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Psychology Gone Wild | A New Organisational Tyranny?

Psychology Gone Wild | A New Organisational Tyranny?

I recently saw two things that made me angry. And made me better understand the ills of the modern organisational environment.

The first thing I saw was this chart from Stephen P. Robbins' book, Organizational Behaviour (2005, Prentice Hall).

This provides a classic overview of the contributory disciplines of OB.

It's organised so that the disciplines that contribute to understanding group behaviour and organisational systems are placed together. You can quickly see sociology has 10 sub-disciplines contributing to group behaviour (6) and organisational systems (4).

And so on through social psychology, anthropology and political science. They are arranged top to bottom in relation to their number of contributory sub-disciplines and whether they contribute to both group behaviour and organisational systems.

At the bottom right sits psychology, which is the sole contributory discipline towards understanding the individual. It's an important inclusion because it ensures the system is balanced by a need to understand and respect the health of the individual. But it is necessarily separated from the rest because it doesn't contribute towards the understanding of groups or systems.

What has made me angry is the form this chart takes almost everywhere else. It looks like this:

Here we see psychology being given the dominant position as the main contributory discipline, despite it having nothing to say about groups or organisational systems.

The seemingly minor structural change completely alters the hierarchy. Whereas psychology was the counterweight balancing out the system, it now subjugates the system. This is a problem.

I've regularly blogged on the degree to which I think I/O Psych is harming organisational environments. Not because it is inherently harmful in itself, but because it is overwhelming the other contributory disciplines.

The study of organisational behaviour is not the study of the individual. Yet it's increasingly being treated as interchangeable. This is largely due to the USA's continuing influence on management thinking. The US is a highly individualistic culture, meaning it privileges the study of the individual over the study of the system.

It is impossible to understand organisations or cultures if you are examining personality and inner selves. You ignore social dynamics, how systems and symbols impact behaviours (and how behaviours impact systems and symbols), cultural history, organisational and management history, political stresses, emergence and entropy, processes of change, and many other things.

Yes, they are part of the chart, but they are relegated down the hierarchy. How can the study of organisations be less important to organisations than the study of the individual?

Even so, this wouldn't be so bad if there was some better way to regulate the impact of the research. But bad or pseudoscience abounds.

Myers-Briggs, a nonsensical piece of guesswork with no more chance of predicting your future than a horoscope, is used by an incredible percentage of blue-chip organisations.

[You think I'm joking. The complexity theorist,Dave Snowden, talks about almost losing his job at IBM for empirically proving a horoscope outperformed Myers-Briggs on performance prediction]

Meta-analyses of personality tests indicate that, at best, they can predict future performance to 15%. At worst, 2%.

And the recent trend for measuring Emotional Intelligence is producing a raft of self-help articles telling you "How To Trick People Into Thinking You're Smart" or "Powerful Habits of Super Persuasive People". They read like a How-To manual for psychopaths.

That's not to say that the study of the individual is not important or useful. Just that how it is being applied at organisational level is (a) harmful to the organisation and group or (b) next to useless.

There is a fight back going on (of sorts). People like Adam Grant and Susan Cain are challenging widespread assumptions that dominant, extrovert personalities are the best leaders. Or, in Adam Grant's case, that hyper-enthusiastic, ultra-efficient people aren't necessarily the ones you want leading a change (especially if you want to employ some critical and creative thought to the process). You need a bit of healthy procrastination.

Ron Warren is adding some much needed intellectual rigour to the 360 degree assessment tool, injecting the impression your social group has of you (and your personality) into the personality assessment arena, eliminating self-reporting errors and biases. His tool (LMAP 360), while already used by many elite institutions (Harvard, Yale, Wharton), has yet to make a significant impact in the organisational realm.

Chip and Dan Heath are illustrating just how much systems impact the behaviour of the individual. How thinking something fails because we have the "wrong people" expressing "bad attitudes" is folly. It fails because the system impacts the behaviours. We have to understand the situation before we can address what is behaviourally wrong.

Daniel Pink and Dan Ariely are examining what motivates people. It's often not extrinsic rewards. Indeed, high bonuses actually hurt the performance of people doing complex work. They repeatedly show how the design of the system impacts individual behaviours and performance.

And, increasingly, people on LinkedIn (the ironists, cynics and jesters among us) are challenging this state of affairs. People like Michael CardusGeoff Elliott and Stefan Norrvall, spread across three different continents, constantly remind us to take the system more seriously. To stop blaming people for being idiots and fools (the wrong type of person). And, instead, examine what is making them behave like that. In order to change it.

We have gone too far.

Organisational psychology was supposed to prevent the tyranny of the system, which is a noble goal. But it's run wild. It's delivered the tyranny of the individual.

It's doing the opposite of its intention. It's harming performance and people. We need to counter its influence before it's too late.


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Saturday, 04 July 2020

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