Psychology’s Role in the Workplace Lead to Succeed by by Lawrence K. Straus, Ph.D.

Psychologists have long recognized the importance of work in the hierarchy of human needs. Theodor Reich, a disciple of Freud, once said, “Work and love–these are the basics.” The business world however, is rapidly changing, due to the explosive dawn of the information and technology era. Today, the world of work is now recognizing the importance of psychology and human behavior in its own hierarchy of business needs in order to survive and succeed.

The landscape of the business world is rapidly changing with the onset of the Internet and technical advances. Businesses are developing new initiatives overnight and employees have become “free agents” moving from project to project and from company to company. The old notion of an employee staying 35 years with the same company and a gold watch at retirement is becoming a rarity. Issues such as employee retention and satisfaction are becoming increasingly more important as companies compete for quality individuals. Pay, parking and other tangible benefits are not as important as quality of Work/Life issues such as corporate culture. Thus, corporations are expanding their use of psychological practices in their quest to attract, develop, and retain top-notch employees.

So what’s a business to do? My answer to this question as a “business psychologist” is that businesses must attend to the “soul” of its employees. In their 1999 book, First Break All The Rules, authors Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman cite the results of a multi year Gallup Poll survey which concluded that a great workplace is made up of managers and supervisors who are adept in “people skills.” Great managers care about the work and their employees. The Gallup Poll survey reported that great managers provided 12 core elements, or dimensions, that made the workplace great. These include, setting clear expectations, recognizing and praising significant contributions, valuing the opinions of the employees, and taking an active interest in the professional development of their employees.

Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of the best-selling book, Emotional Intelligence, says that personal qualities such as self-awareness, initiative, empathy, and adaptability are the more important skills to have in the work place than intelligence.

This concept is echoed in a 1999 survey conducted by The Center for the Development of Leadership Skills, of the Rider University College of Business Administration. The study found that so called “soft-skills” were the most important indicator of employment success. Those surveyed indicated that leadership, critical thinking, problem solving, and interpersonal skills were the top attributes of a successful employee. Where the focus has previously been on technical skill development, now the emphasis is placed on skills that all have roots in psychology.

The field of “business psychology” can benefit business in several ways. Business psychologists can teach managers and supervisors how to coach and mentor employees, resolve conflict, develop mission statements, and improve morale. Business psychologists, or Executive Coaches, can develop and nurture the soft skills in every employee, especially the leadership in a company. All of this leads to an increase in employee retention, productivity, customer satisfaction, and company profits.

In my 15 years of experience as a psychologist and executive coach helping corporations, I have found three action areas where companies can work to achieve these goals. These are the areas I emphasize in my workshops on Effective Management and Coaching and Mentoring.

I call the first item, self-assessment. One component of self-assessment is the mission statement and every effective organization should have one. You would be surprised how many employees report to work each day who do not really know “why” they are there; or the typical management reaction for doing things is “just because.” A mission statement answers the question “why are we here?” It sets the tone for all leadership, coaching, managing and commitment initiatives. You may recall the scene in the movie Jerry McGuire where actor Tom Cruise wrote out his mission statement. A mission statement has passion, vision, and purpose. I would recommend that companies develop a mission statement, and that each work group, and person should have one as well. There are several books in the marketplace that offer tips on mission statements. I like Tom Petersí Brand You 50 and Stephen R. Coveyís Seven Habits for Highly Effective People.

Secondly, it is critical that companies teach “soft skills” to hard people. Corporations will often find that their employees have expertise in technical (or hard) skills, yet lack interpersonal skills. These skills include empathy, active listening, honest and effective communication, tolerating and welcoming change, giving constructive feedback, and team building. In order to acquire these important skills, the employee and manager will need to experience a change in attitude and develop a new approach to work. Without the right philosophy behind it, a new skill set will be meaningless.

Finally, companies can increase their effectiveness by developing coaching and mentoring programs. Older, more experienced managers need to take younger employees under their wing. It is a way of taking an active interest in the “corporate soul” of every employee. Employees who are treated as “talent” rather simply as employees are more productive. I like to illustrate this concept by remembering the old Disney movie The Bad News Bears. The story centered around two little league baseball teams. Walter Matthau was a coach of the rag-tag team, which held little hope of success. The other team was well organized with a coach who ran his operation like a drill sergeant. Ultimately the team that was successful had a coach who took a personal interest in the well being of each individual member.

The bottom line is that research has shown that businesses who pay increased attention to the psychological needs of its employees have increased employee retention, customer satisfaction, increased productivity, and increased profitability. This is a formula where everybody wins and everybody succeeds.

Lawrence K. Straus Ph.D. is the Associate Director of the Mercer Consultation Association in Lawrenceville, and he is a Business Psychologist to State Government and local businesses. Echo R. Fling collaborated with Dr. Straus on writing this article. If you are looking for a therapist and would like a referral, you can find help through a friend or through your family physician.

You may also call the referral service at the New Jersey Psychological Association: 1-800-281-6572.