Through a variety of RSS feeds and twitter connections I hit upon a post on Punk Rock HR - a blog by Laurie Ruettimann - entitled "Psychology of Work." The title does little to communicate the real question she posits in the post. From the post:
Leaving those questions unanswered in the balance of the post, she does say that...
Specifically she mentions decisions made based on the results of personality tests used during the hiring process. Then, in a somewhat non sequitur fashion, she bounces back to another topic, saying (and I'm paraphrasing here) - that work is work and don't bother to use any "soft science" stuff like psychology to engage me - just fire me if I'm not doing the job.
What's more interesting in my mind is the flow of comments on the post - over 30 at last count - quite a few for a short rant on whether psychology should be used as a tool within the business world. The comments swing from "Laurie- Can I just get an “amen”??!! You are right on" - to - "That said using any information to help us understand behaviour, motivation and drive can only be positive. The assertion that work is purely a transfer of money for skills is far too simplistic and if I dare say it somewhat naive."
As you would expect, this entire discussion caught my eye since I spend most, if not all of my time helping companies craft approaches that help engage, reinforce and guide employee, channel and consumer behaviors. Our approach uses a lot of concepts and research that are grounded in motivation, social psychology and behavioral economics (soft science according to Laurie.)
Here's my response to the questions that started the original post...
Is psychology a science?
It does follow the scientific method but does not result in "laws" or "axioms" that can be used to predict behavior like the laws of the physical world (ie: speed of light.) This is where I think a lot of folks get bungled up - they are looking for those three laws of psychology that will predict all behavior. But they don't exist. As Jason said in his comment on the original post - principles of behavior apply at the population level but not at the individual level - you can't predict with 100% accuracy how one person will respond to a specific stimulus. Due to the fact that we have free will and because we're prone to irrationality - outcomes can vary. If someone is looking at psychology as a way to absolutely predict behavior - move on - you won't find it there. You can find some statistically significant tactics that on the whole - will influence behavior in a general direction.
Does psychology have a role at work?
Absolutely. As managers (or any employee) within a company we either have a fiduciary responsibility to the shareholder (public companies) or the owners (private companies) to leverage available tactics to drive the greatest return on their money. I'll say this now to eliminate the natural response to that statement - WITHIN CURRENT MORAL BOUNDARIES. So don't throw up some lame fact about child labor or fraud. To ignore the application of proven tools to drive performance would mean cheating the investors.
Is it appropriate to use psychological information and data to engineer a more efficient work environment?
Absolutely - as long as you're not using individual specific data - ie: Changing pay or other reward mechanisms because you know someone has a gambling problem. But in general, as stated above, using psychological influence principles is the right thing to do - within reason (again, MORAL BOUNDARIES.)
In addition to my point of view there are a couple of good rebuttals to the initial post:
Would love to hear your take on this as well...
But let's not fall into this trap...
When I first read through the post and the comments I got the feeling I was in the old Monty Python skit about the guy who goes for an argument but all he gets is contradiction.
Watch the video and enjoy! (RSS readers will need to click through for the video.)