01 Jul 2020

Psychology at work

The use of psychology at work helps us to understand work behaviour and how it can be influenced by the interaction of an employee with other employees and the employees with an employer. Psychology is critical in all possible institutions as it aids in supporting, motivating, and developing employees. Work is good for mental health, however when an environment is toxic, this then leads to problems and fulfills the opposite. The workplace is quite a stressful setting more often than not, and this impinges on job satisfaction, productivity, and retention.

Being liked, accepted, and cohesion is a desire many humans feel in their personal life and also in the work life. Not many have the mindset of ‘I don’t want to be liked’, maybe Charles Montgomery “Monty” Burns (Mr. Burns from the Simpsons), but usually these characters are only found in cartoons – or not. A secret ingredient to succeed in the place of work and be liked is when starting employment in a new company one needs to be caring, approachable, empathic, and warm. At the same time be competent in one’s role within the company. It is said that it is important to first be seen as warm, and then competent, not vice versa. The rationale behind this is that the person is not perceived as a threat or that he/she will inflict harm. Hence the person is liked. Then when the person is competent in what she/he has been employed to do, then the person is liked even more. This is known as the ‘Stereotype Content Model’ that was proposed in 2002 by Susan Fiske, a Professor of Psychology. When these traits are present people are more prone to feel comfortable and secure in confining to this person and in fact most excel at being leaders.

A perfect example of this is Baymax from ‘Big Hero 6’. Baymax is a fictional superhero, at first sight by his demeanor – plus-sized inflatable robot, he appears to be huggable and comforting (warm) but he has phenomenal strength, amazing surveillance and data analysis capabilities (competence). Maybe fist bumping your colleagues following by a falalala will make you likeable or dumb should they not know the context. A warm person is perceived as caring and respectful, thus people develop a liking towards the individual and build a bond.

People, unconsciously and sometimes consciously, mimic the behaviour of others; gestures, behaviours, facial expressions, speech and movements. This is evident not just in parents and children but this phenomenon is present in many other social settings even between adults who are formed and have adopted their own ways. Psychologists call this ‘the copycat syndrome’. This can be wisely used by leaders to reinforce the desired behaviours first of all by setting an example and secondly by recognising and rewarding. This type of positive reinforcement when applied, will strengthen future behavior as the focus sits on what is done right.

Here are five key tips for effective delivery of positive reinforcement;

  • Make it personal – whatever you decide to give, customise it and make sure it means something to the person receiving it.
  • Make it immediate – the more time goes by the less effective it will be. Picture it; your dog just made a poop on the carpet in the living room. If you leave days and then scold your dog for that poop in the living room, I can guarantee you that scolding was futile and the dog has no idea what was the cause for your scolding. The dog would think that something wrong has been done at the time of the scolding. This could create confusion, since the dog may have behaved properly at the time of the scolding. Thus obtaining the reverse effect the scolding was meant to obtain. Same goes for reinforcing a behaviour.
  • Make it frequent – if reinforcement is done correctly this can never be too much. Employees will appreciate this and will make sure that they continue this behaviour since it’s acknowledged frequently.
  • Whenever you can – make it social. As mentioned before, people mimic the behaviour of others. Thus when the behaviour is applauded many will make sure to get applauded too.
  • Make it earned – set OKRs (objective and key results) or KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) to make it contingent on accomplishment.

When employees are discontent you can start noticing higher absenteeism rates, the employees that used to take initiatives have now adopted the laid back approach. It is very unlikely to bring these employees back to shore. Psychology is a powerful tool for human behaviour and if used wisely in a timely manner it can do wonders. It is ok not to be an expert, one can always seek advice from professionals.