Think you understand the workplace? Five ways you’re probably wrong.

July 28, 2018

I like to keep up with psychology research. I feel it’s part of my responsibility as a practising psychologist to have at least some idea of the latest findings. What’s struck me recently is how often the research has confounded my thinking, suggesting something counter-intuitive. So here are five pieces of common sense, received wisdom about the workplace that recent psychological research suggests are wrong:

1. Leaders should embody their company’s culture

This is just obvious, isn’t it? What could be worse than having a leader who’s out of step with the culture of the organisation? Well in terms of the performance of the organisation, having one who’s aligned with it can be worse. If your culture is already very results-focused and a competitive, there’s little for a task-focused leader to add.  The same is true with a people-focused leader in an organisation that values relationships. Culture substitutes for leadership. According to this study, leaders should bring what’s missing. The researchers did stress that they looked at only the broad dimension of task- vs people-focus and there are ways that someone could be too misaligned. I’d imagine that a total mismatch of purpose or values may be unhelpful. But the research does reinforce the idea I’ve talked about here before that leadership requires a balance of different skills.

2. We all thrive in a co-operative workplace

Who wouldn’t want to work in an environment where people are mutually supportive and team-oriented? High performers, that’s who. A high performer in any team can be seen as an inspiration or a threat. When they’re seen as a threat, they’re more likely to be on the receiving end of negative behaviour, such as belittling comments designed to bring them down a peg or two. Research suggests that in a highly co-operative environment, star performers are more likely to be seen as a threat and to be on the receiving end of harsh treatment. If we’re concerned about the group as a whole, we’re more likely to resent someone who shows the rest of us up.

3. The best hedge fund managers are probably psychopaths

At the other end of the spectrum from the highly co-operative workplace, we have the Wolf of Wall Street. Related imageWe all know the stereotype – superficially charming, competitive, ruthless, willing to take risks, not bothered about the impact of their decisions on anyone else. We may not like them but you’ve got to admit that your archetypal psychopath makes a great investor. Except it turns out they don’t. Research tracking the performance of hedge funds over a decade found those managed by people categorised (from video footage, so there are some caveats) as displaying psychopathic behaviour performed 15% worse than average. Those managed by people displaying considerable psychopathic behaviour performed 30% worse. The researchers suggest that good hedge fund management is quite collaborative, drawing creative ideas from others in the team and that the bullying management style of the psychopath stifles this.

4. Employees should always be encouraged to be good corporate citizens

No one likes a jobsworth. Organisations don’t want people who just do their jobs exactly as dictated in the job description and nothing more. They want people to help out their colleagues, to come up with ways to improve the organisation, to be good corporate citizens. What they’re looking for is discretionary effort – effort people choose to expend above and beyond what they’re required to expend. But what happens if the pressure to behave in this way becomes so great that it no longer feels like a choice? Well, surprisingly, people can then start to feel they’ve earned the right to act badly Petty theft, cheating and rudeness may increase if people feel compelled to do good works. As the research puts it, demanding we behave like saints risks turning us into sinners.

5. Open plan offices encourage face-to-face communication

While it’s known that a lot of people don’t really like open plan offices, open plan officeat least they have the advantage of making it easier for people to talk to each other. Except they don’t. Recent research looking at organisations which moved to open plan offices found that face-to-face interactions (tracked electronically) fell by over 70%. Email and instant messaging usage went up correspondingly. It is thought that having the rest of the office listening in was the biggest inhibitor. It’s unlikely the world is going to return to private office spaces any time soon but it seems important to have places available where people can go for a quiet chat, without that being frowned upon.

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John Blower

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