Business Psychologists & people performance

June 8, 2013

M.S. Mahendra c.1923I am often asked what Business Psychologists do. And more to the point, why it is that you would consult a Business Psychologist, over say, a Management Consultant, Personnel or Human Resources Specialist, Organisational Coach, Change Strategist, Cultural Anthropologist, Lion Tamer (see note*), or Training and Development Advisor.

  • More than psychometric tests. Of course all the professionals mentioned have particular expertise, and there are those, especially HR specialists, who have access to some of the same tools and techniques as a Business Psychologist. For example there are many trained to administer and interpret psychological tests and questionnaires. However when you deal with a Business Psychologist the full range of methods become available. You also get an individual who is able to develop a new tool if there is nothing suitable ‘off-the-shelf’. This is important because it’s difficult to manage other people, if you cannot measure what they do. And we know what to measure, and how to measure it.
  • Who has questions for my answers? Tools are important, but the main way in which a Business Psychologist can add value to your business (or organisation) is not necessarily by designing a psychological test, or producing a new interview system, competency map, leadership programme, executive coaching framework, or change management schedule; but by knowing which questions to ask and solutions to apply. So not what Henry Kissinger (former US Secretary of State) said to the White House press corps about ‘questions for his answers’, but an intense desire to discover the real questions and to come up with the right answers.
  • Diagnostic savvy. Sounds simple, but it is rather harder in practice. Other professionals are only concerned with part of the picture. Business Psychologists apply their diagnostic savvy to the complete ‘behavioural’ canvas. In particular how individuals perform, and can be helped to perform better; how people operate in teams, and how to stop team derailment; and how teams or groups fit into the organisational structure and culture. And of course, how organisational imperatives (such as the HR plan) are aligned with teams and individuals in order to make a business run as effectively as possible.
  • Straight from the horse’s mouth. And finally the research base that makes business psychology unique also informs much of the thinking in HR and people management generally. So in using a Business Psychologist you are dealing with someone who understands the science that underpins people and performance issues – and compared to other professionals in the field, this is probably the biggest differentiator of them all.
  • Team building.. For instance many readers will have encountered team building exercises, and may be familiar with, say,  Belbin’s Team Roles. This is a useful way of looking at teams, but it does little to get to grips with the ‘relationships’ between team members and the effects these have on performance, or how teams monitor their operations, or adapt to changing conditions. I’m afraid there’s a lot more to it than just using a questionnaire or two, and serious questions often need to be asked about the ‘health’ of relationships, and whether the culture of an organisation is helping or hindering team productivity.
  • Competitive advantage. So if it’s a careful analysis of the structure of your business at a human level that’s important, coupled to a considered view of how to bring out the best in people (so they will deliver quicker, contribute more and stay longer), call a Business Psychologist. Who, by the way, will also be able to give you a sound business case for any interventions that are suggested.

For more information try:

*This is a joke… However there are behaviourists at work in this space, and whilst humans are animals, simple ‘training’ techniques are not the way to get people to engage with work! Pass me that carrot.

Dr Mark’s Business Psychology Blog – Google #1

December 16, 2011

Many thanks to all the readers of my blog. It is now ranked as the #1 ‘Business Psychology Blog’ by Google!

The entrepreneurs of identity

March 19, 2011

As business psychologists we spend a great deal of time trying to identify leadership. And to help us there’s a mighty army of personality and leadership questionnaires, as well as numerous books that claim to pinpoint the ‘habits’ that distinguish successful leaders from the rest. In contrast there is little on the way in which leadership can grow from a leader’s role as part of a group.

Less I-ness, more we-ness

The group perspective on leadership, or the ‘social identity’ approach to organisational psychology, works on the premise that our sense of self isn’t fixed. It exists on a continuum that runs from self-interested personal identity (‘I-ness’) to group orientated social identity (‘we-ness’); with our position being determined by social context. What is more we tend to act on an individualistic basis when we compare ourselves to an ‘in-group’, such as one composed of our work colleagues; whereas when the comparison is with an ‘out-group’, such as a competitor, we are far more likely to act in a group-orientated manner.

Who are we?

It follows that if social rather than personal identity is better at explaining what we do in groups, then measures of the latter, such as personality questionnaires, are not going to be good predictors of behaviour.

In terms of leadership it also seems likely that a concentration on the individual isn’t the answer. If leadership is about group behaviour then it’s really about creating a shared identity that binds the group together. Thus true leadership is about helping to create, shape and sustain a sense of ‘who and what we are’.

What happened to my charisma?

Those that are masters at creating shared identity are also likely to be described as charismatic. However if charisma is dependent on the management of group identity, then if you lose your ability to shape this identity your charisma will evaporate – an effect that can be readily observed in the world of politics!

Overall then, perhaps there’s one expression that sums up social identity and leadership: great leaders are the entrepreneurs of identity. And what they do is to help us create our perception of who we are.

Note: The expression ‘entrepreneurs of identity’ is probably best attributed to Alex Haslam and Steve Reicher. If you’re interested in this area you might also like to read Alex Haslam’s book, Psychology in Organizations: The Social Identity Approach, published by Sage.

Picture credit: Ambro/

How to spot a management (or marketing) fad

March 1, 2011

Ansoff matrix, Balanced scorecard, Bass diffusion, Blue ocean, Boston box, Burke Litwin, Business process re-engineering, Chaos model, Clarkson principles, Covey’s seven habits, Deming cycle, Downsizing, Greiner’s growth model, Excellence, Fifth discipline, Force-field analysis, Good to great, Hammerstein-Equord, Just in time, Kaizen, Learning organisation, Management by objectives, Outsourcing, Path-goal theory, Profit pools, Scenario planning, Seven forces, Situational leadership, Six sigma, Total quality, Value-based management, Value streams, Theories X, Y and Z…

When I slow down I go faster

Let’s get this straight not all models are bad. In fact many are based on reasonable ideas and sensible insights. However most are doomed to short and imperfect lives, and to have caused a fair degree of upset and damage along the way. These are the fads. Fads are simple and often disarming ideas that appear to offer more for less, take little time to understand (or master); and which seem to reduce everything to a few easily understood concepts. And being simple beasts they are convenient for managers or consultants to pick up and spread around. However whilst they are often pretty simple ideas, sometimes so simple as to be, well, blindingly obvious, an air of mystery can be restored by talking in acronyms (BCG, BPR, JIT, TQM etc); along with catchy and occasionally Confucian expressions like: ‘when I slow down I go faster’

There is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequals

Ah, the sound of a single hand clapping… So far then one of the signs of a fad is gross over-simplification. Which is of course at odds with reality, because life, business, management and leadership are complex. Thus anything that claims to reduce this to a straight-forward dichotomy (Type A or Type B), or the sign of a fad par excellence, a 2×2 matrix, just isn’t going to do it. The other thing about fads is that they always over promise, and often claim to generalise to any sort of business or organisation. One size, it would appear, fits all.

And another thought that should be at the fore for any self-respecting fad spotter are that they usually follow business problems. For example JIT, TQM and Kaizen sprang up as a means of trying to compete with the Japanese. Afterall, if you can’t beat them, just-in-time copy their fads… But there’s a bit of a problem here because the solution to a global problem may not work at the micro level. And, more importantly, what appear to be big issues often only serve to create a growing market for advisors! And they of course have a vested interest in promoting the ‘solution’.

Don’t work harder, work smarter

That’s right. It’s quick and painless and you’ll produce more. And I have lots of stories, anecdotes and quotes from successful managers, leaders and assorted gurus that attest to the fantastic efficacy of my new way of doing things. And I do, but what I probably don’t have is any hard evidence. Fads don’t tend to be based on anything empirical. And to make up for the lack of science they are boosted with zingy language, buzzwords, inspirational tales and gripping against-the-odds-but-it-was-alright-in-the-end tales. In consequence beware the old content-style thing! If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

To end, my favourite, and possibly the first 2×2 ‘management’ matrix of them all…

This was devised in 1933 by General Hammerstein-Equord, Chief of the German Army High Command. To quote:

“I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent – their place is the General Staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy – they make up 90 per cent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent – he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.”

Enough said, I think. But it does remind me of that competence-commitment leadership model. Now, which one was that? Just shows you can’t keep a good idea down for long.

Note: All the headings in this post (Don’t work harder etc) are from Leadership and The One Minute Manager by Blanchard, K., Zigarmi, P. & Zigarmi, D., published by HarperCollins Business (1994).

The military quote can be found in The Silences of Hammerstein by Martin Chambers, published by Seagull Books (2009).

Wilful Blindness

February 21, 2011

Peer pressure, role modeling, obedience to authority, group think, cognitive dissonance, selective attention, love… it’s a wonder we can think straight.  Well actually a lot of the time perhaps we don’t. Quite apart from the forces of social psychology messing with our minds, the plumbing of the brain itself does a great job of physically reducing the flow of what we know. Perhaps that’s not surprising as we all have to deal with about 34GB of data every day. But does all this matter? In one sense, no, because it’s what gets us through life. And you could argue it’s what makes us uniquely human. But, and it’s a big ‘but’, when it stops us seeing what we should see, and stops us doing what we should do, then it can be a major problem.  Far more damaging than courageously ‘turning a blind eye’ in a sea battle (Nelson at the Battle of Copenhagen), because not ‘seeing’ or acknowledging uncomfortable truths can literally lead to disaster. The sort of disaster that can end in ecological calamity, world financial meltdown, health scandals, military failure and always, ruined lives. Small things like that.

If you want to know how this can be, and how we can all be unconsciously (and consciously) wilfully blind, then get a copy of Margaret Heffernan’s new book: Wilful Blindness: Why we Ignore the Obvious at our Peril. It’s just out in the UK and is published by Simon & Schuster. You can also catch a video trailer on YouTube at:

Brains and a ‘winning’ personality? Now that would be dangerous!

November 23, 2010

If you were only allowed to look for one thing in a prospective manager, what would it be? Business psychology tells us that it should be ‘brains’, or rather general intelligence, or if you want to be precise, the ‘fluid’ bit of general intelligence. That’s the sort of intelligence that helps you to solve problems you haven’t come across before. Why? Of all the things we could assess, general intelligence – or having sufficient brain power – is the most predictive of work performance. Now if you could pick a second thing (this is getting a bit like the three wishes granted by a genie, I admit), what would that be? Again if we go with what’s most predictive we would have select ‘conscientiousness’ – the personality attribute that’s associated with self-organisation, discipline, thoroughness and a need to achieve. It also happens to be the best predictor across all types of work. And if a third choice was available? Then it would have to be emotional stability: being positive, calm and relaxed and able to take what comes your way.

Do I need to pick anything else? Obviously knowledge and previous experience come into the frame, and it might also be useful to have a sociable (extrovert) manager, and maybe one who was open to new ideas, who was concerned for others, and honest, with a touch of insight… Stop. Actually we’ve already got the top three and we’ve known what they are for at least the last 20 years.

However it’s not quite that simple. Here’s the thing: whilst general intelligence and conscientiousness are both predictive of success at work, they do not correlate with each other; indeed some people have found a negative relationship between the two. What’s going on?  As you can probably imagine this has been the subject of much debate. One of the ideas is that a negative relationship is due to fluid intelligence affecting the development of conscientiousness. This has the snappy title of ‘intelligence compensation theory’ and it goes like this: fluid intelligence, being innate, is the most likely to influence a growing personality; and to cut to the chase, what then happens is that those with less intelligence compensate by developing higher levels of conscientiousness – and vice versa for those with higher intelligence. Well, it ties in with the statistics, but as you can imagine it’s rather controversial. Mind you it does help to explain the bright individual who flies by the seat of their pants (low conscientiousness) and who nevertheless tends to get away with it.

But getting back to our prospective manager, perhaps there’s a less esoteric explanation. Conscientiousness is a mix of different attributes, which usually include dutifulness and deliberation on the one hand, and achievement orientation and competence on the other. Thus it’s likely that the dutiful plodder aspects of this personality factor are negatively associated with intelligence; and the achieving, competent, striving bits are positively associated. So could it just be that we’ve been looking at personality at the wrong level?

So here’s the punch line –  looking for general intelligence, consciousness and emotional stability is still good advice, but don’t be surprised if those with brains can look like riskier bets because they sometimes get lower overall conscientiousness scores. You’re going to have to dig deeper to find out who you’re really dealing with!

Note: If you’re worried about the other bit of general intelligence, the learnt or ‘crystallised’ aspect, there’s an ongoing argument about whether that is or isn’t related to conscientiousness, and in what combination (or not) with fluid intelligence. Let alone those that think intelligence is part of personality. I expect you get the idea.

Barrick, M.R. & Mount, M.K. (1991). The big five personality dimensions and job performance: A meta-analysis. Personnel Psychology, 44, 1-26.

Moutafi, J., Furnham, A. & Paltiel, L. (2004). Why is conscientiousness negatively correlated with intelligence? Personality and Individual Differences, 37(5), 1013-1022.

Schmidt, F.L. & Hunter, J.E. (1998). The validity and utility of selection methods in personnel psychology: Practical and theoretical implications of 85 years of research findings.  Psychological Bulletin, 124, 262-274.

Photo credit: Francesco Marino/

Talent spotting for beginners

September 10, 2010

RFIf you have ever watched an Olympic swimming race you may have noticed that the best swimmer always seems to be in Lane 4. You won’t find Michael Phelps, for example, starting off in Lane 1 or Lane 8, or indeed any of the other remaining lanes. This is because lanes are assigned by seeding time, with the fastest, by tradition, being placed in Lane 4. And so that’s where we look when the race is underway. Our eyes are drawn to the likely winner.

The same sort of thing happens when we are selecting talented staff. We look for a winner. This means we want everything to be in place, the ‘full package’ to be on display, with all the boxes ticked. Frankly what we are after is someone who is above average; preferably well above average, right across the board.

Mind the spikes

But is this sensible? On the surface it appears to be the most logical thing to do, however really successful people often have ‘spiky’ profiles. It doesn’t matter what you look at, and how many competencies you measure, the real hotshots are exceptional at some things and pretty average at others. Pick any successful entrepreneur or business leader and what you notice is their key strength. Chances are this is what has got them to the top. So it’s not that they don’t have any weaknesses, in this respect they are the same as everyone else, but what they do possess is an area of massive competence.

Back with our swimming analogy, sure the best thing to do is to look in Lane 4 if you’re after a champion swimmer; but if you’re looking for something else, make sure you cover the entire pool. Otherwise you might just miss what you really want. So it is that Richard Branson famously has trouble distinguishing between gross and net profit, and yet runs a multi-billion pound empire; and other business guru’s frequently lack the personal touch, but still manage to inspire us.

This brings us onto another important point. Well two actually. Firstly it’s wise to remember that a spiky profile can be the sign of great potential – but that in a well balanced organisation any weaknesses that come with it can be compensated for by people with complementary strengths. Secondly, that you may ultimately be wasting a great deal of money on training and development! Why? Because if all of this is true you want people to play to their strengths, to reinforce their strengths, not to try and drag an area of comparative weakness up a few notches – but probably never to a level that will make any difference.

In search of excellence

The upshot is that you should go out of your way to attract as broad a range of people to your organisation as you can. But you obviously want those with high levels of self-awareness as they will have the insight to be able to maximise their strengths. This is something on which you cannot compromise, and one way of detecting this ability is to explore a person’s emotional intelligence. Also to be tuned to those factors that might ‘derail’ success. What is it in a person’s character that in uncontrolled excess could lead to disaster?

However the main point is to give everyone the opportunity to display excellence. Spot their distinctive talent and you will discover the key to their potential success. But to do this may take more than just an interview and a few psychometric tests. You’re now in the domain of serious business psychology.


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