The business of business psychology — the science of making people and organisations more effective — is what Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic has built a multifaceted career around. An expert in psychological profiling, talent management and people analytics, he is the CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems, a professor at University College London and Columbia University, the author of eight books, and a regular contributor to several publications, including The Guardian, Forbes and Harvard Business Review.
In this conversation with Christabelle Noronha, the New York-based Dr Chamorro-Premuzic talks about business psychology, about people, their differences and their prejudices, and about why there is no such thing as a ‘a fully-rounded human being’. Edited excerpts:
I started my career as a clinical psychologist but wanted to focus on the science of behaviour. I looked for real-world applications that could provide me with wider career choices. In the last 10-15 years, organisations have become aware that their problems have to do with people as well, and it is into this space that business psychologists step in.
In business psychology, all the theories, science and body of knowledge are paradigms that provide the content and methods to focus on people. It’s a part of humanities because it leverages quantitative research methods. If you work on aspects such as talent, leadership, motivation, employee engagement and potential, you need to conceptualise these constructs so as to quantify the results.
Sharing its applied focus with economics, business psychology focuses more on human behaviour than on mathematical principles or the market. Business psychology’s interdisciplinary and niche version is often referred to as behavioural economics, as it tries to understand psychological processes that have economic consequences.
Human behaviour always occurs in a certain cultural context. Business psychologists use the same dimensions and processes to describe it before looking at variables. The dimensions and matrix used to evaluate personality are the same, but that doesn’t imply people in India will have the same personality attributes as those in Argentina.
It works in more or less the same way. What changes, perhaps, is the motivation of organisations. The motivation is profit if you are in the corporate sector; for nonprofits it’s effectiveness in creating social programmes.
In psychological profiling you want to understand how people think, make decisions and act; basically, how are they different from others. With talent management and people, the dynamics differ from sector to sector, but the goal is the same: to leverage employees and leaders so that the organisation is more effective.
Digitisation has made data processing quicker, simpler and cheaper. Organisations can now capture data on performance and potential, thereby making talent management practices less intuitive. That said, I don’t think the quality of insights derived from such data is a fundamental gamechanger.
Most organisations have yet to figure out what data they have and how to use it, even as pressure to become more data driven mounts. HR leaders are using data to make decisions about people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are making objective decisions. I’m hopeful that it will improve but, right now, it is at an exploratory stage.
Business psychology is a fairly recent field and there isn’t an obvious career path or trajectory for those pursuing it. In fact, there aren’t many specific programmes to get trained on. At the same time, you have a lot of consultants or self-designated gurus who just end up calling themselves business psychologists. Specifically, most of them have refrained from focusing on individual differences or understanding individuality, because human behaviour is complex and often considered a dead-end way.
Business psychology, besides, is not lucrative consulting because you are stating that some people are not as good as others. A common thread found through most of the messages is: “Oh! You can do anything you want; everybody is great in their own way; blame it on the context; it is never your fault.” On the contrary, if I know my strengths and personality disabilities, I can control my fate. The goal is to accept what you are and then try to change for the better.
This is a philosophical or ethical question. It may be desirable to think we are all the same, but evidence indicates otherwise. Can you claim that a dictator is on the same moral level as a person who devotes her life to make those of others better? From a biological standpoint, we all belong to the Homo sapiens species, but I think the similarity ends there.
Neuroscientific research proves that emotions such as empathy vary among the human populace. The same image or event can make somebody feel really upset, but it might not evoke the same emotion in another person. Although our brains are largely the same, you need to zoom in sufficiently to see variability, which explains predispositions in people. All individuals have certain ambitions, certain drives.
Fundamentally, at a very basic level, we are all the same. We want to get along, get ahead, find meaning, feel safe and provide for those we love. At a more specific level, however, not all people are equally greedy or equally ambitious. At some point, we may all engage in certain temptations, in individualistic behaviour that could be potentially harmful to others. However, the fundamental difference is that some people may do this all the time as they cannot control their impulses.
I don’t think we need to condemn or accept certain profiles over others, but we do need to understand that there are different consequences for different perspectives.
We live in a world of perceptions. One of the most compelling and astonishing findings in not just psychology but the whole of behavioural science is that people in general prefer to see reality and interpret events in a way that makes them feel better about themselves, even though it may not be an accurate representation of the truth. When you present people with a version of reality that is inconsistent with their self-belief, it makes them very uncomfortable because you are challenging their view of reality.
The Tata group has already opened its doors to business psychology through the work being done in the group. I am a firm believer in incremental progress; you don’t have to start with a big bang to change anything.
The most beneficial prospect for the group is to apply evidence-based or scientific practices and protocols to its time-management processes. This will help its leaders understand the workforce and themselves. As the saying goes, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it; if you can’t predict it, you don’t understand it”.
Only by telling them what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. Some of our tools are designed to evaluate ‘derailers’. Leaders who endorse the statement, “I am good at everything I do”, tend to get into trouble more often because arrogance and self-assured hubris are a predictor of derailment. On the other hand, leaders who say, “I need other people to stop pissing me off” are more volatile and excitable, and their work style often is an indicator of poor performance later on.
We evaluate historical data and look for fundamental signals that predict derailment in leaders. Once identified, you can make them aware of the derailer traits and their adverse effects. For instance, if I have an excitable personality and you make me aware of it, I may never become super calm, but I will at least be better at identifying and controlling my triggers. This is basically about teaching people how to manage their personality.
One of the most common career challenges is putting up with a bad boss. On a lighter note, the easiest solution would be to leave them, but chances are you may land up with another toxic boss. You have to figure out for yourself what’s going to annoy them and what’s going to make them happy. The difficult thing is to step away from a victim situation or from being the recipient of stress.
You should focus on managing your boss interpersonally. Like I often say, at the beginning of your career your success depends on managing your boss’s dark side; when you advance sufficiently in your career, it depends on managing your own dark side.
I wish business psychology had a more salient role to play in discussions about AI. It is difficult to predict accurately the role of AI and how technology will reshape the workplace. I think it would not be too difficult for an AI boss — or ‘roboss’ — to improve the quality of the leaders that we have today. If a series of tasks can be performed better by a computer or machine than by the human mind, you’d surely want to implement it.
By the same yardstick, if a roboss can monitor employees’ performance in an objective way and provide ongoing, constructive feedback, it would be a boon. Human leaders don’t do that. Most managers desist from giving negative feedback, for whatever reasons. However, during performance reviews, employees are looking for an objective evaluation of their performance. Human involvement in these aspects has a heavy interplay of biases, which I would like to call ‘politics’. The robot won’t be political, that’s for sure.
The privacy offenders are more prominent in media, marketing and advertising than in HR. Most people don’t have their email, Facebook or Twitter data mined for HR purposes; they are mined for marketing purposes. In Germany, for example, if you are using consumer data for things other than the purpose for which the consumer thinks it is being used, that is a breach. But you can use psychological profiling without breaching any ethical rule by making it a trust transaction, where the parties involved know that the methods are accurate and the benefit is not mutually exclusive.
It’s certainly a combination of drive, curiosity and entrepreneurial spirit. If you like what you do and there is a good match between your interests and skill sets, you don’t see it as pure work; and I’m certainly not alone in that category. I never meant to be competitive. When you are ambitious and competitive, you compare yourself with people who are better or worse than you, but deep within, you know that it is only through hard work and activity that you can achieve more.
Greed is the dark side of ambition. I define ambition as the inability to be satisfied with your achievements. The more ambitious you are, the less satisfied you are with what you achieve because the satisfaction is ephemeral, and then you target another set of goals and targets to accomplish.
No, it doesn’t. With the rise of technology, AI and so forth, I think it’s important to remember that the human being is still a work in progress. While machines and robots are trying to become human like, humans are becoming increasingly like machines, losing out on core human values.
I don’t think we should go in a direction where you turn people into productive machines or rational agents, where we quantify everything we do and become more standardised and automated. At some point, we will realise that humans should hold on to things that machines will never be able to do. This could be an interesting philosophical discussion, and you need to define exactly what you mean, and what the pros and cons of it are.