It’s impossible to be in the business world each day and not feel psychology at work. Each of us brings our human nature to a job — regardless of our title, expertise or organizational setting.
Leaders who value the psychological aspects of work life are much more likely to gain trust and inspire top performance from their teams.
These concepts may seem simple, but they can complicate workplace dynamics, and their impact is often measurable. That’s why they deserve attention from anyone who works with and through others to achieve business goals.
Are you thinking today’s leaders already “get it”? If so, this may surprise you…
Leadership Has Evolved? Not So Fast
Recently, the Wall Street Journal published an article, “Now You Know Why Your Boss Is Such An Ape.” It reminds us of how strong and predictable the force of nature can be — especially in a business context. It can be easy to forget that we’re animals — yet we share 99.9% of our genes with apes. In fact, if we compare their behavioral patterns with ours, the similarities are striking.
For example, in both cases, leaders often act cold, or even show disrespect to subordinates in an effort to claim dominance as the “alpha male.” On the other hand, those same leaders are likely to display an incredible amount of respect when interacting with their superiors.
8 Key Behavioral Concepts For Leaders
Psychology offers many more striking insights. Here are 8 that should serve every leader well. It’s not important to remember the terms — but if you remember the concepts, you’ll have a clear advantage in the world of work:
1) Observational Learning
Human learning begins with observation. This is vital for leaders to remember, because employees tend do what you do, not what you say. Those who look up to you will want to model themselves after you. And if your words and actions don’t align, the consequences can harm your organizational culture.
This kind of behavior starts early in humans, as was illustrated in the famous Bobo doll experiment — where children were asked to spend time in a room with an adult. After witnessing the adult display aggressively and verbally abusive behavior toward the doll, children acted in a similar way.
2) Social Contagion
This is the theory of how ideas and emotions spread and go viral. It’s important to recognize this tendancy, especially within a company culture. If a few employees become disengaged, the negativity can spread across the entire company quicker than you might expect.
This concept was illustrated in a University of Michigan study that monitored the spread of eating disorders throughout college campuses. It’s important to look for early signals and work proactively to reverse the impact.
Groupthink can be particularly dangerous, so it’s important to remain alert. It’s tricky, because team building activities are beneficial, but too much cohesion can be detrimental.
Groupthink tends to surface when teams take on a mind of their own — usually because members want to avoid conflict within the group. This leads to poor decision making, because groups don’t fully evaluate circumstances, and members are influenced by the rest of the group to comply.
Sometimes groupthink can be an unintended consequence of brainstorming. Rather than creating an atmosphere where multiple participants are inspired to generate a broader spectrum of creative ideas, the brainstorming process itself dampens the creativity of each member.
4) Minimal Group Paradigm
We’ve all seen “cliques” develop in schools and other social environments — that’s essentially minimal group paradigm in action. It’s about arbitrary distinctions between groups (for example, differences in the color of clothing) that lead people to favor one group over another.
Of course, harmful cliques can develop among adults in corporate cultures. However, leaders can avoid this by encouraging team building that reaches across arbitrary boundaries, and supports everyone as part of the same larger group.
5) Social Loafing
Initially I assumed this was about people who lie on the couch while browsing on Facebook — but it’s really much more interesting than that. Over 100 years ago, a study found that people put in 50% less effort when playing tug of war in a team of 8 compared to playing it alone. In other words, we tend to slack off when our efforts can’t be distinguished from the efforts of our teammates.
As important as team building is, autonomy and individuality is an important way to keep people motivated. This sounds counter-intuitive to need for humans to feel they belong to groups. However, there’s a delicate balance between motivating humans as individuals and as team members.
6) Stanford Prison Experiment
This is one my favorite lessons from the realm of psychology. In a Stanford University experiment, participants were assigned roles as prisoners and prison guards in a pseudo prison environment. Guard adapted to their new roles much quicker than expected, and guards became very authoritative and abusive toward prisoners.
This is obviously important for leaders to understand, because job roles clearly have an effect on our perception of ourselves and others. Be careful how you assign titles and responsibilities, and how you manage those expectations within your ranks, over time.
7) Prisoner’s Dilemma
This is another famous psychological experiment that underscores the importance of accountability within teams.
The prisoner’s dilemma is a game where the “rewards” are prison terms. There are 2 prisoners, A and B. If both prisoners betray each other, they each serve a 2 year jail sentence. If prisoner A betrays prisoner B, prisoner A goes free and prisoner B gets 3 years (and vice versa). If they both remain silent, they each serve only 1 year. Of course, it’s in both players’ best interest to stay silent. However, typically, the fear of betrayal leads both to betray each other.
This reminds us that trust and communication is essential for individual and team success — and that the definition of “success” is influenced by self interest.
8) Halo Effect
The halo effect is a popular concept among brand marketers, but it also can apply to perceptions of an employee. In marketing, humans develop positive perceptions of a product when respected sources describe it in positive terms, or when the brand develops strong associations with other attractive brands.
In the workplace, the halo effect involve bias that is either positive or negative. For example, when a leader likes an employee, they may attribute other positive traits to them (e.g. they’re smarter or more committed than others) even if it’s not accurate. This can obviously become a problem, if it affects the leader’s decisions. The best way to avoid this trap is to focus on objective measures of performance.
Obviously, this is just a taste of the behavioral research that can inform workplace leadership. But anyone can learn more — there are tons of great learning resources available online.
How do you see psychology at work in your organization? What has worked for you and what hasn’t? Share your thoughts in the comments area.
About the Author: Jacob Shriar is the Growth Manager at Officevibe, an employee engagement platform. He’s passionate about company culture, and he blogs regularly on productivity, employee engagement, and career tips. When he’s not reinventing the world over a glass of scotch, he likes to find new skills to learn. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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