Thriving at work – #DOPconf 2019 review

Shortly after I’d been discharged from hospital last September, I made a decision to attend the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychologists annual conference (DOPconf to its friends) in Chester. It was held last week, 9th to 11th January 2019, so it was a good recovery milestone to aim for. Fortunately I just about made my target – physically and mentally – even though I didn’t manage to attend all of the sessions I’d optimistically put into my diary at the start of the week.

It was particularly good to meet a number of Leicester and OU psychology alumni again. One of the media sensations of the week was the study published about the benefits of singing at work, carried out by Joanna Foster for her Leicester MSc. However, I get the feeling that if I joined a workplace choir other people may not find my dulcet tones beneficial …

The sessions I did attend at the conference were excellent. These were a few of my personal highlights.

Evidence-based (change) management

The first keynote of the conference was given by Professor Denise Rousseau of Carnegie Mellon University. EBMgt is defined as being the practice of making organisational decisions, in relation to a claim or hypothesis, based on the combination of :

  • Scientific principles and knowledge
  • Valid / relevant organisational and business facts
  • Professional expertise and critical thinking
  • Stakeholder concerns, implications and ethics

Denise argues that few organisations pay attention to the quality of the data on which they base their decisions. Fewer still assess the impact of the decisions they take. Denise suggests that the 6A decision-making process seen in medicine (ask, acquire, appraise, aggregate, apply, assess) should be used – on both the problem and solutions – to improve outcomes.

BPS DOPconf - Denise Rousseau explains why developing any management expertise is so difficult
Professor Denise Rousseau explains why developing any management expertise is so difficult. Unlike surgeons, change managers operate in unpredictable environments. They are project-centred, so have little opportunity to develop their skills with the same group of people for long periods. Because of the lack of assessed outcomes, they rarely receive feedback useful for their development.

Solving the right problem(s) and considering multiple solutions (rather than asking the question “should we do x or nothing”) is more likely to result in effective change. Furthermore, systematic reviews demonstrate that a bundle of interventions rather than implementing a single “silver bullet” is best.

The Center for Evidence-Based Management has a wealth of resources available to support organisations in adopting this approach.

Work engagement in cancer survivors

A paper presented by Andrew Parsons from the University of Hertfordshire. It was of personal interest to me as I’m in the process of returning to work after treatment. Self-report questionnaires to measure work engagement, quality of working life and psychological capital, plus semi-structured interviews analysed using interpretative phenomenological analysis were used in the study. It was unsurprising, if comforting, that measures of psychological capital were strongly correlated with quality of working life scores.

Of most interest to me were the reports of interview participants talked about the importance of developing a “new model of me” and the resources that either helped or hindered their response to events as they returned to work. The “new normal or new me” theme is one I’ve heard many MCL survivors talk about. However, I’m not convinced that the experience of treatment has changed me all that much – at least, not yet.

The influence of work on personality development and change through life

This keynote was presented by Professor Stephen Woods of the University of Surrey. I became familiar with some of his work while studying for my masters and it was good to put a face to the name. He presented evidence which questions the long-held view of many psychologists that personality traits remain fixed and stable during adulthood. Instead, he suggested that they were dynamic and contingent on the work context. The social constructionist and critical psychologist in me grinned broadly as he concluded his talk.

The evidence base is growing - personality changes as we learn and develop over our lives
The evidence base is growing – personality changes as we learn and develop over our lives.
Cynicism in organisations – the antithesis of thriving?

Having confessed that I’m not convinced by personality psychometrics, I also admit that I’m not convinced by so-called authentic leadership. I once wrote that adopting authentic leadership would lead to a highly dysfunctional organisation and burned-out individuals. I still stand by every word of my argument.

It was therefore fascinating to hear Zoe Sanderson from Bristol University compare the traditional view of organisational cynicism with that from critical management theory. Traditional organisational psychology usually constructs cynicism at work as being wholly negative and coming from the individual. “Cynicism can take down an entire organisation”.

Critical management studies takes a different perspective and argues that cynicism is a predictable outcome of many working environments. Furthermore, cynicism can be seen as employees protecting their identity. This helps to reduce any cognitive dissonance stemming from organisational propaganda, enabling them to remain engaged and productive. Zoe’s work on cynicism is at an exploratory stage and I look forward to seeing it progressing.

How do you spot an organisational psychopath … and what do you do next?

Having written earlier that I’m not much of a fan of personality psychometrics, I do love ‘dark triad’ papers. Lorraine Falvey said that the literature suggests there is an increasing level of malevolent behaviour reported at work. Her personal frustration is that most studies into organisational psychopathy either use students as participants, or cover a very narrow workforce, such as police officers. Her study used a qualitative, thematic analysis of interviews with 15 experienced, cross-industry sector participants. It suggests that there is a spectrum of potentially malevolent behaviours – from influencing, through manipulation, to verbal and physical threats. Lorraine argued that organisational leaders need to:

  • Be aware of the shadow you cast as a leader – it is an important factor in what others consider to be acceptable behaviour.
  • Think about the unintended consequences of (poorly designed) rewards.
  • Be clear about individual roles and responsibilities, as clarity seems to mitigate poor behaviour. Matrix organisations are therefore seen as being at particular risk.
Leading with purpose: How to lift people, performance and the planet, profitably

An excellent interactive workshop to end the conference, run by Sarah Rozenthuler and Victoria Hurth. We were given an overview of what purpose in business is, and how purpose is distinct from corporate social responsibility, sustainability, mission and vision. Command and control vs purpose-led leadership paradigms were discussed, and the four capacities necessary for purpose-led leadership defined. From my own business value consulting perspective, the tangible benefits claimed for this approach look extraordinary and are worthy of urgent further investigation.

As I was flagging at this point on the Friday afternoon I’ve been particularly glad of the handouts provided. One of the handouts, “The what, the why and the how of purpose: a guide for leaders“, published by The Chartered Management Institute, has been particularly useful in enabling my reflections.

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