What We Find at the Intersection of Management and Psychology

There’s a figurative store where the roads of Management and Psychology cross.  The shelves up front have the new and shiny theory or practice.  More likely than not, it will join the former new and shiny ideas in the dingy back of the store.  Some are just flat out wrong and others are just a repackaging of what’s already out there.  It’s kind of depressing in that the time would have been better spent working on something truly innovative.

A common theme of these books is denigrating the role of intelligence in employee selection.  Let’s be clear—there is a mountain of research that shows that for most jobs, the smarter people (using Western measures of intelligence for doing jobs in Western economies) will perform better. And these tests are consistently better predictors than non-cognitive (e.g., personality) assessments.  Ignoring these facts reduces the value that HR brings to an enterprise.

Cognitive ability tests are not perfect predictors, and even if they were, there is plenty of room left to find additional ones. This is the space that the shiny new theories try to fill.  In addition, the new characteristics cannot be traits, but rather a skill that can be developed (y’know, so the author can sell seminars, workbooks, etc.).  This, combined with the current wave of anti-intellectualism in the U.S., leads to the search for something new, but not necessarily innovative.

The questions are:

  • What value do these “new” methods bring (e.g., do they work) and
  • Are they really different than what we already have?

One of the shiniest new objects in the store is Grit.  The name taps into a very American cultural value.  If you dig deep and try hard, you will succeed.  Right there with pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.  While its proponents don’t claim that it’s brand new, they won’t concede that it is just shining up something we already have in Conscientiousness (which is one of the Big 5 personality traits).  Conscientiousness is a good and consistent predictor of job performance, but not as good as cognitive ability.  Measures of Grit are very highly correlated with those of Conscientiousness (Duckworth et al. [2007, 2009]), so it’s likely that we are not dealing with anything new.

Does this spiffed up version of an existing construct really work?  For that, we can go to the data.  And it says no.  The research currently shows that only one of Grit’s factors (perseverance) is at all predictive and it doesn’t predict beyond measures that we already have.

I am all for innovation and industrial psychology is really in need of some.  But, chasing the new and shiny is not going to get us there.  It’ll just clog up bookshelves.


Really, Autonomy is NOT Overrated

To use a tired cliché, they call it Show Business for a reason. Fortunately, within the last 10 years or so, the news media in Los Angeles has been covering that industry as it would any other large one in the region. So, it made a local splash when the Chairman and CEO of CBS said at a conference when discussing the artistic freedom that streaming services and others give filmmakers, “Autonomy is overrated” and “I helped cast ‘Friends.’ I was an executive… We help the process at the studio, at the network.”

I think there are better ways to support your argument than a one-off example from 20+ years ago. Also, Mlodinow’s book The Drunkard’s Walk cites some pretty good examples how much randomness goes into the success of entertainment ventures, so for each positive example he provided for casting I’m sure there is another one where his control over the decision making process hurt the project. Or, maybe the show would have been just as successful with the original casting. But, I digress.

Autonomy is freedom from external control or influence. It does not mean doing something without input or ideas from others. It is a state of independence in that you have the final say on decisions. Perhaps from an executive’s point of view that’s dangerous or nerve wracking, but for employees it is anything but overrated. The data show that perceived autonomy is related to many important organizational outcomes, including productivity and job satisfaction.

What he was really talking about was his company’s willingness to invest $X million of dollars into anything without having some veto rights in terms of content, casting, etc. In this case, it’s buying content and the struggle is over who really owns it. In a more typical scenario, it’s hiring people to execute a business plan and the struggle is over how much control the managers feel they needs to have over employees.

This week I’m working with a retail client in building competency models. They have recently moved to a business model where customer engagement is more important than it had been in the past. One example that middle managers gave of this was getting rid of a multi-tiered refund policy (this happens if you have a receipt, this happens if it’s after 30 days, etc.) and giving the store managers the decision making authority to say “Yes” to pretty much any reasonable refund request. I’m guessing that customers don’t think that this autonomy is overrated.

Autonomy is also a key part of the “gig” economy. While there are important legal issues as to whether these people are employees in certain situations, the larger issue is that there’s a strong need for them to feel that they are controlling their own destiny. A few months ago I got a ride from a woman who was living the gig economy dream. She had a “regular” part-time job where she had control of her hours. She drove for two ride sharing services and rented out a room in her house. When I asked her if that was a lot to keep track of, she responded that she was a good time manager (obviously) and that the freedom to work (or not work) any specific set of hours was important to her.

My observation is that millennials enjoy the autonomy that technology gives them. This leads to an expectation of it in the workplace. Employers should use this as an opportunity to create engagement.

Giving people (appropriate) decision making authority should not be scary if they are properly hired and trained. Executives who fear autonomy are missing out on engaged and high performing employees.

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