Buyer's guide to Business Psychology

With its promises of enhanced productivity and smarter decision-making, the brain workout market is booming. But when it comes to choosing the right type of mental exercise for your organisation, the options can seem bewildering. David Butcher offers help.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Have you shone a torch into the attic of your psyche lately? Well, maybe you should. If the 1980s were the decade of the body beautiful and the 1990s were about spirituality, this will be remembered as the decade when we all took to tuning up our minds.

You need look only at the stacks of self-help titles in bookshops to recognise a trend here. It used to be said that self-help was like pornography: a lot of people bought it, but no-one wanted to be seen reading it. Not any more. Now everyone is openly trying to sharpen up their mental powers, learn effective habits and improve their emotional intelligence.

And that includes business people: CEOs with their leadership coaches and personal performance strategists, middle managers putting their staff on team-building courses, and footsoldiers buying the Mind Gym book to get one step ahead.

They're all using different flavours of applied psychology. Shipped over from the academic world with varying degrees of rigour, it's got the whole business world on its expensive couch. 'It is very much mushrooming,' says the Mind Gym's managing director Octavius Black, who is nicely perched on top of the mushroom, with a bestselling book, a thriving 'mental workout' training business and a cool website.

'Traditional training and self-help weren't grounded in science,' Black points out. 'Meanwhile, there's a whole lot of psychology, but it's incomprehensible.

The challenge is to make the psychology as accessible as the self-help, and the personal development stuff as rigorous as the psychology.'

Not all consultants are so scrupulous, though. If tomorrow some blokes in suits come to give you a fancy training course or resolve the issues in your team, they will almost certainly bandy about a lot of psychological jargon. But do they know their Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs from a hole in the ground? 'People are using more and more tools that are grounded in organisational psychology,' says Jeremy Webster, deputy chair of the Institute of Management Consultancy. 'But just because you use a screwdriver, that doesn't make you an engineer. Using a bit of NLP doesn't make you a psychologist.'

Hold on - NLP? Depending on where you're at in the trend, those three letters will mean a lot to you or nothing at all. Neuro-linguistic programming sounds like a North Korean brainwashing plan, but its take on applied psychology is sweeping all before it in the business world right now. NLP methods are widely used in areas such as marketing, training and qualitative research, and salesforces love it because it gives them clever ways to close a sale using subconscious tricks. A prime-time BBC TV series called Speed Up Slow Down used NLP consultants and NLP techniques, but never mentioned the name.

It is just one of several approaches gleaned from applied psychology currently being peddled to businesses in various forms. (Well, to be fair, NLP types would argue that it's not just a model but a 'meta model' that looks at how other models work, but anyway ...) More than ever, managers in the public and private sectors need to have a handle on what some of these approaches offer if they're want to separate the kosher stuff from the quackery. In future, we'll all need to be psychologically literate, otherwise semi-trained charlatans with a keen understanding of one part of our brains - the part marked 'gullibility' - will take us for a ride.

Hence the rough pen-portrait outlines here of some of the main methodologies.

None of these is a panacea, but each has a clever toolkit for organisations that want to change. Some practitioners you hire - be they trainers, consultants or coaches - will cleave to a school of thought as if it were the One True Faith; others will pick and choose from a range of approaches and use the best for the job.

In the end, the approach that appeals to you is as much a question of style and taste as anything else. As one observer put it: 'The people who do Appreciative Inquiry are a bit old-hippie-ish. The NLP people are the prog rockers with their Yes albums. Then you've got the Solutions-Focused types, who are the punk rockers.' Hippies, prog rockers or punks - take your pick.

The important thing is to make sure that whoever you bring in isn't just using voguish psycho-jargon to dress up their usual act, but really knows their onions. 'It's still the Wild West out there,' warns Kevin McKergow of the Solutions Focus consultancy. 'Anyone can set themselves up if they have the chutzpah and the credibility.' Not that a qualification will tell you much, he says. 'I've seen loads of people with NLP Practitioner certificates who are quite plainly rubbish.'

The gold standard is to be a chartered psychologist with the British Psychological Society, but just being a member of the BPS or having an accredited psychology degree would be good signs. Plenty of perfectly good consultants, trainers and coaches may have none of those, though, so you'll just have to use a bit of judgment and close questioning, or, best of all, a reliable recommendation.

But if you want your money's worth, you need to look at business psychology as a long-term proposition. One sceptic warns: 'Using some of these techniques, such as NLP, it's not hard to get results that are superficially impressive, but what's the sustained change? A lot of these interventions can give people a great sense of euphoria at the time, but there's no follow-through.'

Equally, be prepared for the way a dose of psychology can have unexpected effects. Adds our sceptic: 'Too often, people hold a workshop on, say, creative thinking, but it's just ticking a box. There's no point having an intervention that isn't connected into the life of the whole organisation.

What's the point in helping an individual or a team to change the way they think if they're stuck working in a lousy system?'

TRANSACTIONAL ANALYSIS (TA)

In a slogan: Let's all get along

In a nutshell: TA hones your people skills. It starts from the blindingly simple notion that each of us should a) like ourselves and b) accept that everyone else has a right to be here. (This is, broadly, the famous 'I'm OK, you're OK' principle.) TA is fond of diagrams and models, the most important being the 'ego states' model, with its 'parent', 'child' and 'adult' states. The idea is that when we're in parent mode, we think and behave in ways copied from our parents or authority figures - we might talk judgmentally, for instance. In child mode, we carry over emotions and behaviour from our childhood - anger or insecurity, say. In adult mode, we respond directly to the here and now and see people as they are, without projecting our own ideas on to them - a good way to be.

How it all began: Founded by Eric Berne in the 1950s. Became fashionable in the 1980s

Buzzphrases: I'm OK, you're OK; Clear contracting

What's best about it: Great for working out issues in the workplace and for modelling relationships. If you've got a dysfunctional team, the TA toolkit will get to the bottom of the problems. Also, its ideas are comparatively easy to grasp, so clients can 'pick up the technique and run with it'.

What's worst about it: In the wrong hands, it can seem simplistic and mechanical. The metaphors have a habit of taking over. 'I've seen people go doolally when they get locked into the parent/child/adult model,' says a rival practitioner.

Who uses it: Public-sector clients love it.

Fashion factor: 2/5

NEURO-LINGUISTIC PROGRAMMING (NLP)

In a slogan: Software for the brain

In a nutshell: We all have buried habits that help us function. By probing and tweaking our 'autopilot' behavioural patterns, we can change parts of ourselves we might have thought fixed, from how fast we read to how we respond to criticism. To do this, NLP looks at people who are very effective and models their internal strategies in great detail so they can be transferred to others. It looks at verbal and non-verbal communication, how we process information and the internal maps we draw of reality: by changing the map, you can dramatically change the results you get. NLP also offers some neat tricks; for instance, by paying close attention to a client's unconscious eye movements, you can - the theory goes - tell whether they are a visual or an auditory person, and tailor the language in your sales pitch accordingly.

How it all began: Developed in the mid-1970s in Santa Cruz, California by Richard Bandler, a Gestalt therapist, and John Grinder, a linguist. Bandler ended up suing his original collaborators for stealing his ideas, but lost.

Buzzphrases: Accessing cues; Chunking; Persuasion engineering

What's best about it: Draws its principles from the best of other schools of thought, so you get a 'greatest hits' package. Prides itself on effecting change faster than some traditional approaches.

What's worst about it: Some psychologists see it as a set of flashy tricks, but not truly scientific. 'They're enthusiasts, but there's no sound theory and its effectiveness isn't proven,' says one sceptic. 'I'd like to see their results properly written up in a scientific form.'

Who uses it: All of a sudden, just about everybody.

Fashion factor: 5/5

SOLUTIONS FOCUS

In a slogan: Whatever works

In a nutshell: Traditionally, psychology has focused on problems - where they come from and why. But you can analyse a problem to death and never move on. So why not jump straight to the solution part? The idea is that you look at times when your problem, whatever it is - with yourself, with another person, within a family or a team - doesn't manifest itself; when, however rarely, it disappears. People focus on times when they do things really well - it could be providing good customer service, say - and work out how they can expand that. Solutions Focus uses the so-called Miracle Question to ask if you went to bed and while you were asleep a miracle happened so your problem vanished, what would be the signs you'd notice when you woke up and went through your day that told you the miracle had happened?

How it all began: A Milwaukee family therapist called Steve de Shayzer more or less stumbled on the idea in the late 1980s and created Solution Focused Therapy. It took a while to filter through to business, but is starting to take off now.

Buzzphrases: Exception seeking; The Miracle Question

What's best about it: Light on abstract theory and simple to the point of minimalism. Can work fast and arrive at cheap solutions. Clients play a big part in finding their own answers.

What's worst about it: Not concerned with what happens inside people's heads, only what happens between them. Doesn't take time to examine a problem or its history. Simple in theory, but it needs skill and the ability to improvise in practice, and because no two cases are alike, it has to start from scratch every time.

Who uses it: Growing fast in areas such as performance management and strategic planning. Used by companies from PepsiCo to Singapore Airlines.

Fashion factor: 3/5

APPRECIATIVE INQUIRY (AI)

In a slogan: Ac-cent-tew-ate the positive

In a nutshell: Every organisation needs to work out what's special about itself. So instead of asking downbeat, deficit-based questions such as 'Where is our distribution going wrong?', try focusing on the positive.

The theory is that an organisation that keeps inquiring into problems will keep finding problems, whereas an organisation that tries to appreciate what's best in itself will discover more that is good and be able to make that more common in future. So AI involves asking questions like: 'Who are we at our best? What attitudes and processes are at the heart of our good examples? When do we do distribution well and why?' Like the solution-focused approach (see above), AI doesn't get hung up on examining problems.

It looks on the bright side, believing that all organisations have infinite capacities and abundance: it's just a question of tapping into them to create a positive revolution.

How it all began: Developed in Ohio in the 1980s by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva, it has links to post-modern therapy and positive psychology. It is rapidly becoming a whole New Age movement.

Buzzphrases: Provocative propositions; The positive change core

What's best about it: Inspirational: people can be very energised by the half-full-glass approach and start to pull together. Works well for entire organisations, but also for small teams.

What's worst about it: Veers towards hippie-ish philosophy with dictums such as 'Wholeness heals'. Since most companies have management practices based around eliminating negatives, it's hard to trash those and start again.

Who uses it: Big in the US: parts of BP and BA have used the method there.

Fashion factor: 3/5

GESTALT

In a slogan: Pay close attention

In a nutshell: The Gestalt approach can be as elusive as a Zen riddle. It grew out of a therapeutic method that encouraged clients to concentrate on the here and now, in order to avoid just reshuffling old attitudes.

In a business context, that means looking at what is happening at the moment, here in the office or training room. Members of a team might be invited to look at what unfolds in the moment and talk about their perceptions of it. The idea is that improving your awareness of what is happening right here and now provokes a spontaneous shift in thinking that can then bring change on a wider scale. Interestingly, it was a Gestalt therapist who founded NLP, after studying what Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt, actually did during his sessions with clients.

How it all began Developed by Fritz Perls, a German psychoanalyst, and his wife Laura in the late 1940s, the approach became widespread in therapy, but has crossed over to be applied to organisations only during the past decade or two.

Buzzphrases: The awareness continuum; Authentic dialogue; The paradoxical theory of change

What's best about it: Powerful and liberating when done well. Has a long and well-founded psychological history. Can produce some dramatic 'Aha!' moments.

What's worst about it: The ideas behind it aren't easy to grasp. Evidence of results can be difficult to pin down.

Who uses it: Still in the early-adopters phase among organisations, but has been used by clients in the health service and banks. Apparently, it's popular with executive coaches.

Fashion factor: 2/5.

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