What will be the key trends in business psychology over the next 20 years? Here Jock Encombe outlines the major themes that will continue to shape organisations – and focuses on the implications of two big technological changes coming our way.

IBM President Thomas J Watson’s forecast that there would be a world market for no more than five computers is often cited, with good reason, as proof of how hard it is to predict the future. Even in 1979, IBM predicted total PC sales for the 1980s of no more than 295,000: in fact, over 25 million were sold. If one of the world’s most prescient and innovative companies can get it so wrong, then what hope is there for the rest of us?

With the basic features of human behaviour remaining so constant over the ages, psychologists have an easier job of it. So, from an organisational perspective, themes such as leadership, motivation and team-working are always going to be around, and the businesses that can best develop these will always achieve some kind of advantage.

We can also, with a reasonable degree of confidence, predict many of the trends that will shape organisational and leadership behaviour in the coming decades.

Firstly, clients are going to be increasingly demanding of suppliers of psychological services – ever more knowledgeable about what we do, and better able to provide our services in-house or through other channels. In short, if they are to continue paying good money for our skills, they are going to expect even deeper insight into the organisational and psychological challenges they face; and an even richer and more sophisticated picture of how they stack up against their peers and competitors.

The mega-trends of globalisation, climate change and the relative decline of the West also seem certain to continue, though how these play out in any particular organisation or industry will differ widely. Nonetheless, clients will be expecting support with how they manage within and across cultures; with how they work virtually, and with how they manage rapid, structural change.
Demographic trends will continue to follow their inexorable path – with very few exceptions the global workforce is ageing. This will continue to bring into focus issues such as employee well-being, diversity and meaning.

It is likely, however, that the most significant changes to our work will be technology driven. To a large extent it has ever been thus in any area of human endeavour, whether warfare, medicine or the arts. In recent years 
the rise of electronic 360s and increasingly sophisticated survey and research technologies have influenced our work decisively.

One of the reasons for YSC’s success over the past 20 years has been our ability to remain close to the cutting edge of developments in our field, while staying closer still to what our clients need and value. The next 20 years seem likely to reward a similar approach, though the pace of technological change will make it important to peer beyond our clients’ expressed needs. As Henry Ford said, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted they’d have said a faster horse’’

Brain science

The biological sciences are witnessing a remarkable growth of understanding into the genetic and bio-chemical drivers of human behaviour, and organisational psychology is still only scratching the surface of the implications.

Genetics is starting to provide us with insights into the extent to which leaders may be born rather than made: recent research suggests that around 30% of what makes successful people get to the top appears to be accounted for by genetic factors. More specifically, people with a particular version of the serotonin-receptor gene, HTR2A, appear to have a greater predisposition towards optimism and, therefore, job satisfaction and emotional leadership.

A clearer understanding of the effects of hormones such as oxytocin, cortisol, serotonin and testosterone on human behaviour is also emerging. These are significant, respectively, in affecting our capacities for trust, stress-management, resilience and drive. From a business perspective, these have clear implications for critical, inter-connected leadership issues, such as engagement, motivation, risk-tolerance and empathy.

Applying genetics can pose well-known ethical challenges, which legislation in many countries has already anticipated: for instance, by outlawing the use of genetic testing for job selection. But even within these necessary safeguards we can envisage biofeedback technologies that would help leaders monitor and improve their unconscious, hard-wired “reptilian” response to situations – and so exert greater control over their ability to manage stress, empathise, build trust, and to make rational decisions under pressure. As one of the world’s leading authorities on brain imaging, Professor Edward Bullmore of Cambridge University, suggests, through the use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technology – and its ability to reveal the deep workings of the brain – we are coming closer every day to realising Freud’s goal of making the unconscious conscious.

Coming at the same issue from a different perspective, psychodynamic psychotherapy has achieved significant clinical breakthroughs over the past decade, through its understanding and application of ‘mentalisation’, or mindfulness-based techniques. Effective mentalisation, sometimes referred to as ‘theory of mind’, is the ability to put oneself in others’ shoes: without which, of course, our relationship skills are seriously diminished.

These advances could be hugely useful to the development, and management, of senior leaders. It is not controversial, after all, to argue that the roots of much organisational dysfunction and collapse can be traced to leadership hubris and, its partner in crime, lack of empathy (sometimes referred to as MAME, or Middle Aged Male Ego syndrome). Both research and experience show that the longer CEOs become established in their role, the greater the risk of them losing their capacity for empathy. What is increasingly described as the ‘winner effect’ is the heady combination of testosterone and dopamine that comes with success – this builds confidence and creativity but, left unchecked, can also lead to insensitivity and overweening, reckless ambition.

More optimistically, research also suggests that the brain has far higher levels of neuroplasticity than previously thought – so that mental “training” of the right kind can be successful in developing effective new leadership behaviours. In the language of brain science, what is meant by “the right kind” is training with high levels of attention density, or intellectual and emotional focus.

If organisational psychologists can, by drawing on these and subsequent findings, help leaders improve their mastery of these dangerous, archetypal impulses – and weed out those incapable of mastering them – then they will be doing a great service to their clients.

Social Technology

The explosion of social networking is a phenomenon likely to continue, whose implications and possibilities we are still only starting to appreciate. In the business world, social networking tends to get attention for negative reasons: because people are spending too much time on Facebook at work; or because young people are revealing too much career-limiting negative information about themselves.

However the ability of this technology to aid individual and team selection is significant. The best internet dating providers are already impressive in their sophisticated ability to match potential lovebirds. So why shouldn’t this be possible in job selection, where a powerful combination of software and search engines could efficiently identify and analyse the suitability of candidates for a job? Or, in large organisations, propose virtual global teams with the best possible mix of personal styles and capabilities? Several companies have identified this opportunity and it is only a matter of time before it becomes mainstream.

Social networking technology is already being used by organisations to unlock innovation and build alignment. IBM – whose capacity to revolutionise business practises is clearly superior to some of its predictive abilities – has developed an approach to collective decision-making called “the Jam”: a massive electronic global crowd-sourcing forum, which brings to life issues explored in books such as James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds. In 2003, IBM’s ValuesJam™ led to the first new definition of the business’s core values for nearly 100 years.

In 2006, an InnovationJam™ tapped into the ideas of over 150,000 IBM people globally, and generated ten new businesses, which were then funded to the tune of $100m.

Similarly, McKinsey already works with sophisticated email traffic analysis software that gives insight into what companies really think and feel, and into the informal conversations and nexuses that incubate innovation; as well as helping to identify areas of potential concern and opportunity before they would normally hit the radar.

It seems safe to predict, therefore, that social networking technologies will be more widely used in organisations, helping to reap the benefits (and minimise the downsides) of remote working and virtual teams. Despite their Orwellian risks, used wisely they have the capacity to release creativity and encourage the emergence of more distributed, innovative and empowering models of organisation.


By Jock Encombe

Originally published at www.ec-partnership.com