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.

‘huh?’

‘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?’

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