organizational skills, decision-making, and prioritization – all while the individual handles demands under pressure.
In-basket exercises are the result of decades of research. They became a popular assessment tool for selection and managerial training in the 1950s-1970s. Although the term “in-basket” seems foreign to us now, it is a literal description of what managers were asked to do in this exercise. Prior to the digital age, employees had in-basket trays on their desks where others would place memos, messages or tasks that required their attention. It simulated a day in the life of a manager. The goal was to gauge the assessed individual’s ability to execute tasks, solve problems, and prioritize.
Today, they are simulations in which participants are placed in a hypothetical managerial role at a fictitious organization. Prior to starting the task, they are given background information on the organization, industry, and their role. Contemporary in-basket exercises require participants to sort through emails from their fictious colleagues, superiors, direct reports, clients, etc. that represent typical problems, issues, and situations that a manager may face. These issues are often ill-defined to mimic the issues that individuals encounter in the real world. Moreover, the in-basket exercise deliberately presents more emails to handle than humanly possible, forcing the individual to prioritize their tasks, which mimics the demands and pressure that they would typically face in the real world.
Benefits and Drawbacks
In-basket exercises offer many benefits when used in either selection or development processes. First, they are designed to simulate real scenarios, presenting participants with common ill-defined issues and situations faced by managers. At the same time, the simulation is generic enough that it is relevant across multiple industries and job types. Research has shown that participants easily identify with their fictitious role and become extremely involved and engaged in the experience.
Second, the in-basket exercise provides rich behavioural information as well as insight into a broad range of competencies or skills. As a result, equivalencies with an organization’s competency model can be made, particularly competencies relating to problem-solving and judgment capabilities, management and execution, and interpersonal competencies.
Finally, in-basket exercises can be used to identify and develop managerial potential. When used for development purposes, the results of the exercise can easily be leveraged to provide participants with objective and development-focused feedback. Trained assessors can highlight behavioural themes and patterns, explore how this behaviour shows up in their actual role, explain its impact and effectiveness, and determine relevant developmental objectives.
As an assessment tool, the in-basket exercise is not without its drawbacks. Although it is quite effective at simulating real-world experiences, no assessment tool can mirror reality. For instance, in most in-basket exercises, participants learn information via email, so other regular communication channels, such as informal conversations or body language, are excluded. Moreover, many problems experienced in the real-world take months or years to resolve, but in-basket exercises require individuals to resolve problems on the spot.
In today’s increasingly complex, continuously evolving business context, much is expected of leaders. They are continually presented with complex, ambiguous problems that require them to act quickly while also exercising strong judgment. The in-basket exercise is a realistic simulation tool that can be leveraged to identify and develop leaders who have the capability to excel in our complex business environment.
By Patricia Baratta, PhD.,
Consultant & Coach | Talent Assessment & Onboarding