Exploring some big concepts from the world of psychology to make sense of this thing we call work.

One of the common themes of our team, and the people we work with, is an interest in what makes people tick. If we can stretch that out to understand all people – those that  go beyond what anyone ever thought humanly possible, achieve more than the science says anyone ever could, and on the flip side, deeply understand how others, by circumstance, lived experience, or some other unknown factor, can sink so deep, and fall so low, that the darkness envelopes their very being.

On an underlying basis, we are all human. We have a lot of differences, and we have a lot of similarities too. Maybe this common ground of wanting to learn these things is really just the application of empathy, but this week I wanted to write down a few of our favourite psychological phenomena.

The summaries of each concept are just that, plus we’ve added our take on each as they relate to work. And, we firmly believe they will be interesting whether you are studying, working in a team, not currently working, running large companies or small, working in HR or not.

So, enjoy my take on some of these observed behaviours, patterns and models that make one, many or few of us tick…

Looking at ‘difference’ to understand the positive and the challenging

‘Abnormal Psychology’.

What we learn from this whole expression is the application of clinical psychology (and the need to maybe pick better ‘labels’ if we want to help get people back on track and feel better). Abnormal psychology effectively is the label given to people that are currently experiencing a psychological condition or disorder – and that is usually ‘by the book’ – the DSM 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) to be precise. And what you’ll see from the below is just how often we’ve looked at people that are struggling, to learn what we can all do to live, and work, in better ways.

Seligman – from Learned Helplessness to Learned Optimism.

A month back I saw an article from one of THE most recognised thinkers on all things work, referencing some of the amazing patterns and observations of positive psychology. This thinker had a picture of (an adorable) puppy accompanying the article. And the article used that gorgeous furball to make some highly valid points on learned optimism, the importance of mindset, the frame of positivity and an appreciation of the little things every day (like a cuddle from a puppy). These are things within our reach to change and bring to front of mind – so it resonated. We can learn to be optimistic with mindset, support networks, some reframing and reinforcement. This learned optimism is often credited to Seligman who, ironically, started his professional life understanding learned helplessness by prompting the fight or flight response in dogs…

But this isn’t an article to discredit Seligman – the opposite in fact, but the irony made me reframe some of my own thinking across a range of psychological concepts.

Kubler-Ross – from Grief to Change.

The work on grief from Kubler-Ross is powerful. It looks at the stages of grief, and commonly references 5 – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. This clearly works when big life events happen – and individuals experience these cycles at different rates, they may even skip a stage – and that same individual can experience things differently in a different event/trauma. Unsurprisingly this model has been applied to change – looking at shock, denial, frustration, depression, experimentation, decision and integration.

From Post-Traumatic Stress, to Post-Traumatic Growth.

Most of us have a working definition of post-traumatic stress, or ‘PTSD’ (post-traumatic stress disorder) – beyond the original idea of ‘shell shock’ and the scars picked up by military personnel to the recurring psychological and physical effects of trauma more broadly. From stress has come growth – the idea that significant trauma can change us for the good. Typically, psychologists look at growth as  ‘appreciation for life, relationships with others, new possibilities in life, personal strength and spiritual change’.

‘In-groups’ and ‘Out-groups’.

This one is often spoken of when we consider biases. We know that somewhere deep in human nature we like to form groups – we need to belong, to connect, to harness the benefits of being with others. We also know, that we typically like to hang out with people like us. This concept is first credited to William Sumner in the early 1900s. And it’s been applied to things like ‘in-group favouritism’, inclusion and naturally, to the field of exclusion.

So, if those observations are right,

What principles can we take from these into work?

The seesaw of n=1, n=few, n=many

This one works whatever your field. It’s a key principle of employee experience, of customer experience, of lived experience. How do we balance our own experience (N=1), and that of each individual we work alongside, against the needs of the aggregate (N=Few), and the organisation (N=Many)?

In psychology (and science more generally), there are a couple of flashy words for this.

The first is Idiographic from the Greek idios, meaning individual. This looks at how we understand unique, personal lived experiences. We know that this is key in how we design for customers and for our employees. It is key to diversity, inclusion, belonging, and our happiness at work! It’s also a key principle we bring to our work with people and organisations.

On the other side, thinking of both ‘few’ and ‘many’, we get Nomothetic. In broad strokes, this means the study of ‘laws’ – or the similarities we share, the general principles. What do we observe of people in aggregate. How do people typically behave? What do we learn? What’s useful to apply? And what is extremely dangerous to generalise?

Importantly here at mwah., we see the need to be constantly applying the balance of idiographic and nomothetic, or n=1 to n=many, to get work right. How we design it, perform it, and how we belong in it. Each of the models takes a view on what it means for individuals, and how we observe and understand these patterns at the aggregate. We facilitate based on these, we measure based on these, and we are guided by this constant balance.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast…and Belonging makes every meal count where Engagement just makes people eat a lot fast..

You may have heard the adage, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’ – a Peter Drucker favourite. In our growing body of work on Belonging, we’d suggest that Belonging is THE measure of Culture – and that IS the future of work.

Further to that, Engagement is a slowly evolving, slowly enveloping method of measuring things that came to us in the industrial age – work harder, be more productive, create more pieces, be incrementally better.

Engagement does not fit for the world we work in today, unless you want people to get indigestion. If you want to create a space where meals count, where people talk to each other at the table, Belonging is everything.

Our mindset, and attitude matters. We need something to believe in.

If we sync up Seligman’s Positive Psychology and Learned Optimism – the idea of growth and change –  with the idea of groups and belonging, it’s not a stretch to see just how much mileage we get from having the right mindset, and why us HR types keep going on about connectivity to purpose, relationships and agency. As humans at work, we simply must have something worthwhile to believe in, and the mindset that says we can get there.

When we set limits for people, they’ll meet them. If we can create guardrails and support, they’ll achieve more.

We see this behaviour in the world of work, a lot. Give people a box to tick, and they’ll tick it. Give them a goal to achieve, and they’ll do their best to achieve it. A target, a bonus structure. They’ll work to the limit – but it becomes a cap to what’s possible. When we give people more agency, without the limits but with some guardrails and support – they won’t just tick the box, they’ll draw a whole new picture. They won’t just meet the 3 goals set, they’ll go way beyond to what initially seemed impossible.

What we learn of psychology, of work, of life is that we must constantly balance one, many or few – and keep finding the balance of art and science to make work absolutely human for more people.