A Life Learning at Work

Now this is not a hard luck story, but the business of helping people learn whilst at work is one of those things that really animates me – almost to distraction. Some are lucky to have followed the traditional path of education in the UK and have parents/carers that know how to get their children to university and beyond. My dear old mum and dad had absolutely no idea of what a university or further eduction was, or that any of our family could get there by their own means. Well up to my mid thirties I tended to agree – or perhaps knew no different.  Indeed I guess the phrase “poverty of expectation” was one that we all subscribed to, though not anymore.

With the words “and don’t bother coming back to school on Monday” my headmaster condemned me to unemployment at a tender age of fifteen. In fact my worse fear was telling my mother I had been dumped out of school. On informing her of my predicament she just uttered “you’ll just have to get a job then”; the disappointment in her voice was palpable but I am sure not unexpected. So after a while and a short time in the local laundry, an opportunity to become an apprentice printer came along. After four years, a City & Guilds, a bunch of distinctions and credits, I embarked upon a great career in the printing and graphics industry.

Now then what on earth has this got to do with promoting lifelong learning at work I hear you cry. Well having hit my mid-thirties, I worked in paper mill in both R&D & technical sales roles, that seemed to just employ new graduates in the prime positions.  It wasn’t until then that I cottoned on to the importance of education for work. Needless to say my working class chippy attitude toward the graduates just sliding in to the business in good jobs with seemingly little or no effort wasn’t that helpful.  Though it did create an seminal moment in my working life. Sitting there it dawned on me and after a while a decision was made to do something about it. A plan was hatched to do a post-graduate diploma in ecology (environmental issues are huge in the paper industry), though I guess you have spotted the flaw in my plan……………..I am doing a post graduate qualification without a degree!

Nevertheless, two years later with a fair amount a wailing and gnashing of teeth, a little bullying of my professor to take me on the course in the first place, I graduated with the diploma. This started a conversation with my then boss to part-fund an Open University BSc (Hons) degree in Psychology (took some persuasion as I am still in the paper mill at this point) and some additional qualifications in subjects including counselling, coaching and believe it or not hedge-laying! It didn’t stop there, the 2:1 degree from the O.U. moved on to a MSc in Occupational Psychology at Leicester University. Along with rafts of continual professional development, a PTTLS teaching qualification, an opportunity to teach undergraduates at the University of Westminster business school and onto running my own work psychology & learning business

So as I say, its not an old sob story of boy made better and none of my achievements would have been possible without unstinting support from workmates, managers and partners. There are countless tales of people at work today who have untapped potential,  that with careful nurturing can achieve great things – and of course do on a daily basis. Young people sometimes don’t get education and going into work early on taking vocational qualifications can build confidence, self-esteem and valuable skills that they can utilise later on in life.

A healthy workplace can provide learning opportunities for the workforce to become the greatest commodity of the business. No one, least of all me, will say its easy but with well planned, structured and measurable learning at work we can provide a platform for new and brighter ways of problem solving, productivity and decision making. Therefore enhancing knowledge can be the power necessary to fuel workforces to perform better and to perhaps change a few lives into the bargain.

Drop me a line to discuss the range of work psychology learning & development opportunities and coaching possibilities for you and your business.


Myers Briggs Psycho…(metrics)?

images (21)Now I apologise in advance if this blog treads on one or two toes, but I am hoping to discuss psychometric assessments and primarily Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) & Thomas Personal Profile Analysis (PPA) at work in a balanced manner.  So that you can ask more questions about validity and the suitability of testing people. I guess most people have experienced being “profiled” at work or perhaps when applying for a job. In some cases, we all have completed assessments and perhaps not asked why it was being done, what will happen with the data, will the results impact upon my job, will it change my job or if I will get the job. So the question is what do these psychometric tests measure and how well do they represent individual difference if at all?

Interestingly, the whole topic came about from a discussion at a leadership training course I ran recently where MBTI reared its ugly head. Now I have to declare my position on the subject as being somewhat sceptical and sometimes disappointed how such an assessment has become so dominant in some organisations.  So following our robust discussion both for and against MBTI, we agreed to differ and moved on with the remainder of the course and had a very enjoyable day. However, it is striking how polemic the whole topic of MBTI & PPA is, with people taking very entrenched positions (me included) on how the test is being used and its validity.

Myers Briggs History

Recent articles in the Guardian  (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/brain-flapping/2013/mar/19/myers-briggs-test-unscientific) highlight the perceived and real lack of science behind MBTI, though what has science got to do with it I hear you cry? MBTI (and to some extent Thomas PPA) is based upon Jungian theories that suggest there are four principal psychological functions by which we experience the world: sensation, intuition, feeling, and thinking. As a result the suggestion is that one of these four functions is dominant most of the time to make decisions and interpret the world. The assessments were originally developed during World War 2 to help women find jobs that they would be most effective & productive in. The first commercial test was made available in 1962 and purports to focus on normal populations and emphasises the value of naturally occurring differences.  All well and good and an interesting historical tale, but how did the test become so prevalent in business when there may well be questions about the evidence and the validity & reliability of MBTI?

Reliability is the degree of consistency with which a test measures what it is supposed to measure. Indeed the assessment length greatly affects reliability, with longer tests tending to be more reliable. Reliability can be measured using reliability coefficients, and for short personality assessments these should be in the range 0.70 to 0.80. The MBTI reports reliability coefficients for its four scales on general population samples in the ranges from 0.61 to 0.87. As a result studies have found between 40 and 75 percent of test-takers receive a different result after taking the test a second time (The Committee on Techniques for the Enhancement of Human Performance and the National Research Council 1992).  Armed with this information then it may be fair to suggest MBTI just deals in general stereotypes, general preferences and tends to reduce the complexities of human personality into very convenient and ultimately limiting template of classifications that distorts personality preference.

The making of MBTI

This is perhaps an indicator as to why MBTI & to the same extend Thomas PPA have become so popular – in that its not about the utility, validity or the reliability of the test at all. The suggestion then is that there are other factors at play here other than representing and producing meaningful data of difference in the workplace and a repeatable valid assessments? From personal experience of asking both Myers Briggs and Thomas Profiling for evidence of the reliability of the tests, I received a placatory “we will send you something” that never arrives. Or the British Psychological Society have approved the test and therefore we are satisfied that it works? 

So what does all of this bickering about MBTI and other tests such as Thomas PPA tell users of these assessments? Is the intuitive appeal of the test and the very intensive marketing that seem to have created the dominance in business and HR organisations. May be its the “Barnum” effect at play here and that the marketing and hard sales techniques to unsuspecting HR professionals or inexperience manager who believes a particular personality type will fit into the job better. I suspect it is all of these factors at play as no real undertaking into how administering psychometric tests is required in most cases.


So you pays your money and takes your choice and I have deliberately sidestepped the sometimes polemic arguments about ipsative tests such as MBTI. If used to start a conversation about preferences in some situations, I don’t see a problem. Though to use it to hire or fire, then the organisation may well spend some time in industrial tribunals answering difficult questions. However, with so many quality normative psychometric tests available from SHL amongst others utilising OPQ32 (normative & ipsative) that measure 32 dimensions of personality preference, why MBTI? Or perhaps if needing to predict ability and future job success then Cognitive Ability Tests have a good reliability record for these dimensions.

The arguments will not go away – its all in the interpretation of what constitutes “valid” testing and MBTI & PPA seems to have won some ardent fans. So perhaps before jumping on the MBTI or other fashionable tests that a sharp suited salesperson suggests will cure all the companies HR problems, ask a work/business/occupational psychologist for some insight on this sticky business. And I will remember to keep my trap shut in leadership training courses!

Its not me……………its you! Resolving Conflict at Work

imagesConflict in the workplace (or anywhere else for that matter) can create significant inter & intra-personal stress, anxiety and any number of negative psychological affects for people. Some see conflict as something to be avoided at all costs just to maintain an equilibrium and and perhaps give a manager an easy life……………as if!  However isn’t conflict a fact of life when groups of people come together with different goals and aspirations? Does conflict have to always be a negative thing? Perhaps the perception conflict and how the problem is ultimately resolved in a non-judgemental task focussed way, may shed some light on how to help produce more positive outcomes and culture change.

Clearly, dysfunctional conflict is a bad thing. No good can come from it. Dysfunctional conflict damages relationships, damages self esteem, can result in verbal threats or even violence. This dysfunctional conflict serves no purpose and is often a way to just vent any number of emotions such as anger and frustration. We all have levels of what we consider to be an acceptable degree  of conflict, though if we are in a relationship or a workplace where there is ‘too much’ conflict we might consider leaving. Thus potentially creating  more stress and a disruption to life and for those around you.

Looking on the bright side however, conflict that is percieved as being functional can create an environment to achieve organisational change, create a learning environment as we reflect on our own behaviour and our decisions as they are challenged constructively by groups, co-workers or partners. One way to begin to look at functional conflict is the process of Constructive Controversy. Constructive Controversy is a powerful technique for managing and resolving conflict. Its objective is to test a proposed solution by subjecting it to a clash of ideas and an active task focussed problem solving process. Thus either showing the idea to be either wrong, you can prove it, or improve on it. Using Constructive Controversy techniques, your confidence in the solution chosen and subsequent decision making improves as you reach a better understanding of all the factors involved.

Constructive Controversy is a positive and productive problem-solving approach developed primarily by David Johnson a Social Psychologist. Johnson began a program of teaching elementary, secondary, and university students to be “peacemakers” in the sense of knowing how to engage in negotiations and the instigate mediation of peer conflicts. This model is well researched and evidenced based, and it’s recognised as one of the leading models for developing robust and creative solutions to problems and managing conflict. According to David Johnson the technique draws on five key assumptions:

  1. We tend to adopt an initial perspective of the problem based on our personal experiences and perceptions.
  2. The process of persuading others to agree with us strengthens our belief that we are right.
  3. When confronted with competing viewpoints, we begin to self-doubt our rationale.
  4. This doubt causes us to seek more information and build a better perspective, because we want to be confident with our choice.
  5. This search for a fuller perspective leads to better overall decision making.

To put these assumptions into a structured problem solving process the following steps may help you to manage a situation in a team with confidence.

  1. Brainstorm ideas about the issue and the problem at hand. (please observe agreed boundaries of brainstorming as we are trying to judge the best solution to the problem not attack other people)
  2. Form teams to look at all the different alternatives that have been generated
  3. Each team engage in Constructive Controversy i.e. teams present their ideas to begin convincing the wider group that their choice is the most productive
  4. The other teams then have to opportunity to argue constructively the pros and cons of the suggestions with the emphasis upon critical and logical thought process.
  5. Following the process of presenting and counter presenting of the problem solving choices, teams are asked to argue for another solutions they originally argued against.
  6. A decision is then made from the most convincing evidenced based solution.

Constructive Controversy then is a very effective method for developing agreed and negotiated solutions to problems. However, this model has to be used within the right setting and to ensure that participants have the skills to manage this type of structured functional conflict.

The key here is to incorporate and understand different perspectives in a non-judgemental manner to gain a better understanding of the problem as a whole. As a result the solution arrived at is likely to be improved and built upon time after time.  Constructive Controversy can a time-consuming & a highly structured process. However, when used to tackle significant problems and conflict in the work place in an open minded and functional way, with appropriate rules and boundaries the benefits of using constructive controversy, the method can lead to open and positive problem solving in any organisation or in your personal life. Contact me for more information and support managing conflict for positive and productive solutions.

Follow me I am right behind you?

Hopefully the irony of the title “follow me I am right behind you” is not lost on those that have experienced leaders in the workplace both good and bad. Needless to say, we witness good leaders that have the seemingly innate ability to influence ours and others, thoughts, behaviours and actions. We enthusiastically rally behind their vision, beliefs & passion for the cause and followers feel enthused and energetic – sometimes regardless of the consequences. That aside bad leaders can seriously derail an organisation, create severe ructions, instigate upheaval and divisions within groups and individuals.

Leadership , like with most other things at work, is fundamentally an interpersonal skill. However, leadership today is a difficult art partly due to the shape and methods of electronic communication and the pace of change, that can create an illusion of control and huge expectations from the followers. Interestingly the psychological research into leadership suggest that there is no perfect personality or ideal indicator of leadership effectiveness or style. However, to begin to look at performance of the work group and the organisation is probably a good place to start. The style or personality of the leader that fits the situation or context is likely to prove be most successful. Though, leadership is an adaptation to the environment, how the temperature changes within the group and a measure of the prevailing economic climate. Thus the art of good leadership, with the help of psychology, can support those with the power to change the business and support people with well researched and evidenced based models to reflect and utilise.   

Needless to say, psychology has a great deal to say about leadership, leadership styles and models to enthuse and motivate followers.  The cynics amongst us suggest that focussing upon upper levels of leadership & management may be due to the fact they are the groups that pay the consultants bills, and that there is no money in supporting the hoi palloi on the shop floor? However, by taking this perspective we may be missing the rafts of workers that are great “informal” leaders. These people without the formal power to “lead” but have the ability to rally people through charismatic & insightful means. I am sure we can all remember or know people like this?  So with this knowledge in mind what make a good leader? Informal leadership without power is one thing – but what are the potential methods of leadership that may help those with the formal power to lead?

Here are some of the styles of leadership from psychology:-

  • The Authoritarian leader
  • Transactional leadership
  • Delegative leader
  • Authentic leader
  • Transformational leader
  • Laissez faire leadership
  • Situational leadership

Of course looking through the reams of material on leadership and the disparate styles, personalities etc may leave a reader in a spin thinking well what’s best for me, the team and my business?

Clearly, leadership is partly in the eye of the beholder, we all see leaders differently both good and bad. Moreover, we maybe inclined to overestimate the impact of the leader particularly when performance is either good or bad. Generally, employees take the credit when things go well and the leader gets panned when things don’t go so well. One style of leadership or personality type  will not make you a great leader and perhaps we need to focus our attention on how the leader is perceived rather than allowing us just look at the leader? 

So whatever leadership course you may have been on, model or theory you subscribe to, perhaps the place to start to measure leadership is business performance, group/team satisfaction, the understanding of the vision of the business and if the workforce believe in the leader? Perhaps inverting the organisational triangle to focus our attention upon those being lead will provide the organisation with the insight necessary for the leadership team to evolve and adapt styles to the context and prevailing environment.

So as with most things in life leadership is a compromise of styles, personality and no one size fits all. Create your vision, have belief and courage in your convictions but don’t forget the context and people you work with to make the most of leading your business to success and prosperity.