Business psychology, how bodies and brains work best, retains a currency whatever the era of digital and tech. In Part 1, I looked at how over time our HR education has encouraged us to get our own heads around others’ heads. Ideas apparently new, such as mindfulness, neuroplasticity and the emerging science of “gut feel”, present a tension between a greater appreciation of the individual self, against a context of increasingly bigger big data. Are we a big, unique fishes or ever-more-tiny tadpoles in the workplace pond?

A lady who has much inspired both the business and popular psychology world is Arianna Huffington, of The Huffington Post and now Thrive Global. At HR Tech World in Amsterdam, her keynote inspired us to “unleash” an augmented humanity at work, heartening to the HR professional to hear rising up the business agenda.

Major industry events are almost always headlined with a leader, like Arianna, to follow. Much as we think we like innovation, we also like a role model to copy and to do so with a  sense of familiarity. And some of the themes of psychology for HR remain familiar, not least that ongoing quest for the right leadership style. Great leadership is a concern for the business world past, present and future.

Leading on Leadership now

Certain key questions have always plagued us. Are leaders born or are they made? Is a great leader always characterised a certain way or is leadership individualised? Our understanding has evolved from the Great Man and trait theories of an innateness of leadership. Behavioural theory tried to capture those traits. Then HR learned that leaders needed to apply those traits according to context (i.e., something called contingency theory). Use of power and influence came next as focus points as to how the best people do just that.

And so the quest goes on….

Current trends present new understandings on the same questions. For example, we can conclude:

  • Leadership is about them not you; but contextual to you, them and the organisation
  • Great leaders empower the next generation; yes, leadership is different from management

I like most the notion of authenticity. To lead requires a consistency and continuity of behaviour and of style, to be oneself with a vision and set of behaviours to follow. This allows for the old trait theories but applied in context and with an appreciation of the use of influence. It is a nice fit with our valuing of the individual and the attention to the uniqueness of self.

But don’t choose a flaky self! Watch the trend in popular business writing on Grit and Guts. We are rather liking the firm leadership idea that harks back to command and control (and that includes hard work). Angela Duckworth’s 2016 book, Grit: The POwer of Passion and Perseverance, whilst not solely for the business professional, was an instant hit. Perhaps not in spite of, but because of, our new preference to lead as a part of a holistic, ‘authentic’ life story.

And so great leadership remains elusive to us. But in all professional guises, we continue to try to box ourselves up. Last time, I looked at new trends and noted that profiling of ‘type’ is something we wish to do.

Pursuit of the Perfect Profile

Tony Robbins’ DISC Profiling takes a new twist on the work of William Marston from the 1920’s. The DISC model assesses Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Conscientiousness. It’s up there against the ‘Big Five’ and of course, Myers-Briggs, both showing no signs of any declining use.

We may use profiles little different, but how we use those profile types changes rather more. Right now, HR technology allows a greater reliance on algorithmic design to conduct testing for us, as an inbuilt part of our organisational talent strategies, onboarding, predictive insight and development programmes. Yet here’s an example of another tension to be played out in HR life coming soon. We face an immediate challenge from GDPR, which mandate a degree of human intervention when it comes to people decisions.

We have also started to like to play. Noticed how playing cards are something of the new thing? Agile Scrum project-workers play poker to guide estimation; in business psychology we are also going for low-tech gamification with cards. I wonder if this is another yearning towards the intangibility of a more alternative world, reminiscent of Tarot and the like.

The Practical Business of Human Brains in Business

Psychology for HR, I conclude, appeases us with some familiar comfort factors to balance the edgier stuff of new domains of understanding about how our brains work. And how they work in a digital age.

I like to be practical for you. Here are 10 suggested ways to make sure that you are actively putting to work today concepts introduced in both blog parts of “Bodies and Brains still mean Business”:

  1. Promote a concern for the impact of digital working life on wellness, offering workplace opportunity or sharing simple practices to be digitally mindful.
  2. Ditch the Gen X/Y/Z thinking when it comes to career-path mapping and learning design – our brains are plastic and elastic!
  3. Be aware of algorithms in talent acquisition. Keep abreast of the implications of AI for personal data and cyber security and:
  4. Make deliberate choices about the appropriate balance you believe best achieved between pre-configured, machine minds and a real person in your organisation
  5. Respect individuals within the new forms of performance management, using continuing feedback with scope for voices to be heard
  6. Leverage people data captured from your HR systems, as well as social data – yes to understand types – on a predictive but not assumptive basis
  7. Seize the difference between human bodies and brains with a social focus at work, adopting collaboration tools to overcome perils of disparate geography
  8. Design innovation programmes and create motivating space for creativity and inspiration. This could be as simple as a time allowance for free-form work
  9. Personalise as far as possible – benefits, management style, HR system user experience, development planning. On this:
  10. Read about the concept of “consumerisation” of the employee experience and align the working life you offer to expectations of today’s home

Above all, I give us HR practitioners licence to indulge ourselves in a continuing fascination for psychology at work. Whilst trends, tensions and technologies take us in new directions, nothing yet suggests that the way bodies and brains work don’t still make the business work.