A funny thing happened to Ron Friedman when he finally became a social psychology professor after years of study. He felt stuck, tied to the classroom. Now, as a consultant and trainer for business, based in Rochester N.Y., the world is his oyster – but social psychology research still the pearl. He loves to share the latest research findings with his clients and, through his recent book The Best Place to Work, the general public.
"You'll be a much better manager with the insights of research. Many things we do – from the way we hire to how managers motivate to the design of the office – are blind to the research findings," he said in an interview.
Take recruiting. We are slaves to interviews, convinced they reveal the essence of the candidates. But in one experiment, 81 per cent of job hunters bent the truth during interviews – in fact, they generally lied twice (and the interviews were relatively brief). Even if we could separate fact from manipulated fact, we would still fare poorly selecting employees through interviews because of our inherent biases. Good-looking people are seen as more competent, individuals with deep voices considered more trustworthy, and taller people better leaders. Those perceptions further skew the interview, he notes, because we ask confirming questions to support our leanings. Beyond that, if we interview a person with similar interests, we are more likely to want them on board.
But research can also tell us what to do right: Hold interviews blind, without seeing the candidates, as orchestras routinely do these days to ensure women get judged on their musical ability rather than traditional biases that favour male players. If conducting a blind interview seems too weird, he suggests using regular interviews to narrow the field, then give candidates a test of the actual skills they will need on the job.
In his book, he draws out three overarching lessons from the research:
1. Recognize needs
Psychological needs are at the heart of employee engagement.
To get people engaged in their work, research shows you must provide opportunities for them to experience autonomy, competence, and relatedness on a daily basis.
On the matter of competence, he says it changes over time. The job is usually difficult at the start and the individual builds a feeling of enhanced competence as the job is learned. But over time, the work can become easy or routine. That's when managers have to ensure the individual has opportunities for growth. He suggests offering a reading budget, which allows employees to buy a book or two each quarter and learn new skills. Or invite them to scan industry blogs – rather than frowning at such activity during the day – and come up with new ideas. Have employees watch a TED talk together and discuss it.
When new employees come on board, help them build relationships. Instead of introducing them by talking only about their past jobs, talk about their interests outside work, which may lead to deeper connections with some of their new colleagues. Provide seed money for activities your employees might do together after work, like cooking classes or rock climbing, so they bond over shared enthusiasms.
As for autonomy, he urges managers to focus on providing a meaningful rationale for work – too often we delude ourselves into thinking that has been communicated properly, when it hasn't.
2. Respect limits
Organizations are more successful when they address the limits of the mind and body.
Our brains have limited bandwidth and it's folly for managers to ignore that reality. When they inundate staff with meetings, it's exhausting and work suffers.
Design work spaces that allow employees to conserve their mental resources and provide opportunities for restorative experiences. Keep in mind that some activities require disciplined, distraction-free attention while others benefit from collaboration and instant communication.
"No single environment is effective for every task, which is why more and more companies are creating hybrid spaces that offer employees a range of uses," he writes. In the interview, he pointed to the company FullContact software, which gives employees $7,500 to take their family on vacation, and insists they must not answer e-mails or work while away.
3. Be flexible
Integrating work and family life improves the quality of both.
Instead of pretending that work and personal time are separate, organizations are better off when they seek to blend both realms. "To the extent organizations give people flexibility to exercise during the day or pick up the kids from work, they get more committed and successful employees," he said. Expressing appreciation directly to an employee's family can influence their company pride, research shows. And connecting employees to non-profits in the community – even letting them choose which ones the company will support – pays off.
It's all in the research. You just have to pay attention, instead of dismissing research as hidebound.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org