This is a debut column for Business Insider Australia by organisational psychologist Paul Martin. More information at the foot of the article.
In some ways, the history between psychology and business is like a long term relationship.
They have been there for each other for better and for worse. It’s been over 60 years since they started dating.
The Hawthorne Effect was a great honeymoon: all psychologists had to do, it seemed, was walk around with white lab coats and clip boards looking at employees and they performed better.
The experiment was designed to identify what lighting and other conditions led to improved employee performance. But they discovered this was almost irrelevant. The underlying principle they stumbled on – when employees feel valued, they perform better – is still a central part of transformational leadership.
At the very worst times during the war, psychologists were a significant resource – experimentation, weakening the enemy, strengthening the troops, selection and training – all of which translates to modern management.
But this relationship has always had an underlying tension. A mate of mine who controlled billions of dollars in heavy industry in various countries used to say that what psychologists did in corporations was basically bullshit.
He thought it was “wishy washy”, with the latest psychological trends in organizations only designed to make leadership academies rich.
It wasn’t until a complex overseas project hit trouble, where the teams were fragmenting and staff turnover and conflict were crippling the business objectives, that he started “developing feelings” for psychology.
He said he was at such a point of desperation that he took up an offer of an organizational psychologist’s services to try, somehow, to stabilise the team. He said he was blown away to see how the interventions she made had a scientific basis and provided him with new ways of seeing the issues that made a remarkable difference.
In the end, his team outperformed all others in the project. He ended up looking like the star performer to his boss and the Board.
Many leaders I’ve spoken to seem to over the years have an almost inbuilt scepticism about organizational psychology. I’ve at times encouraged them to maintain this to make sure that those who they contracted could prove their worth so that they weren’t at the mercy of pop psychological theories that might sound good but are not rigorously and scientifically tested.
Psychologists often bring new insights to leaders which can have quite a profound impact on their own performance and enriched their personal lives. The idea of emotional intelligence was initially greeted with crossed arms and looked upon with great derision by many a leader.
Those who went through evidence-based quality assessment and training often found that they not only improved their business success but also had major revelations in their own levels of well-being – and that of their families.
There have been a few breaches of trust along the way which haven’t helped the relationship between psychology and business.
In the early days we all started to believe that all you needed to do with employees was a behavioural intervention with external rewards and punishments. There is some validity to this, but it became clear quickly that it was simplistic and ignored many of the internal drivers which caused people to perform or fail.
The evidence is clear that the future of this relationship is bright. Even in the area of safety and heavy industry, leaders are now seeing that psychologists have contributed an enormous amount.
For example Gary Linton the MD of Prospect Consulting, says it is psychologists and the science they have brought to the table that underpins their safety awareness program that helps companies reduce lost time injury frequency rates.
In order for psychology and business to continue to develop this relationship and to grow old together, it would be important that when the going gets tough to we really need to drop the language of leaders and managers being responsible for “hard” issues, leaving the “soft” ones to the psychologists. In the end, we are all in the business of human and organisational performance.
The evidence has been consistent over the last 60 years we’ve been getting to know each other. Good communication and working closely together helps us achieve amazing things.
Paul Martin is a psychologist and organizational consultant with over 25 years’ experience as a public figure and in a broad range of consulting roles. He founded a well-respected profitable company and coached leaders and facilitated programs at all levels in private, corporate and Government sectors. His passion for positively influencing teams and individuals includes being involved in social change issues. He has influenced opinions through advising MPs, Federal Attorneys-General and the Prime Minister and the public through extensive media exposure.
Psychology image via Shutterstock
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