Do we really know enough about People to develop them?

I froze. My cardboard coffee cup hung, mid-sip from my lips. The electric black and red slide projected across the whiteboard, drew all my attention. It was slick, the font slammed the desk with authority and the silky smooth tones of the presenters lured me in. Then panic. I was presenting next, and my attempt at answering the brief was, well…brief. The show continued with text books worth of frameworks and warm and fuzzy data. Confidence oozed across the boardroom table, and even I, sitting in my spot on the edge of the furthest bend from the screen, felt awed and intimidated. Had I got the brief so wrong? Had I finally been exposed as the imposter in the room?

It ended. And we all breathed.

Our eyes turned to the professor, sitting with a quizzical frown in the corner of the room. His leather jacket’s high collar hugged his neck, and took a decade off him.  His eyes squeezed like a finger on a trigger and then boom!

The question that followed shattered all the gloss off that porcelain presentation.

‘So where is Psychology in that impressive Industrial Psychology show?’

With the melting speed of butter in a pan, the snappy statements and bold predictions of success disappeared in confusion and concern. The presenters slumped.


‘You are Psychologists’ continued the cool academic, ‘so where in this presentation have you formulated a psychological perspective on the case study? All I see is an HR diploma, masquerading as an Industrial Psychologist, and pulling random frameworks and processes into a series of phrases and expected outcomes. It’s coherent, but makes no sense.’

The room went silent. I smiled on the inside, more out of relief than arrogance.

My training in Clinical Psychology was finally going to be relevant. I had begun to develop an aversion to the constant shrug of my shoulders and shake of my head when asked whether I knew that model or that framework in Industrial and Organisational Psychology speak.

The Professor continued.

‘If you cannot have a layered view on the psychological impact on people, real humans, then what is your role in organisations?’

The debate flowed, and what ensued was a startling series of admission and discoveries.

The long and short of it, is that too many people in HR and Industrial and Organisational Psychology, are under-equipped and unsure of their knowledge of Psychology and behaviour. They seem to evade emotion, and grasp for two dimensional processes, maps and diagrams to order their anxiety. The nett effect is the following:

  1. Too little enquiry and robust exploration of the ‘real’ brief. Often times just taking issues at face value.
  2. An uncertainty about psychological theory and evidence to frame their understanding of what drives behaviour.
  3. The development of a transactional relationship with leaders and leadership teams that reinforces a deterministic view on people and which makes it seem as if all people can be shaped, pushed and prodded through a process to change. Box ticked.

There is more, but in essence, I have learnt one key lesson. For too long I have steered people away from knowing that I am a Psychologist. I imagined people would recoil at the news. To be fair, at times they did, but if my world is focused on supporting individuals and teams to choose alternative behaviours that drive higher levels of effectiveness, then I had better understand emotion, cognition, habit, mental models, neuroscience, the mind, dysfunction, defence mechanisms, health and more. Without understanding that, it seems unlikely much will change.

The way things stand (this is going to sound harsh) many practitioners in the people field, do not understand people that well at all. They do know a lot, and intuitive feel and perception counts, but in many cases they are like computer hardware technicians, trying to work with the operating software. They experiment and fumble from button to button, and then we wonder why things change but stay the same, or why the profession is viewed with scepticism and low credibility.

It’s time to claim Psychology, and a deeper, informed understanding of people, as our primary differentiator in the people development game.

As the Prof kept asking with a smile ‘What is your psychological perspective?’


The Science of Trust – Part 2

A client of mine; an esteemed, silver-haired hotelier; once told me the secret to his success. He didn’t quite put it that way, but his message suggested as much. He proudly claimed that mastering the black and white aspects of service enabled comfort in the grey and that service excellence to humans was all hidden there. I liked that, but haven’t necessarily applied it to many aspects of my work.

In a field that seems fogged up in grey, I tend towards the black and white, often to further my legitimacy. Problem is, I often begin to believe my simplistic view of the world.

Let’s look at the idea of trust as an example of extraordinary colour that sits within the grey. This is a post aimed at me.

When you dip into the literature, Trust becomes a suitably complex topic of review, and superbly grey. Here are a few examples of what I mean.

Perspective 1: Some articles describe a clear difference between trust and distrust and although you might think they are opposites, some theorists don’t see them as opposite ends of a continuum. In fact, both trust and distrust are seen to be positive and negative. For example, high levels of trust may lead to group think which may lead to the exclusion of difference and thus potentially lead to unethical practices and discrimination. That is pretty negative. It is also important to admit that it is distrust on the other hand that drives processes, systems and structure. That could be seen as quite positive.

Perspective 2: Other research proposes that there are 4 co-existing reference points of trust. On the one end, High Trust which is defined by hope, faith, confidence, assurance and initiative, and on the other end Low Trust which is represented by no hope, no faith, no confidence, passivity and hesitance. Then there is Low Distrust which is defined by no fear, the absence of skepticism, the absence of cynicism, low monitoring and non-vigilance, and High Distrust which includes fear, skepticism, cynicism, wariness, watchfulness and vigilance. Mmmm.

Perspective 3: Trust can be divided into two types – Affective Trust and Cognitive Trust. The first is focused on an emotional state and connection with others, whilst the other is focused on competence and capability. These types of trust can be distinct from each other, and so we could have a high level of Cognitive Trust, but a low level of Affective Trust, and vice versa. More grey. I love it.

It may be too much grey for me to make sense of. On one level I get it, it’s actually all saying the same thing, but on another level, what I am beginning to appreciate is that a black and white view of what trust is, may be too narrow.

So what does that all mean? Well, it is all very valuable, and I have to ask myself how this all fits with my evolving thinking on the building blocks of trust, especially in teams.

Perspective 4:

1. Be reliable, do what you said you would, be on time, deliver, just be plain old boring and dependable. This is a powerful trust builder.

2. Be Honest – or as I often say ‘Appropriately honest’, and more significantly don’t be dishonest.

3. Keep as many of the Background Conversations, or and chit chat into the Foreground. Involve the people you are talking about, speak up when the time is right and don’t break away into reckless corridor and side conversations.

4. If you master the first three right, then you might have earned the right to some Vulnerability. This doesn’t come first as many team builders would like you to think.

Get these all right and I believe you will build a high trust, low distrust relationship that is comfortable with the positive contributions of Distrust and cautious of the blind spots of Trust; and enhances Affective and Cognitive Trust.