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Knowing me, knowing you (part 1)

Are you relying on the “scientific evidence”?

Social media displays countless articles about managing teams dislocated from their normal, intact work location to working from home. Many offer novel suggestions to deal with the novel virus. However, do they fall into one of three less effective categories of “science” (or research), namely popularist, puerile or pedantic, see Figure (1) below[1].

At one extreme you have the puerile “quack medicines” President Trump advocates. Here is a snapshot of his medicine cabinet – thank-you Have I Got News for You. 

There are a variety of populist practices ranging across meditation, yoga, positivity and mindfulness. Each claims some degree of pragmatism, although you must sort the wheat from the chaff to find approaches that do more than treat symptoms and start to tackle causation, see https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-resilient-brain/201712/are-you-simply-treating-your-symptoms

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, has recently published “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain and Body” (added to my reading list).  What he appears to be advocating is people need to develop “spiritual health” – a sense of meaning and purpose – which Danah Zohar and Ian Marshall termed Spiritual Intelligence. 

For those individuals who possess IQ, EQ and SQ, are they more resiliant and better able to deal with changes in their circumstances? In geometry, the triangle is the strongest shape, so possessing “triangular intelligence” should be advantageous.

A Google search for academic papers about dealing with the stress of COVID-19 lockdown produces 155m results. This suggests a fair amount of pedantry is underway (someone described pedantry to me as an exercise in counting the number of angels on a pinhead).  Consider this remark from a Schumpeter column in The Economist during December 2011. “American professors of literature crank out 70,000 scholarly publications a year, compared with 13,757 in 1959. Most of these simply moulder: Mark Bauerlein of Emory University points out that, of the 16 research papers produced in 2004 by the University of Vermont’s literature department, a fairly representative institution, 11 have since received between zero and two citations. The time wasted writing articles that will never be read cannot be spent teaching.” 

The World Economic Forum suggests the Covid-19 crisis is the world’s biggest psychology experiment, see https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/this-is-the-psychological-side-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-that-were-ignoring/.  Let’s hope this produces more valid outcomes than, say, the famous Zimbardo Stamford prisoner, see https://www.simplypsychology.org/zimbardo.html, and Milgram’s electric shock, see https://www.simplypsychology.org/milgram.html, experiments.

Gallup have issued a report that is worth reading, “A Leader’s Guide to Developing a Work From Home Strategy”, which you can download at https://www.gallup.com/workplace/310988/covid-19-working-from-home-guide.aspx. It considers both the nature of work and where it is most optimally conducted as well as the nature of people.

How can leaders be more pragmatic in the application of science and research to cure the growing onset of declining mental health and wellbeing in the workplace?  Rooted in the founding principles of organisational psychology are remedial approaches that remain valid and practical. 

In reviewing some of this early research, one name is prominent, that of Kurt Lewin, see https://www.verywellmind.com/kurt-lewin-biography-1890-1947-2795540. He remarked, “There is nothing so practical as good theory.”  

Culture and/or climate

The concepts of organisational culture and climate were devised during the 1930s.  In simple terms, culture was defined as “How things are done here”, whereas climate was defined as, “How it feels to work here”.  So, perhaps, you can boil down these terms to “outcome” and “people”.  Almost a century on from this initial research, the word culture is used far more than climate.  In so being, has far too little attention been paid to the wellbeing of employees and is it only now in this virus infected crisis that some much needed concern is starting to be paid? 

This interplay between the concern for what is done and how people feel is illustrated in Blake and Mouton’s managerial grid[2], see illustration below. 

Putting people as far ahead in priority over process or outcome is as harmful as the prevailing reversal of those priorities; things may become lackadaisical, unchallenging, less disruptive.  Far better to harness the two horses’ cumulative power to create a workplace in which people want to spend time.  A recent report in the Sunday Times suggested this is not the case. 

Entitled “Our future after coronavirus lockdown begins to take shape: a marathon game of whack-a-mole”, the article included this comment, “In the cabinet video conference, Johnson made clear that the number of people not going to work had surprised his team. “Boris said something like: ‘The opportunity not to work was well and truly taken,’” a source present said”, see https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/our-future-after-coronavirus-lockdown-begins-to-take-shape-a-marathon-game-of-whack-a-mole-pw3vc8pmm

Why are 21st century workplaces apparently such unappealing places to be? 

The situation is in constant flux

Workplaces comprise a great many varied different situations, which segues nicely into another of Kurt Lewin’s barnstorming contributions to managerial and leadership science.  This is his environment formula, which states that Behaviour is a function of Personality and Situation, or more mathematically, B = f (P + S). 

Firstly, this makes clear that delivered behaviour is distinct from personality.  (Ideally, one should never recruit for personality but for defined behaviour, which is another topic for discussion at a different time.)  Sometimes required behaviour is matched by underlying personality.  Very often it is not.  Are people “faking it, to make it” or are they demonstrating conscious competence in the required behaviours?

Faking it, or coping, is unsustainable; even in the days of the “old normal” pre-Covid-19 or SARS-CoV-2 it was draining and debilitating.  Under the current challenging conditions, the duration in which anyone can fake, or cope is much reduced.  Even the most consummate actor (and that word is scattered through the psychology literature) needs to “rest” (correct Charlie Walker-Wise?).

In having moved many people to work from home, another challenge looms post lockdown in bringing them back together into the workplace.  Pleasingly, in some instances some people have become comfortable blurring the boundaries between work and home, see this BBC News report about Sierra Leone’s education minister, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-52487213

Furthermore, the marvellous Mac Macartney reminds us that centuries ago Native American tribes held their council meetings in front of their children because they recognised this would influence them to consider the impact of their decisions across those children’s lifespan not just their own, see https://macmacartney.com/portfolio/thechildrensfire/.

Hork or Wome?

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is reported saying that half of Facebook employees will work permanently from home within a decade (he also suggests this offers opportunity for the firm to cut their pay because their cost of living will be reduced in not having to fund the daily commute), see https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/may/21/facebook-coronavirus-remote-working-policy-extended-years

HR Magazine reports that a “majority of UK workers say they work effectively from home”, see https://www.hrmagazine.co.uk/article-details/majority-of-uk-workers-say-they-work-effectively-from-home/354083/?utm_content=Majority%20of%20UK%20workers%20say%20they%20work%20effectively%20from%20home&utm_campaign=HR21MAY20&utm_source=HR%20Magazine&utm_medium=adestra_email&utm_term=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.hrmagazine.co.uk%2Farticle-details%2Fmajority-of-uk-workers-say-they-work-effectively-from-home%2F%24AMF_FIELD_mab_userid%24%2F

Should leadership attention now be aimed at managing a hybrid workplace in which more people more often oscillate from working remotely to working together in a physical location?  To achieve this “new normal”, what needs to be understood about the “actors” and their needs?

In part two of this article, posted as a separate blog, I offer my thoughts on that issue. 


[1] Anderson, N., Herriot, P., & Hodgkinson, G.P. (2001).  The practitioner-research divide in Industrial, Work and Organizational (IWO) Psychology: where are we know, and where do we go from here? Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 74, 391 – 411

[2] The Leadership Grid® figure from “Leadership Dilemmas – Grid Solutions,” by Robert R. Blake and Anne Adams McCanse (formerly the Managerial Grid by Robert R. Blake and Jane S. Mouton). Houston: Gulf Publishing Company, Copyright 1991 by Grid International, Inc.

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