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The psychology of HR in a digital world

Brains mean business.

@dashapats via Twenty20

Unleash Your Potential Your speed read on what’s current in HR psychology and what these trends mean for the future of work.

  • Even in a technology-driven workplace, the human mind is the underlying driver of transformation.
  • Despite many new studies in the field of psychology, there is a recognizable thread of continuity that should not go unnoticed.
  • As we consider the staying power now of the old stuff, we see the disrupting power of the human mind for the future of work.

There is no doubt that the rapid development of technology in the workplace is an exciting agenda. However, whilst the power of technology is enormous and can enable some extraordinary things, the psychology of HR and how people think, behave and interact with each other is still the underlying key driver of making things happen in a digital world. 

@jsdaniel via Twenty20

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Let’s look back before we look forwards

Technology disrupts, and the world changes, but there is a recognizable thread of continuity as we study the human elements. 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 an opportunity. Think today diversity and inclusion. Re-branding from industrial to organizational psychology and a trans-Atlantic divide between “Industrial-Organizational” in the States and Occupational into Business over here. Do you remember your HR study of motivation (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), job analysis and evaluation, learning styles, or the psychological contract? 

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That was then. This is now. 

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

  • The workforce became employees, then became talent, and 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 contextualize comfortably where there is disruption and change. The new themes outlined below are built on familiar themes in the same way. For example, a motivation study inspired the psychological contract. This led to employee engagement. Now, we’re encouraged to take the pulse, to nudge, to consumerize HR. 

There are three rising concepts that are particularly exciting:


Andy Puddicombe’s Headspace app had been downloaded 65 million times and this alone is being used by 600 million businesses.

Mindfulness has now demonstrated its tenacity in the business world. Derived from the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, 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. After all, Andy Puddicombe’s Headspace app had been downloaded 65 million times, and 600 million businesses are using this alone.

Most interesting is the East-meets-West momentum behind this psychology. 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.

@CassMcD via Twenty20

Social neuroscience

Social neuroscience is a research discipline that examines how the brain mediates social processes and behavior. A wide range of psychology research topics are examined within this discipline, including social interactions, agency, empathy, morality, and social prejudice and affiliations. This behavioral science field also investigates evidence about how our brain works to affect our decisions, processes, and communications as individuals within a social organization.

For example, a growing body of research supports the role that neuroplasticity plays in learning. The ability of the brain to reconfigure makes the acquirement of new information and new skills possible. This new information must impact the brain to learn it: the nature of learning is that we change through experience. Neuroimaging studies have confirmed that anatomical changes take place in the brains of those learning a second language. These results show neuroplasticity at work, changing the brain’s structure to allow for learning to take place.

Integrating ‘Gut feel’ with data.

Is insisting on evidence at odds with relying on instinct? 

Harnessing the power of your gut feel and instinct is popular. We like it because our gut feel is that it’s true. ‘Go with your gut’ is often the advice given to HR leaders facing difficult people-centered decisions.

However, more recently, there has been a shift in psychology studies, focussing on hard data analysis when making important decisions to ensure they are objective and ‘fair.’ In fact, those purporting to do the opposite by looking at the hard evidence only are also winning just as many likes and follows. See below for an interesting talk by Professor Rob Briner, making a compelling case for evidence based HR.

But is insisting on evidence at odds with relying on instinct? 

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


Clearly, there are tensions in what is afoot in business psychology that look set to challenge us, particularly against the context of powerful tech. The field opens up space for tolerant spiritualism and attention to self and individualism at work. Meanwhile, digitalization drives the machines of learning through evidence, big data, and AI on a massive, aggregated scale. 

But some things don’t change, and as we consider the staying power evidenced of some old, old stuff, we see the disrupting power for the future of work we as people will choose, drive and enable. 

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