What occupational psychologists get up to in January

Happy New Year!

This week I’ve had the pleasure of spending three days at the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology annual conference, held at the East Midlands Conference Centre in Nottingham. It’s the first time that I’ve attended and it was fascinating to listen to the breadth of the research being presented. It was also good to meet up with a number of past and present Leicester students as being on a distance learning course you don’t really get much of a chance to do this otherwise. Even more encouraging was that three recently graduated Leicester MSc students presented the results of their dissertation research to the conference, reinforcing the value of the course. Hopefully I’ll be able to do the same at some point in the future – if I manage to execute my own dissertation research well enough.

The conference timetable was HUGE!

2016 DOP conference timetable

In the end, I managed to attend around 25-30 different sessions, with the highlights for me including:

  • The keynote presentation from Professor Steve Peters on optimising the performance of the human mind. In recent years, Steve has worked with a number of high-profile sportspeople, but freely admits that he isn’t really all that interested in sport. Instead, he’s able to help them understand the way that their minds work, enabling them to cope with the irrational and fast acting ‘inner chimp’ that he claims is inside us all. While the keynote wasn’t filmed, he has previously presented a 10 minute summary of his ideas in a TEDx talk from 2012.
  • The symposium of five papers on the impact of technology on work-life balance, which provided some very useful material for thinking about my current module assignment as well as complementing the material in the paper presented by The Future Work Centre on the impact of email pressure. You might have seen Richard MacKinnon, one of its authors, on television or in the press talking about their research early in January.
  • The fringe event delivered by Rob Bailey on the secret science of mind reading. I now know that I’m just as blind to really obvious changes in the environment as everyone else is. I also picked up a couple of tricks that I might be able to impress my work colleagues with – if I can get a large enough group of them together!
  • … and of course, being able to successfully navigate my way around the huge agenda and conference centre to see a couple of the Leicester MSc student presentations – thank you Karen and Melvyn for sharing your research into teacher wellbeing and workplace bullying respectively, and my apologies to Melissa for somehow managing to miss yours.

If you’d like to see what others thought of the conference, searching through the #dopconf hashtag on twitter will give you a good impression of the event.

It was definitely one of the friendliest conferences that I’ve attended and the ambassador programme they run for first time attendees like me was a great way to break the ice and meet new people (Thanks Angie!).

Next year’s conference is in Liverpool between 4th – 6th January and I certainly hope to be there.

A version of this article was previously published at the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 9th January 2016.

My 2016 target: one word every two minutes

It’s been a busy month – probably the busiest of the course so far. The deadline for the penultimate module, on Training and Development, came and went on 12th November, with the deadline for the dissertation proposal following just 4 weeks later on 10th December. I’m glad to report that I made both deadlines, but I do feel like I’ve barely moved outside of my study at weekends for the last 3 months. Looking at the weather outside this afternoon and listening to reports about the centre of Derby being overrun with festive shoppers, I guess that may not be a bad thing. A bah humbug to you all.

The final module (excluding the dissertation) – The Individual at Work – is now underway. It has an assignment focussed on psychological stress and I suspect that most of us on the course feel that we’re fairly well acquainted with the concept after the last few weeks. Stress is one of those areas of psychology where there seems to be lots of research and also widely varying opinions – even about something as fundamental as its definition. I think I’m going to need a lot of A3 paper to help me map out the debates and approaches to the subject if I’m going to successfully figure out how best to tackle the assignment, which consists of a 1,600 word consultancy report and a related 1,600 word academic essay.

Perhaps bizarrely, knowing how long it takes me to write assignments and how many drafts I usually create before I’m happy with them (8 seems to be my average), it’s the word count figures that are keeping me motivated at the moment. I only have to find another 12,200 perfectly crafted words to finish the course now. My course calendar suggests that I have 510 hours of study left to complete, so that’s only 24 words an hour – less than one every 2 minutes. How hard can that be?!

So for the next few months, that’s what I’ll be thinking about. I’ll be quietly telling myself that I can definitely come up with one good word every two minutes, even if most of them really get written in the last few hours …

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 13th December 2015.

Ethics: not just a checklist

“The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.”


General Norman Schwarzkopf

The British Psychological Society introduces its resources on ethics by stating that they are “… central to everything we do whether in research or practice”. They’ve certainly been front and centre for me over the last few days in the context of planning the research for my dissertation.

I’ve been trying to make sure that my proposal adequately addresses the ethical standards that the university expects us to comply with. I’m hopeful that what I’m proposing will prove to be relatively unproblematic. I’m not going to use deception in my research (I’m not Milgram), nor am I going to set participant against participant (I’m definitely not Zimbardo). But even though I won’t be emulating their practices, which seem hopelessly unethical by today’s standards, I still have a duty to make sure that I try to protect me and my participants from any unintended consequences that may arise from my research. So I’ve been taking ethical considerations seriously in my design, rather than viewing it as simply a checklist to get through.

Most of my ethical concerns are around making sure that I have permission from the organisation I’m working with to gain access to participants and data, that the research setting I use for interviews is safe and comfortable, that I take adequate precautions to protect participant confidentiality and that the electronic and physical security of the data I collect is assured.

Paraphrasing the words of General Schwarzkopf, I hope that I’ve figured out the right things to do – and that I remember to do them in the midst of the battle that juggling study, work, family and health will undoubtedly be in 2016.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 2nd December 2015.

Dissertation proposal progress

I’ve just realised that it’s been rather a long time since I wrote about the progress of my dissertation proposal. August, to be precise. So with the deadline for submission rapidly approaching and making that gut-wrenching, whistling, wooshing noise that all deadlines seem to make, it means that it’s probably time to update you on my progress.

I’ve taken my own advice from August to heart and I’ve wisely decided not to boil the ocean. Having originally approached the dissertation with the vague idea of doing some research into the factors that affect the performance of salespeople (I now realise after much reading and thought that such a list is quite likely to be an infinite one), I think that I’ve finally ended up with a reasonably focused research question to investigate.

That’s good news, but perhaps what is less good news is my belief that the research question I’ve chosen lends itself to a qualitative, interpretative and post-modernist approach. While I’m excited about my research and the way in which I plan to do it, I’m still somewhat concerned that I didn’t force myself to come up with what would have been – for me – a much simpler quantitative, experimental and modernist approach. Oh well. Only time will tell if my social constructionist convictions have written a cheque that I won’t be able to cash.

I’ve a bit of fine tuning to complete on the proposal (and especially on my project plan) over the next couple of weeks. I’ll then be able to take a bit of a break from study over Christmas before the reality of the research process kicks in again early on in the New Year.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 22nd November 2015.

The three laws of study

I’m pleased to report that I’ve just submitted my training and development assignment. It’s a relief, as today was the last day that I had available for study before Thursday’s deadline. It’s also somewhat frustrating, as my plan called for it to have been completed three weeks ago, to leave me ample time to comfortably finish off my dissertation proposal which is due in early December.

Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

I’ve particularly enjoyed hitting the ‘submit’ button on this assignment, as it’s the first I’ve completed since my unexpected year out due to ill-health. But it’s taken so long to get it finished!

Parkinson’s Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

While I’ve enjoyed the process of researching the content that’s gone into it, my academic writing skills feel decidedly rusty. This assignment has taken me 11 complete revisions (plus drafts of the various parts of it) before I felt that I could do no more. When I was properly into the swing of the course, I reckoned on around 5 or so as being sufficient.

Newell & Rosenblom’s Power Law of Practice: The logarithm of the reaction time for a particular task decreases linearly with the logarithm of the number of practice trials taken.

But with these three laws of study lined up against me, I guess I should be grateful that I managed to get it done at all!

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 8th November 2015.

You’re fired! Why “The Apprentice” wasn’t all about negotiation this week

One of my guilty pleasures is watching “The Apprentice”. It’s back on our screens at the moment and this week’s episode featured one of my favourite tasks – the scavenger hunt. The teams were asked to source nine different items, at the lowest possible cost, and deliver them back to the boardroom. This year’s twist was that some members of each team were sent to France, with the others remaining in Kent.

One of the things that always strikes me about the scavenger hunt is the claim often made by the contestants (and sometimes by the people in the boardroom who really should know better) is that the heart of the task is all about negotiation. However, that’s not really the case.

Firstly, this task is about good research and planning. Lord Sugar rightly lambasted the teams for not doing this well enough, even though (unusually) they had been given several hours to think this through before being let loose on unsuspecting sellers. You need a ‘plan A’ for each item, but having a ‘plan B’ (and even a plan C or D) is useful too. Psychological flexibility – having the courage to dump plan A when it doesn’t work out – is really important here. But of course, in an artificial environment like The Apprentice where everyone is out for themselves (it’s a zero sum game after all, as there can only be one winner); flexibility is often constructed as weakness.

Secondly, it’s about thinking rationally. While there’s a fixed penalty of £50 for each item missed, there’s a variable penalty added on depending on the market value of the item too. So it’s worthwhile investing more time in finding the higher value items. It’s usually the case that the lower value items are easier to source anyway – a quick trip to any market or supermarket in France would have rapidly netted 3 of the 9 this time around (mussels, snails and cheese). And if you’re going to spend time haggling over the cost of an item, it’s better to spend that time doing it well for a few percentage points off something costing £250, than failing to get a discount off something sold for €15. Especially if the person making the purchase doesn’t speak French very well!

Thirdly, the contestants usually mistake haggling for negotiation. They sometimes remember to ask for a discount, but they’re not in a position to make concessions on the quality of the item (who will ever forget the paper skeleton saga from last year’s show), when it can be delivered to them (they have an immovable deadline), what publicity they might give the seller (the BBC has editorial control) the form of payment offered (it’s cash now, take it or leave it) and so on. They don’t really have anything to negotiate with. Business negotiations are invariably more flexible and complex affairs that provide lasting value to both parties. Once you’ve recognised that you’re actually haggling, rather than negotiating, the best thing to do is to politely ask for a ridiculously large discount to start off with and then cajole the seller into revealing their hand. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Ultimately however, successful candidates on The Apprentice understand how language can be used to justify their own actions and blame others, in the context of the expectations that Lord Sugar and his team have. This week’s unsuccessful project manager understood this only too well (Lord Sugar has often said that he detests non-triers), so although she failed on most aspects of planning, flexibility and rationality during the task, she successfully positioned herself as a trier. The contestant Lord Sugar eventually fired was positioned as the non-trier, and so lost.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 23rd October 2015.

Post-40 Bloggers

Taking the plunge and registering for DOP conference

A year ago I mulled over whether or not it would be worth the investment to go to Glasgow in January 2015 for the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology conference – or DOP conference for short. In the end I wasn’t able to go because of ill health, but having spoken to a couple of fellow students who did go, I wish that I could have gone. So with the January 2016 DOP conference being held in Nottingham, I’ve decided to take the plunge and register. The location means that I won’t have to pay for accommodation because I’m fortunate enough to live in nearby Derby.

The three day, non-residential package for current students is £179 if your booking is received before 29th October (it increases by another £50 after that date), with the somewhat complicated application form and instructions for receiving the discounted rate available here.

As part of the event, you get to pick from a number of different workshops as well as attending the main presentations and exhibition. While I was tempted by the media training workshop, I’ve decided to attend the creativity at work one instead. First time attendees like me can also apply to become an ambassadee, where a seasoned OP professional helps to ensure that you get the best out of the event and the networking opportunities it presents.

I’m excited to be going – at last – and I’m looking forward to providing a report of the event here afterwards.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 26th September 2015.

Why distance learning is like a spider building a web

I’m currently working through the fifth of my modules on the occupational psychology masters – on training and development. It therefore seems appropriate to write about the way I’m thinking about my own development. If you’re not keen on spiders you may not want to read the final paragraph …

For me one of the most important things I do at the start of a module is work out the time that I have available between it opening and the date for assignment submission, once I’ve accounted for everything else. The course is meant to take around 15 hours study per week, but that’s an average. Some weeks I’m able to do more, other weeks far less. I work backwards from the end of module date to make sure that I’m leaving enough time to complete the module assignment (for example, this one requires a 3,000 word essay split into 4 related parts) and to undertake the research required to answer the question(s). I seem to need around 4 or 5 full weekends (or their equivalent) to write an assignment of this length. The rest of the time is therefore what I have available to read the module material and the associated readings, as well as following the leads to other books and papers that these signpost.

It’s following these leads and searching through the journals available in the online library that I find to be the most absorbing part of the learning process as it’s where the surprises come from. For example, during this module I’ve come across a fascinating paper on the place of storytelling in adult learning (*). I’ve enjoyed reading this paper as my day job involves me helping salespeople communicate the value of our company’s products and services to potential customers. One of the most effective ways of doing this has always seemed to me to be through telling stories about what other organisations have achieved with our help. Often, that’s all some customers want to hear, instead of going through deck after deck of expensively crafted powerpoint slides from the marketing department. It’s always nice to read something from the world of academia that backs up 20+ years of gut feel!

So to help you understand the distance learning process, here’s a story.

Picture yourself as a spider. Working through each module is rather like building a web. The radials and the centre of the web come from reading and working with the module units, associated readings and the recommended course books. This part is spun first. Around the outer reaches of the web is the material found in journals, along with the threads that link the current module to earlier ones, the knowledge gained from earlier study and your experience of life. Completing the module assignment is you, the spider, pulling all of these threads together in a particular direction to enable the question to be answered.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 20th September 2015.

(*) Caminotti, E & Gray, J (2012). The effectiveness of storytelling on adult learning, Journal of Workplace Learning, 24(6), 430-438.

5 things you used to need to survive university

One of the posts that I most enjoyed reading last month was written by Lois, called 5 Things You Actually Need to Survive University. Her advice seems sound to me, so if you’re looking for things that might be useful to you as a fresher you really should go there, rather than carry on reading this.

However, Lois’s post made me feel nostalgic for September 1982, which is when I first went to university. This is my equivalent list of five “must haves” from the era of tightly permed hair, legwarmers and space invader machines.

Univeristy of Warwick - Knightcote 123, October 1982
A blurry picture of my room in university halls, 1982, before I realised that I definitely needed my black and white tv and record player to survive (you might just be able to see my cassette tape deck by the orange lamp)

Netflix subscription Portable black and white television. There was no internet (outside of the computer science labs) so one of these providing access to BBC1, BBC2 and ITV, plus membership of the film society, was essential to satisfy the day to day entertainment needs of the 80s student.

Spotify subscription Record player and records. Music was bulky in the 1980s. You needed seriously well-developed muscles to move the stuff around, unless you were fortunate enough to own one of the new-fangled ‘Walkmans’. A (smallish) record player, plus a case of 20 or so LPs was about all that I could fit into my parents’ car after the real essentials had been loaded up.

Unlimited minutes A stock of phonecards. BT phonecards were revolutionary in the early 1980s as they meant that you didn’t have to carry a large stack of coins (of precisely the right value) around with you to use the hall payphone. Phonecards are long gone of course – the last BT payphone that took them was withdrawn from service in the early 2000s. And even if you had remembered to buy one, you still had to have the patience to queue behind many, many other students to use them.

Alarm clock Alarm clocks. The plural ‘s’ was vitally important to the 80s student, as no alarm clock of the period had more than one alarm you could set. It was worse if you only had a wind-up alarm clock (rather than a nice radio alarm tuned into the university radio station of course) as you had to remember to set them in the 12 hours before you needed to wake up. So having 2 or 3 different alarm clocks was essential, particularly during exam periods.

Coffee. The one thing that unites the 1982 and 2015 student is coffee. Lots of it. I’m still drinking far too much of the stuff now. And even mature, distance learning students like me still need it.

For those of you who have made it to the end of this and are due to start at Leicester in the next few days, welcome. I’m sure you’ll have a great time. Don’t forget to bring your legwarmers …


This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 4th September 2015.

What have the psychologists ever done for us?

There’s a wonderfully thought-provoking piece that’s been published on The British Psychological Society’s website in the last few days called “Where is psychology’s non-stick frying pan?“. I’d encourage everyone to read Phil Banyard’s article in full, but if you’re in a hurry, the beginning reads rather like John Cleese’s rant asking “What have the Romans ever done for us” in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, only for a large number of examples to be offered.

Roman Road in Nora, Sardinia 2015
One of the roads that the Romans built in Nora, Sardinia

Phil does concede that even if psychologists can’t point to vast numbers of discoveries or inventions like other scientific disciplines, psychology has at least enabled us to explain our existence in non-superstitious and non-religious ways in what has become an increasingly secular world.

It’s not the first time that questions of this kind have been asked about the value of psychology. In 1967, an American social psychologist, Kenneth Ring, concluded that the subject was in intellectual disarray(*) as practitioners appeared to spend most of their efforts devising laboratory experiments that were divorced from any kind of social context, as well as delighting in the publication of counter-intuitive, but trivial, findings. His paper was a precursor to much discussion about a crisis in social psychology, with one of the responses to it being the development of critical social psychology. Unlike the experimental tradition, critical social psychology disciplines all emphasise the importance of creating understandings of individuals situated in their social and historical settings, as well as taking into account the way that other people influence us, our multiple identities and how discourse positions individuals in society(+).

The occupational psychology field isn’t immune to the same kind of challenges. For example, I recently came across a study from the mid 1990s that produced some startlingly counter-intuitive findings about the way salespeople and customers interact. On closer inspection however, the paper described a laboratory experiment where a number of college students role-played at being salespeople and customers for a couple of minutes. So there was no real commerce taking place, the salespeople weren’t salespeople, the customers weren’t really buying anything and the timescale of the interaction was too short to be meaningful. Yet this study had been published by a respected peer reviewed journal and had been subsequently cited by a number of other authors. It’s moments like these where I do have some sympathy with the argument that psychologists really haven’t delivered very much in the way of truly meaningful insights over the last century or so.

And yet, there is much of value that has come from occupational psychological research. For example graphology and unstructured interviews have been shown to be useless or poor recruitment tools. The development of understandings about how leaders and their followers can become more effective in the workplace have resulted in more profitable organisations. Improved methods of training and development in the workplace have resulted in more competent employees.

While all of these things may not be as immediately tangible as having access to a good non-stick frying pan to use when I want to rustle up my dinner, their importance should not be underestimated.

So what has psychology ever done for you – or what do you wish that it could do?


This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 23rd August 2015.


(*) Ring, K. (1967). Experimental social psychology: some sober questions about some frivolous values, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 3, 113-123.

(+) Hollway, W. (2007). Social Psychology: Past and Present. In Hollway, W., Lucey, H. & Phoenix, A. (Eds.), Social Psychology Matters (pp. 1-32). Maidenhead: Open University Press.