Thoughts about Some Psychological Dimensions of Work

By Dr. John Weaver    

    This was originally published on the Good Company Blog, a publication of the APA Center for Organizational Excellence.

This blog article is my attempt to think through some concepts in an informal way. The thoughts I am writing do not represent a final, carefully reasoned argument but a beginning point meant to elicit some dialogue that will yield a deeper discussion of the psychological dimensions of organizational functioning in the workplace.

I have been thinking about some of the processes involved in psychological functioning that supports effective work. It is easy to assume that “psychologically healthy” (the designation used for the Psychologically Health Workplace Program) equals the absence of diagnosable psychiatric disorders. It makes sense to pay attention to this because the psychiatric diagnosis of depression is the most expensive medical cost to business, by a substantial margin. Treatment costs, missed work days, and loss of productivity when someone who has a diagnosis of depression is unable to fully engage in his or her job duties is very pricey. But I think that the psychological actions that promote high performance involve much more than this. From my perspective, effective psychological factors within the workforce involve healthy emotional functioning, cognitive clarity, effective motivation, and ethical action. (Do you have any other additions to this list?) Let me explore what each of these concepts means to me.

Healthy Emotional Functioning: This is a more complicated dimension than it might seem. Healthy emotional functioning includes the full range of human emotion, including pleasant emotions like happiness, joy and enthusiasm, as well as uncomfortable emotions like sadness, anxiety, and anger.

Two things characterize healthy emotional functioning. First, healthy emotions arise as an appropriate response to the context. Happiness is an appropriate emotional response to succeeding in something, but not to a loss of significant revenue. Anger might arise if the organization is being threatened because an employee has failed to do his or her job. But when emotions are present which don’t match the context or the reality of the situation, there is something unhealthy going on. For example, if a workplace is plagued by anxiety even though the business has a long history of being very profitable, there is likely to be something wrong that needs to be addressed.

Second, healthy emotions are transient. Healthy emotions are flexible. An emotionally healthy worker may be angry about the failure of a work process, leading to a revision of the process or holding another employee accountable for his or her actions, but the anger dissipates as the problem is resolved. In an article published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, titled Emodiversity and the Emotional Ecosystem, Jordi Quidbach, and his colleagues noted that, in their study of 37,000 subjects, those who had an experience of more varied emotions were both physically and emotionally healthier.

Healthy emotions provide a competitive advantage for an organization. Essentially, emotions function as a feedback system for human beings. Anger arises when there is a perception of threat. Anxiety functions to alert the individual to be cautious and check for accuracy. Enthusiasm promotes energy for a task. This is a dimension that humans bring to the workplace that machines do not provide. Different personalities bring differing emotional tones to the workplace. It can be messy. And the other dimensions of psychological health I mentioned above are needed to provide balance and increase its value within the workplace. But healthy, variable, and flexible emotions are a dynamic source of energy for the workplace.

Cognitive Clarity: The workplace has evolved to place the quality of cognitive clarity at the forefront of marketplace success in the 21st Century. There is a need for complex technological expertise, clear thinking and good decision making. The amount of data that is available today has the paradoxical effect of threatening clear thinking. In the face of information overload, some become paralyzed by analysis, while others cherry pick information to match their preconceived beliefs. In organizations that are psychologically healthy, there is an awareness of the threats to clear thinking, and the cognitive discipline for making effective decisions.

Threats to clear thinking arise in the face of intense emotion. Even when that emotion is a healthy and adaptive response that is appropriate to context, it will alter cognition. For example, happiness has the effect of broadening thinking (see Shawn Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage) This is important in creativity but can require some extra effort if the organization needs a narrow and clear focus to complete a task. Anger can result in the creation of a “hostile intent” story that identifies someone as an enemy who is purposefully attempting to hurt me (See Janis Cannon-Bowers and Eduardo Salas’ book, Making Decisions Under Stress). This story may or may not be accurate, but is a part of the thought patterns that arise when anyone is angry.

Awareness of the impact of emotion on cognition is essential to provide stable responses within an organization. It is also true that thoughts can quiet or even change emotions. Taking time to ascertain whether the “hostile intent” story that arises, associated with feeling angry, can provide a correction to the emotional response that quiets the anger if the facts reveal that there is no enemy or attempt to harm. Healthy cognitions promote a clearer picture of reality.

A second dimension of the importance of effective cognition is found in the process of decision-making. Behavioral economics alerts organizations to common mistakes that humans make when analyzing data and making choices Daniel Kahneman identifies two systems for decision making in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. These systems differ greatly, one being more intuitive and fast, and the other being more thoughtful and slow, and through this difference provide flexibility in the way we make choices. When we better understand these systems we can make decisions much more effectively because we are more likely to use the right process for the right problem we are trying to solve. This cognitive clarity promotes organizational success.

Effective Motivation: Motivating human beings are one of the most essential tasks of an organization. It can also be one of the most mysterious endeavors. If motivation were the simple, straightforward task as it is often conceptualized, it would be a matter of setting priorities for what is most important in the organization and giving the highest monetary reward for that, and tapering the reward down to the least important priority. If you needed someone to work harder, you simply give him or her more money. But things are not that simple.

Many things can affect motivation. Some of those are internal factors like a person’s values, preferences, or even physiological factors like hunger, fatigue, etc. Motivation is also influenced by external factors, like money and recognition from others, among many other things. And these factors are changeable. A value may be a strong dimension of motivation in one context and have less influence in another.

A psychologically healthy workplace is a dynamic environment. In an organization in which the entire workforce is engaged with one another, managers and employees, there is an ability to balance the need for just and fair compensation, for finding opportunities for workers to use their talents and make a contribution, and for working to solve the inevitable problems that arise that are de-motivating.

Because of its complexity, the effort to support the best that each person has to bring to the workplace is an ongoing endeavor. Fortunately, this is an area where making an honest effort to do things right has a major positive impact. It is impossible to make the perfect choices at all times for all individuals within an organization (and even more difficult if the scope is broadened to include customers). But making progress on creating an environment where each contribution is valued is important. In fact, feeling valued at work is one of the hallmarks of companies that have been identified as psychologically healthy workplaces.

Ethical Action: It may be a surprise to consider ethics to be a part of the psychologically healthy workplace, but I believe it is an important element, because it highlights the way these effective workplaces treat employees and customers. One of the problems that organizations face is that it is valuable to have aggressive behavior in order to be successful. But that aggression can spin out of control and cause damage within the organization or between the organization and potential customers. The resulting damage often has more than momentary impacts and can reduce the effectiveness of the organization for a long time.

Alternatively, it is common that some members of a workforce will expend minimal effort to stay employed. This can also have a significant negative impact on an organization. It is a breach of ethical responsibility to others in the organization to harm others by not putting in the effort expected within the contract for employment.

Ethics are codes of behavior that attempt to put reasonable controls in place to identify what actions are acceptable within the organization and which behaviors are unacceptable.

“Ethics” is primarily a way of recognizing that there is an obligation to others that guides behavior, beyond the pursuit of personal gain. When a team thinks and acts ethically, it is more likely that everyone will benefit because there is an advantage when humans work together to accomplish tasks that are beyond the reach of any individual effort. For that cooperation to be achieved, it is likely that there will be times when some individuals must sacrifice immediate gain for the benefit of all. Formalizing the decision-making about this results in a code of ethics.

This dimension of the workplace is rarely discussed. Sometimes I have heard well meaning and intelligent people articulate – what I think is a naive belief – in which the competing forces of the marketplace will somehow automatically result in an acceptable cooperative environment. While it may be that, through trial and error, the pursuit of personal gain in an unfettered marketplace will eventually be tempered to include obligations to others, the failure to act with responsibility toward others can have serious and lasting impacts on co-workers and customers that may result in a loss of trust. Ethical systems provide guides to behavior so that we can learn from the mistakes others have made and create more successful organizations based on that knowledge, avoiding the long term damage that comes from self-interested behavior that damaged others when it occurred and damaged future relationships. Throughout human history, there have been some who reflect on and set expectations for ethical action to promote thinking that fosters the long-term responsibilities of action that foster a better society.

Getting all of these aspects of an organization pursuing psychological excellence for all employees to work together is challenging. It can be a time consuming endeavor and it must be ongoing if it is to be successful. But in the effort to craft the most successful and sustainable organization, effective psychological functioning is an essential component of success.

In a psychologically high performing workplace, these elements I have discussed contribute to increased employee involvement, work-life balance, employee growth & development, health & safety, and recognition; the components used to measure an organization for a Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award.

I hope these ideas will give the reader a chance to pause and wonder what might be possible. I am certain that there are other thoughts and ideas that might be useful critiques or additions to mine, so I look forward to reading your reactions. I do not think I have the last word on this, and I am interested in your thoughts too. Please add your comments!

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