I have distinct memories as an undergraduate student of hearing psychology being described as a ‘soft’ science. Partly perturbed and partly indignant, I wanted to understand how others felt this label might be justified. After all, I, along with many of my fellow students, had to endure years of studying multivariate statistics and research methods, none of which ever felt very ‘soft’!
It turns out that – like pretty much everything else – it was all relative. Psychology, being the study of human behaviour, is perceived to have a lot less definitive qualities than say, some of the harder (natural) sciences… physics, or biology for example. I get this. I appreciate that it’s much clearer, more ‘cut and dry’, to be able to anticipate what will happen when you drop an item from the top of a tower and use a neat formula to pretty well predict exactly when and where that ball may fall.
It’s often a lot more challenging to look at human behaviour, placing them under a range of social conditions, attempting to factor in their genetic properties and the environment in which they’ve been nurtured across a lifetime, and then attempt to predict what they will do. We’re complex beings! Additionally, our social lives, including our work life, add so many additional dimensions and factors that influence how we behave at various points in time. Hence the perception that psychology, along with other complex social sciences such as sociology, economics, may offer less exactitude, objectivity or rigor when compared to other sciences.
And yet when you take into account the vast amount of research and practice stemming from the field of I/O Psychology since the early 1900s, I feel we can say with confidence that in spite of this human complexity, psychology does a pretty decent job of being able to measure, correlate and yes even predict the behaviour most likely to be demonstrated by people in a range of organisational settings.
So why is this important, for leaders in the business world (as well as government, NFP and community) to note?
In a powerful article written by AICD fellow Ken Boundy in August this year for the Australian Institute of Company Directors, Boundy offers a call to action for Australian businesses to take seriously their efforts to transform organisational culture, particularly in the wake of the Royal Banking Commission. He states that, without question, one of the most critical issues facing business leaders today is how they must respond to the expectations of their broader stakeholders to operate in a sustainable manner that serves more than the generation of short term profits. Knowing the critical role that organisational culture plays in meeting these expectations, Boundy points clearly to the likes of APRA, ASIC and AICD calling on organisations to take “greater accountability for culture as a component of effective governance”.
Reinforcing this view, one of the key recommendations from the Banking Royal Commission relating to culture, is that “financial services entities must be in … an always-on cycle to monitor culture. They should, as often as reasonably possible, take proper steps to:
- Assess their culture and its governance
- Identify any problems with that culture and governance
- Deal with those problems
- Determine whether the changes it has made have been effective.”
So we know that Boards, CEOs, and management teams have this (or should!) firmly on their radar as a key priority. But for anyone who has ever been tasked with needing to deliver on the above recommendations, they can certainly relate to what most organisations tend to find – this stuff is hard. How can we objectively measure something as nebulous, complex and dynamic as culture? Where do we start? Can’t we just do an engagement survey every 2 years?? Amongst the noise of employee surveys, data collection and lengthy focus groups and interviews, it becomes easy to forget that these methods often capture employee attitudes and opinions, but aren’t necessarily a measure of what most counts – employee behaviour.
One of the most simple yet useful ways of working out how to measure behaviour, relates to an acronym I refer to as the ‘OMO principle’. When partnering with organisations, we use this principle as a set of criteria for how they may approach the task of defining and measuring workplace behaviours. Simply put, OMO stands for the following:
- Observable – can the behaviour be observed overtly, can it be ‘seen’ and not assumed?
- Measurable – are you able to define the behaviour in measurable terms?
- Objective – can you measure this behaviour in a consistent, reliable way that mitigates bias?
This framework helps leaders and HR practitioners to consider how to best approach the task of defining and measuring what they are looking for in people, whether in their selection processes, assessing potential, or measuring performance. These principles keep us from falling trap to the biases we all carry when attempting to measure behaviour, and provide businesses with greater degrees of confidence in the data or insights that stem from these efforts. They also help organisations ‘derisk’ their people decisions, as well as offers a way for businesses to face up to the monumental task of assessing, monitoring and evaluating culture.
Partnering with a psychologist who is trained to define behaviours as specific constructs, and who can help you to measure behaviour in objective and reliable ways, can be a huge asset to being able to determine the effectiveness of your efforts to build and maintain a constructive workplace culture. If you are looking for support to help define, measure and evaluate behaviour in the workplace, or solutions for developing these behaviours in your leaders, we welcome you to contact one of our team of psychologists at Centre for Leadership Advantage here.