We might all love a good scare story about how next-generation business psychology is to be all about bot-brains. But this piece assumes that people and how we think, behave and interact with our workplace still make things happen in a digital world.

Psychology for HR is a valid and exciting agenda.

Here is your speed read on what’s current and a distillation of my favourite trends and what they mean. There are some tensions. Look out for a follow-up part where I’ll address more comfortable boxes we still want to tick and where you should be at in your HR practices right now.

Let’s look back before we look forwards

We don’t press rewind and fast-forward anymore, but that is what I’m going to here. I bet you still know what I mean.

My point is that technology disrupts and the world changes, but as we study the human elements there is a recognisable thread of continuity. This can give HR confidence to pick up new themes and keep your application of key concepts up-to-date.

The study of industrial psychology dug roots in noticing individuals’ differences, growing to appreciate that difference did not mean error but opportunity. Think today diversity and inclusion. Re-branding from industrial to organisational psychology and a trans-Atlantic divide between “I-O” in the States and Occupational into Business over here (1). Remember your HR study of motivation (the hierarchy of needs), job analysis and evaluation, learning styles or the psychological contract?

That was then. This is now.

Have a think about how today’s words we use in HR reflect how, like the business psychology professionals themselves, show that we’ve gently found ways to describe things that match the changes in our working world. For example:

  • The workforce became employees, became talent, now simply people
  • Stress management became work-life balance, is now wellness and work-life integration (or “merge”)
  • Recruitment became talent acquisition, now looking set to be people marketing

We contextualise comfortably where there is disruption and change. The new themes I point to here in psychology for HR are built on familiar themes in the same way. For example, motivation study inspired the psychological contract. This led to employee engagement. Now we’re encouraged to take the pulse, to nudge, to consumerise HR.

I’m getting excited about 3 concepts. Here is what and why:

Mindfulness. Mindfulness has now demonstrated its tenacity in the business world. Derived from the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn (2), this is based on observation of Buddhist practice. To be mindful is not to empty our heads of thought but to be aware of the present moment. I doubt this one’s a new one to you. At the start of this year, Andy Puddicombe’s Headspace app had been downloaded 11 million times (3).

Most interesting is the East-meets-West momentum behind this. Mindfulness in the East was led by faith, whereas in the West the particular work of applied scientists took it forwards. I suspect that this is just one aspect in which Eastern cultures and concepts will have a growing voice in our debate about what works well for people to thrive at work. Watch this headspace!

Social neuroscience. Rarely outed under quite this phrase, this is the field of behavioural science that investigates evidence about how our brain works to affect our decisions processes and communications as individuals within a social organisation (for example a business). For example, neuroplasticity must have fascinating impact on learning, talent development, change.

My key interest? How we we think begins to vie for attention with how machines do it – artificial intelligence. We are learning much, much more about both at the same time.

Gut feel. Harnessing the power of your gut feel and instinct is popular. We like it because our gut feel is that it’s true. Yet notice how at the same time those purporting to do the opposite, and look at the evidence only, are also winning just as many likes and follows. There is very convincing writing about Evidence-based HR (EBHR) (4). Is insisting on evidence at odds with relying on instinct?

Look out for the new concept of interoception to solve that conundrum. This understands that our bodies are essentially one vast data source of evidence from which we derive insight (5). With big data swamping us, we may therefore discover that, yes, gut is good and that we know so based on evidence.

Trends, tensions and types

So there are apparent tensions in what’s afoot in business psychology that look set to challenge us, particularly against the context of the powerful tech. On the one hand, space opens for a tolerant spiritualism and an attention to self and to individualism at work. On the other, digitalisation drives the machines of learning through evidence, big data and AI on a massive, aggregated scale.

But some things don’t change! We do still like to fit ourselves into boxes and tools that allow us to profile personalities, teams and styles stick. In part 2 of this take on psychology for HR I’ll look at how profiling old and new still makes for the best team-building day, as well as the ongoing quest for great leadership style. I will also offer you a sense-check on the day-to-day HR practices business psychology would suggest you should focus on right now in 2017 and just ahead.

As I look here at some of the trends in talk of business psychology, then consider the staying power now evidenced of some old, old stuff. A disrupting for the future of work we as people will choose, drive and enable.

References:

1. See the Association for Business Psychology http://www.theabp.org.uk/home.aspx and founding of

2. With the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme in Massachusetts in 1979

3. Reported by Forbes, January 2017 – find it here https://www.headspace.com/register

4. I like the work of Rob Briner in the UK, Professor of Organizational Psychology at the Queen Mary University of London on this

5. Another recommended read – Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow”, May 2012