Soccer brain

June 27, 2012

Swedish researchers have discovered that elite soccer players achieve higher scores on certain tests of cognitive ability than their lower division colleagues, and both sets of players do better than the general public!

Over the moon

It seems it’s all about ‘executive functions’ and working memory. Specifically that successful players are able to constantly assess the situation, compare what’s going on with past experiences, create new possibilities and make quick decisions. In short it’s all about making fast decisions under extreme time pressure. Sounds great! Do the England team know about this?

Sick as a parrot

Of course, there may be a physical explanation. Sports psychologists have known for a while that cognitive abilities are correlated with aerobic capacity. So it may just be that footballers, and other athletes, do better simply because they’re fitter. Mind you, if all this is true, it’s a good argument for getting out there and doing a bit more exercise…

Read the article here.

Neuro-linguistic Programming

December 4, 2010

I was waiting at a railway station recently and wandered into the bookshop. What struck me when I got to the ‘management’ section was the number of books on Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP). NLP is an interesting (and highly successful) phenomenon that brings together elements of linguistics, behaviour modification, hypnosis and many other things besides. Popularised by Richard Bandler and John Grinder it seems to offer a quick and powerful way of understanding the link between the unconscious mind, language and behaviour; and to provide a channel for breaking out of learned patterns and of modelling successful behaviour, so increasing personal effectiveness. And make no mistake it is now big business, and is widely used not only for personal development, but extensively in management training, coaching and sales.

Despite its undoubted popularity it remains a controversial set of techniques, in particular when it’s used in a sales context. To take an example: consider what happens when you ask a person to do something and they respond by saying: ‘I can’t make that decision now.’ Obviously they are being resistant, but why?

NLP suggests that you try to spot which bit of the response is given the most emphasis, so if it’s on ‘now’, the problem is with the timing; on ‘that’, the issue is with what the person is being asked to do; on ‘make’, that they may not have the capability to make the decision; on ‘can’t’, that they don’t believe they can do it; and finally, on ‘I’, that it’s something ‘I’ cannot do. This is all fine and dandy and if it was proven to work it would be a really fantastic sales technique, as it would allow you to zero in on the real block to action. However the issue that bedevils NLP is that there is no empirical evidence that supports its effectiveness. Yes, there’s lots of anecdotal stuff but the hard science is missing. This also goes for the other bit of NLP that most people remember: the link between the movement of the eyes and the part of the brain that is being accessed. For example, eyes down and to the right, a person is being asked something about their feelings.

So what? Well, I cannot say for certain that all of the techniques that comprise NLP do not work. There may well be useful bits. However it has been enormously over sold, in particular on the back of its apparently science-based credentials – which it does not have. More to the point it doesn’t feature in mainstream psychology texts and is not taught on psychology degree courses. So perhaps in the words of Douglas Adams: ‘If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae on our hands.’ The bottom line is that it doesn’t hold up as a coherent approach, and almost certainly is just too good to be true.

Note: There’s much on the Internet both for and against NLP. However if you’re interested in a more scientific view of the area, try Martin Heap’s website.

Practical intelligence key to entrepreneurial success

November 1, 2010

RFIt’s fact that being a business success is not always down to brains. There are plenty of supremely well-educated people who fail, and likewise plenty with few formal qualifications who succeed. Research at the University of Maryland now suggests that one of the key differentiators is practical intelligence, or ‘know-how’, or common sense… It seems that a touch of nous can make quite a difference. The Maryland study, based on a new model of practical intelligence, predicting increased sales and employment 27% of the time. Take it from me, this is pretty good for this sort of thing. It might also throw some light on why the Oxbridge candidates on BBC TV’s, The Apprentice, often fair far worse than those from less privileged backgrounds. It seems it’s all a question of knowing your onions, or if memory serves me correctly, in Alan Sugar’s case, his beetroot!

The study by Robert Baum, Barbara Bird and Sheetah Singh is due to published in the next issue of Personnel Psychology.

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.

A great book on organisational behaviour!

July 2, 2010

If you want to read a contemporary book on business psychology that spans individual, group and organisational behaviour, which gives you an idea of how psychological thinking has developed in these areas, and brilliantly covers the options for HR and OD practitioners, Eugene McKenna’s slight little 816 page tome is the one for you: Business Psychology & Organisational Behaviour, Psychology Press (2006). Seriously, if you would like to know what it’s all about, this is a very good place to start.

The Hunt for the Snark

June 23, 2010

One of those recurring questions when trying to decide how best to advise someone on their recruitment methods is to enquire after the health of their competency framework: the list of things like analytic thinking, change orientation, effective communication and achievement focus that are thought to define the ideal worker or manager. And in response what often emerges is a somewhat aged list of often ill-defined qualities. It’s just one of those things that we never get round to doing properly. So could it be time to have a look at yours and see if it’s fit for purpose? A good place to start would be the interactive questionnaire on Pearn Kandola’s website:

PS: Apologies to Lewis Carroll and The Hunting of the Snark, although he did describe this as ‘the impossible voyage of an improbable crew to find an inconceivable creature’, and sometimes getting a handle on what it is that you are looking for in a future employee can feel a bit like this.

Business Psychologists: What do they do?

June 9, 2010

Business psychologists work with organisations helping them to solve peopley problems. Now unfortunately anyone can call themselves a psychologist, so you need to check if they’re a member of the British Psychological Society, and are also registered with the Health Professionals Council (HPC). Don’t worry about the ‘health’ bit, business psychologists – who in the UK are more accurately called Occupational Psychologists – are regulated by the HPC. Even more confused? I’m not surprised, the words ‘health’ and ‘occupational’ usually make people think of Occupational Therapy which is a different thing entirely. Ooh I wish I’d never started. Anyway, back to the point. Business psychologists are the guys to call for help with recruitment, especially the assessment & selection parts (profiling people to discover the best candidates); training & development (tapping into their true potential), coaching & mentoring (grooming them for success); leadership & team building (finding out if they really have the right stuff); HR strategy (working out what to do if they leave); human factors (making the office cosy*); organisational culture & change (trying to make sense of the bright ideas from the Board); work performance (finding out what people do all day), motivation & reward (now, what’s the ratio of carrots to sticks?); looking after their psychological health (in a non-clinical, work-life balance sort of way) and careers counselling (ever thought of being a management consultant?)…

In addition some develop psychometric tests, questionnaires, surveys and the sorts of exercises you may have encountered if you’ve applied for a job with a medium to large-sized organisation.

*Before I get rude emails from Human Factors experts there’s obviously more to it than painting the walls a jolly colour, opening the windows and a few pot plants. This area really covers human-machine interaction (how to design things so that we can actually use them), risk analysis and a whole bunch of other pretty serious stuff.

<title>Business Psychologists, Occupational Psychology & Organisational Development</title>


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