SIOP Impressions: 3 Take-Aways From The World’s Biggest Conference for Work Psychology

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This week, we’ll make a brief pause in the series on work engagement, and instead take a trip to sunny Florida. A couple of weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of participating in the annual SIOP conference in Orlando. SIOP is short for Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, and makes up the world’s foremost association within this field. Each year, they organize a large conference with thousands of participants, attracting both top I/O psychology researchers and the most knowledgeable, progressive HR professionals.

The primary reason for my trip was to present a research paper on talent management and identity, which was great fun. What was even greater, however, was to take part of all the groundbreaking research and practices that were presented by others. After three full days, my head was crammed with all the interesting stuff that goes on around topics like engagement, selection, teams, performance ratings, and not least talent management. Since SIOP really is a hotspot for cutting-edge I/O psychology and HR, listening in to the discussions here is a good way of getting some hints about where we’re heading. So what are the hot topics? I thought I’d share three of my broad impressions from this work psychology Mecca.

  • Teams is where the action is. The key takeaway from this year’s SIOP? That the sexiest research in our field right now is done in the area of teams. Nowhere are there more cool projects, interesting collaborations, and ground-breaking methods. For instance, did you know that NASA is financing a number of skilled researchers to help them understand how to build the most well-functioning teams for space travels? And forget about surveys and simple observation – these researchers are using linguistic analysis, accelerometers, biodata, network analysis, simulations in extreme environments, and a host of other innovative methods to better understand team dynamics. No doubt, the most ground-breaking findings within our field during the coming decade will come in the area of teams.
  • Engagement is embraced in its versatility. Workshops and seminars on engagement drew significant audience all through – hardly surprising. What is new, however, is that both researchers and skilled consultants are starting to let go of the assumption that there is one golden-standard way of measuring engagement and its drivers. Apparently, big data analyses are starting to show that engagement takes very different expressions in different settings, which might necessitate more flexible measurement. And equally important; the drivers of engagement can actually vary a lot from organization to organization. Sometimes supervisor support is most important, sometimes it’s person-job fit, sometimes it’s something else. Repeatedly, the advice to HR practitioners was: Play around. Try different metrics and items, and see which ones do the trick in your organization. Clearly a new development from a discipline that is usually strict on standardization.
  • Even the Americans are questioning the talent concept. The fact that us Northerners have our issues with concepts like “A players” and “Future Stars” is no news, and no surprise. But now the day has come when even the Americans – scientists and practitioners alike – are starting to wonder if the differentiation of employees into different ranks really is the right way to go. In a crowded debate session, Alan Colquitt of Eli Lilly together with well-known professor Paul Sackett went head to head with the concept of high potentials. They argued that if the future is all about collaboration, team creativity, and boundary-crossing, we must stop focusing so much on singling out a small elite. The speakers were met with protest, to be sure – but just the fact that this debate is now being held at SIOP and draws vast interest says something about where we’re heading.

That’s it for now – of course, we will continue looking into these developments within I/O psychology and HR here on the blog. Chances are, we’re in for an exciting future.

Engagement, pt 3: the Three Hallmarks of Engaged Employees

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Welcome back to our series on engagement, where we are now to tackle the real crunch question: How is engagement promoted? As mentioned previously, there is quite some research showing that work engagement is related to important outcomes such as job performance, customer satisfaction, productivity, and decreased absenteeism (Crawford, LePine, & Rich, 2010; Macey et al., 2009; Rich, LePine, & Crawford, 2010; Shimazu et al., 2014). Thus, organizations have every reason to promote it among its employees.

Once more, it is worth going back to the original sources. William Kahn, the founding father of the engagement concept, in his 1990 study took it on himself to identify the factors that contribute to work engagement. In order to do so, he closely studied two very different organizations: A summer camp for adolescents, and a prestigious US architecture firm. Kahn used a combination of comprehensive observation, document analysis, written self-reflections, and in-depth interviewing in order to capture the conditions that made employees engage in, or disengage from, their work. Just to remind ourselves, Kahn’s definition of engagement entails bringing all different aspects of yourself into your work role. Disengagement, conversely, involves withdrawing from the role; performing it as a pre-defined script instead of using your personal resources.

After thorough analysis, Kahn arrived at three broad conditions that seemed to fuel engagement in both organizations: Psychological meaningfulness, psychological safety, and psychological availability (see illustration).

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Psychological meaningfulness, according to Kahn, entails a sense of being important at work: Doing something that matters and making a difference. In his study, he saw that this state was promoted by clear, challenging, and creative tasks, where the employee was able to operate with relatively high autonomy. It also helped if the work role was high-status.

Psychological safety, one can note, has recently attracted a lot of attention after Google identified it as the key feature of their most successful teams. But already in 1990, Kahn argued for its importance for engagement. This concept denotes the sense that it is OK to be yourself, express yourself, and experiment at work without fear of reprimands. To no surprise, Kahn saw that this state was promoted by warm and rewarding relationships with colleagues. Big status differences, on the other hand, tended to compromise psychological safety, for instance when the top dog was allowed to interrupt or correct lower-ranking colleagues.

Finally, psychological availability denotes feeling resourceful: A sense of having all the necessary resources to engage and perform the task at hand. Kahn saw that employees that felt both physically and mentally energized were much more likely to engage. Two factors that clearly withdrew from this was insecurity – e.g., not knowing your own status and mandate within the work setting – and interference from life outside of work, e.g. marital problems or worry about children.

For being a 27-year-old study, Kahn’s account of what creates engagement stands surprisingly strong. Not least, it points to a real key principle: The creation of engagement entails both individual and organizational resources. Companies can certainly promote engagement by implementing a number of practices and norms, but engagement also comes down to making sure employees have the personal resources to harness all this. In our fourth and final episode, we will go into how this can be done.

 

Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/130374826@N06/