It’s all in your head: psychology and the modern workplace


Workplace or ‘industrial’ relations was once a multidisciplinary field of study in which psychological approaches shared billing with other social sciences such as economics, sociology, law, history and institutional studies. However, as industrial relations has declined and personnel management has evolved into human resource management (HRM), psychology has increasingly displaced its one-time partners.

Reasons for this development can be touched upon briefly. Chief among these are global changes to workplace practices over the past 30 years associated with both the perceived importance of human resources to business competitiveness, and the contraction of union power and strikes. These developments have permitted the re-emergence among both managers and researchers of ‘unitarist’ perspectives that presume a single source of legitimate workplace authority and lead to the progressive refinement of methods for workforce control.

Business school teaching and scholarship have paralleled these changes in workplace practice as organisational psychologists have increasingly monopolised the space once shared with sociologists and institutionalists. As a result, the graduates produced by contemporary business schools are likely to have a good understanding of some general principles relating to topics such as leadership, motivation and individual performance, but have less understanding of the complex web of laws, customs, social pressures and institutional factors that also affect the way people behave in the workplace.

Should the trend towards the psychologisation of workplace relations cause concern? There are three reasons to believe so. First is the growing concern that psychologised workplace relations may fail to deliver upon expectations about how they will improve organisational performance, employee satisfaction and wellbeing. Over the past 30 years a new breed of managers has emerged, many of them schooled in psychologised workplace relations and committed to contributing measurable gains to strategic goals. But are their efforts paying off? Scepticism persists among senior managers about the strategic contribution of HRM to performance. Studies seeking to demonstrate links between HRM and performance outcomes encounter continuing criticism.

Performance management techniques may achieve little more than increasing employee stress. Equally telling are other studies that expose role conflict among this new generation of HR professionals arising from expectations to deliver simultaneously as strategic partners and as welfare advocates for the workforce. Narrowly trained managers with responsibilities for people management might be ill-equipped to understand and make their mark in the complex social context of the workplace.

Psychologised workplace relations might lean towards a myopic view of people and their interests based on narrow behavioural research into individual motivation and response. Psychology-based HRM research is founded in positivist assumptions that obstruct the presentation of ‘self’ by research subjects. What emerges is an atomised view of people in the workplace that is not politically neutral, favouring as it does the application of ‘neoliberal’ views of rights and interests while discouraging collective structures and the expression of dissent. The outcome is an unbalanced understanding of the multitude of often competing interests that actually govern workplace behaviour.

There is also a growing body of research exploring how national cultural factors generate diverse HRM practices. Nevertheless, much research into people management continues to be psychology driven and US centric, generating simplistic ideas about the universal effects of workplace relations practices. The lesson here is not that industrial and organisational psychology is necessarily bad for workplace relations research and practice, but that balance is needed with other social sciences, and that insights about the behaviour of individuals in organisations need to be placed in a broader social, legal, political and institutional context.

This is a shortened version of a research article ‘The psychologisation of workplace relations: Why social context matters’ from the Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources, October 2014.

This article was republished in the September 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘Head space’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here

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It’s all in your head: psychology and the modern workplace


Workplace or ‘industrial’ relations was once a multidisciplinary field of study in which psychological approaches shared billing with other social sciences such as economics, sociology, law, history and institutional studies. However, as industrial relations has declined and personnel management has evolved into human resource management (HRM), psychology has increasingly displaced its one-time partners.

Reasons for this development can be touched upon briefly. Chief among these are global changes to workplace practices over the past 30 years associated with both the perceived importance of human resources to business competitiveness, and the contraction of union power and strikes. These developments have permitted the re-emergence among both managers and researchers of ‘unitarist’ perspectives that presume a single source of legitimate workplace authority and lead to the progressive refinement of methods for workforce control.

Business school teaching and scholarship have paralleled these changes in workplace practice as organisational psychologists have increasingly monopolised the space once shared with sociologists and institutionalists. As a result, the graduates produced by contemporary business schools are likely to have a good understanding of some general principles relating to topics such as leadership, motivation and individual performance, but have less understanding of the complex web of laws, customs, social pressures and institutional factors that also affect the way people behave in the workplace.

Should the trend towards the psychologisation of workplace relations cause concern? There are three reasons to believe so. First is the growing concern that psychologised workplace relations may fail to deliver upon expectations about how they will improve organisational performance, employee satisfaction and wellbeing. Over the past 30 years a new breed of managers has emerged, many of them schooled in psychologised workplace relations and committed to contributing measurable gains to strategic goals. But are their efforts paying off? Scepticism persists among senior managers about the strategic contribution of HRM to performance. Studies seeking to demonstrate links between HRM and performance outcomes encounter continuing criticism.

Performance management techniques may achieve little more than increasing employee stress. Equally telling are other studies that expose role conflict among this new generation of HR professionals arising from expectations to deliver simultaneously as strategic partners and as welfare advocates for the workforce. Narrowly trained managers with responsibilities for people management might be ill-equipped to understand and make their mark in the complex social context of the workplace.

Psychologised workplace relations might lean towards a myopic view of people and their interests based on narrow behavioural research into individual motivation and response. Psychology-based HRM research is founded in positivist assumptions that obstruct the presentation of ‘self’ by research subjects. What emerges is an atomised view of people in the workplace that is not politically neutral, favouring as it does the application of ‘neoliberal’ views of rights and interests while discouraging collective structures and the expression of dissent. The outcome is an unbalanced understanding of the multitude of often competing interests that actually govern workplace behaviour.

There is also a growing body of research exploring how national cultural factors generate diverse HRM practices. Nevertheless, much research into people management continues to be psychology driven and US centric, generating simplistic ideas about the universal effects of workplace relations practices. The lesson here is not that industrial and organisational psychology is necessarily bad for workplace relations research and practice, but that balance is needed with other social sciences, and that insights about the behaviour of individuals in organisations need to be placed in a broader social, legal, political and institutional context.

This is a shortened version of a research article ‘The psychologisation of workplace relations: Why social context matters’ from the Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources, October 2014.

This article was republished in the September 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘Head space’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here

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