Trust the people-science when recruiting, motivating and developing engineers

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Baby_pushing_buttonIn talking to a friend the other day, it became clear that he had little regard for organisational psychology.  He was a manager in an SME, recruiting, motivating and developing engineers. He had no time for the idea from organisational psychology that one could predict the candidate who will do best when actually in post.  He preferred to go on ‘gut feel’, commenting that he would ‘just know’ when he had found the right candidate.  It got me wondering how it was that a discipline like engineering that is such a rich exploiter of the physical sciences could be so dismissive of the social sciences.

It’s about people

Like the term suggests, social sciences are about people.  Psychology is the primary discipline of the social sciences that is of interest to engineers and managers.  Psychology (and specifically organisational psychology) considers people as individuals and gives us understanding of how individuals relate to their environment and to others including colleagues and managers.  It tells how they relate to their work, describing factors like motivation which comes from the work they do and from the conditions they work in.  Many professionals such as human resource managers and trainers learn psychology.  General management courses contain a modicum of organisational psychology with brief coverage of subjects like motivation.

Engineering and organisational psychology are hugely similar in the way they use science.  Engineers, by way of example, undertake field experiments, taking many millions of measurements of radio signal strength in wireless networks.  They use this empirical data to develop algorithms for use in computers to generalise and predict signal propagation in other similar networks.  That way, an engineer can plan a wireless network anywhere in the world without actually going there.  The result is the sub-discipline of radio network planning and with it the engineering industries of wireless consulting and wireless modelling software.  Every mobile network in the world exploits such science at huge cost saving and benefit to mobile users.

The above is one example.  But the same is true wherever one turns in engineering – from electronics to fluids to quality management.  The ideas of observation or measurement, sampling and inference and subsequent generalisation of results are well accepted.  And it’s how engineers have come to understand the properties of raw materials and the performance of engineering phenomena like signal propagation. It’s one reason why engineering has come to achieve so much for society.

Parallels in people management

So what about parallels in people management and specifically in selection of staff?  In the earlier part of the 20th century psychologists developed theories about mental ability or intelligence and about personality.  They correlated links between these unique and substantially unchanging personal characteristics and how people perform in various jobs.  They found that job holders who are of above average intelligence (when compared to most folk in that type of job) tend to do best.  And they concluded that they could metricate such characteristics.  They found that they could tell from measurable personality traits like conscientiousness how well someone would fit a particular job.  Candidates in sales and research need to be high in openness to ideas whereas managers high in extroversion tend to be better transformational leaders.  So just like engineers, organisational psychologists conducted field experiments, built theories (or algorithms) and generalised application of these theories.  They build models to explain the various phenomena that predict the way people will perform.  And like engineers, organisational psychologists know the validity and applicability of their theories and models.  The only difference is that organisational psychologists are dealing in people, not things.

The result of this early research is that assessment of personal characteristics and the prediction of how people will perform when in a job is now a mature science.  Appropriately qualified people-management professionals now have access to inventories or questionnaires that they can use to assess a person’s mental ability, their personality, how well they’ll fit in a group, how they approach tasks and how they fit with the characteristics of their chosen career.  Just as scientific research has fuelled engineering development, so psychology research has fuelled the development of management tools and practices.  And these management practices embrace psychology through the tools of psychometrics.  But just as some engineers prefer to see engineering as a ‘black art’ so some managers prefer to trust their ‘gut feel’ when making people management decisions.

Ill-educated wet fingers

Now, continuing the story from above, radio network planning engineers would regard those who use a wet finger to predict signal propagation as ill-educated.  They’d regard someone who replaces valid and accessible theory with crude heuristics as unprofessional.  They’d say simply, science allows us to plan accurately.  So where does this place my friend?  A rhetorical question of course.  And the argument is this.  As an engineer, and as a manager appraising techniques for selecting and assessing the competency and behaviour of engineers, reflect on what you are being told by your people-management specialists.  Reflect on the world of occupational psychology in terms that you understand.  Appraise the discipline in the same way as you would engineering.  Appraise it from the science.

The world of organisational psychology is like engineering.  It offers robust methods for designing jobs, for recruiting to roles, for managing motivation and for conducting training and other change interventions.   So when engaging in people management, investigate and ultimately trust the science.  Just as engineers trust physical science, so managers must trust people science.

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