Showing posts with label conference. Show all posts
Showing posts with label conference. Show all posts

Monday, 20 February 2012

Predicting leadership young, and a cultural case study

More from the DOP 2012 conference, this time from the pen of Jon Sutton, Managing Editor of The Psychologist and the Digest.
Could C. Moustaka and colleagues, including Ian Bushnell at the University of Glasgow, be pioneering a new field of lifespan occupational psychology? Their poster asked ‘Leadership starts young: Do attachment style, personality and narcissism predict emergent leadership?’ Assessing late primary and early secondary school children during a visit to a science centre, the authors found that extraversion was the best single personality correlate of leadership, but that this was supported by experiences that may well include effective attachment. Aspects of so-called ‘narcissistic performance’, such as ‘I am very good at making other people believe what I want them to believe’, were associated with leadership performance on a ‘build a tower’ task.

‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast: the tale of a nomadic storyteller’ was the intriguing title of a talk from Trixy Alberga, Head of Culture Change at the Highways Agency. Based on a comment made to her, the title reflected the belief that ‘culture is more powerful than strategy, since it reveals how things are actually done, whether or not this was intended’.

The Highways Agency, part of the Department for Transport, promotes the more effective use of the strategic road network by addressing the causes of congestion and unreliability. A large workforce, with mixed backgrounds including culture and preferences brought from previous organisations with powerful cultures, led to clear challenges for Alberga. She reported that engagement scores had suggested there is real room for improvement, especially in leadership at all levels; there were persistent rumours and some data about behaviours regarding diversity; and a greater number of grievances, complaints and sickness than desirable.

Alberga recounted her struggle to tackle the ‘multitude of conflicting stories’ around the organisation’s culture and systems. In attempting to agree a new vision, Alberga has worked towards ‘one story to unite all’. The result – ‘we take professional pride in keeping our roads moving safely’ – is currently the subject of debate, but it was fascinating to hear Alberga describe the occupational psychology behind the choice of each word. Supporting this was a range of interventions including a diary study of how people actually feel about the communications they receive; a ‘back to the floor’ scheme for senior management; and new performance data to include cultural features. ‘Still talking’, concluded Alberga, and these stories from someone making sense of a major and complex organisation were well worth hearing.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

National culture and personality

Here's another report from the 2012 DOP conference.

If people of different nationalities score differently on a personality test, does this say something about national temperament, or simply that the test is biased? Prof Dave Bartram took us through an interesting approach to unknot this tricky issue: when “national differences” in personality also correlate with other measures, we can be more confident they are the real deal.

Bartram worked with a big data set - one million participants all told – but as the correlations were made between countries, not individuals, they involved just 31 cases, a modest sample in which to detect patterns. Correlating the Big 5 personality factors with the four Hofstede dimensions of national culture, he found that each personality measure correlated with one or more Hofstede dimension; for instance, Emotional Stability tended to be higher in cultures that are less masculine, more individualistic, more tolerant of ambiguity, and have less power distance (meaning less acceptance of unequally distributed power).

The next analysis was neat, correlating the cultural dimensions with the standard deviation of personality scores in each country – whether scores tightly clustered or showed large variation - rather than with their average levels. This made it possible to explore the idea that some countries are culturally “tighter” than others, giving less scope for individual difference. The analysis picked up several such effects. The higher the power distance of a culture, the more uniform its members were in terms of measures like agreeableness, conscientiousness or extroversion; the reverse was true for countries high on another measure, individualism. Even with this small data set (the 31 countries) it was possible to predict large amounts of the variance of Big 5 measures from the Hofstede scores, as much as 76% in the case of Emotional Stability.

Correlation of personality with culture ratings might not strike you as objective enough to produce a verdict; perhaps they are both subject to a common confound. But how about correlations with hard measures such as GDP, life expectancy, UNESCO education index and the UNDP human development index? These measures were all found to correlate with standard deviations of personality scores, for instance high GDP was related to larger ranges of openness to experience in the population.

This study doesn't answer whether national culture shapes typical personality or vice versa, although it's useful in honing hypotheses for investigating such matters. But this cascade of correlations does suggest that personality differences between countries, although they are small, reflect something real, rather than meaningless measurement error.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Attrition in the army: why do so many leave during training?

Here's another report from the 2012 DOP conference.


The British army loses nearly one third of its recruits to attrition, many leaving during the first 14 weeks of training. Its size means reducing this figure by a percentage point could save almost £750,000. MOD psychologist Natalie Fisher investigated the nature of this early attrition, taking a multi-layered approach, speaking to recruits at various stages around the training period.

In a series of five focus groups, Fisher drilled deeply into the experiences of successful trainees. She found that the majority had considered leaving at one point or other, due to missing their families or dissatisfactions, such as over basic wage levels. The reasons for pushing on were diverse, but commonly included the desire to serve overseas and a sense of letting the family down.

The focus groups identified a critical period around week seven of training, which proved particularly challenging for leavers: this was the time when they were least likely to feel like a soldier or a sense of belonging. It's probably no coincidence that this period coincides with the weekend home and the chance to catch up with the world left behind...

Interviewing recruits who left during training, Fisher found negative reasons for joining up, such as ‘no career options’, were more frequent than for those who stayed through training. The latter group more often cited being driven by expectations and having family support. The interviews with leavers also identified they were much more likely to feel homesickness from the first week in training onward. Fisher pointed out that the psychological literature on this is problematic, as it focuses on students and children away at camp, and may not be generalisable. Certainly, some of the recommendations from that research, such as ‘get enough sleep’, aren’t entirely compatible with the training experience. However, the advice to establish solid routines and ensure access to someone to speak with are pertinent.

The study raises many questions: for instance, of those who were recruited but never even made it to training, some had concrete reasons, such as illness or family need, but one third simply changed their mind at the last minute. Why? And Fisher spoke to training instructors, who identified some perceived characteristics of those who left, such as a dislike of discipline, but conceded many exits were simply unpredictable. Were they not getting something they were looking for in the role?  Like most organisations, the British army want to warn off applicants who would be a poor fit, but also prevent avoidable attrition of people who could have ultimately been a success in the role. In such high-stakes positions, this is a true balancing act.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Leadership positions for women are often atop a glass cliff


Back in 2003, Michelle Ryan checked her pigeonhole and found an article from the business section of The Times in 2003, stating that the ‘triumphant march of women into the country’s boardrooms has wreaked havoc’ on companies' performance. This was to be the spark for a line of enquiry that has borne years of fruitful research, and the story began her DOP keynote tour of the 'glass cliff'. The term riffs on the metaphor of the glass ceiling – the invisible limit which prevents women from making it to the top of organisations. The glass cliff is an invisible risk, referring to the experience of women who make it to senior positions, only to discover they are unusually precarious.

Ryan began to perceive the glass cliff by scrutinising the claims of that newspaper article, deposited by an unknown friendly colleague. Historical data comparing 19 women appointed to the Board of Directors with a matched sample showed that appointments of women were indeed associated with slumps in share price, but that the slump preceded the appointment. The article had based its claims on a false assumption of causality, and it seemed instead that women were more likely to be appointed to companies in crisis.

Ryan then used experimental investigations involving hypothetical situations. She asked participants to decide how they would fill a position, such as company finance director, by choosing between two similar candidates who differed in gender. When the position was presented within a stable context – a growing company, a winnable political seat – then the candidates were similarly favoured. However, when the situation was presented as one with a high chance of failure – a company in crisis, or an unwinnable seat – the woman was a far more popular selection. People were even more likely to choose a female youth representative for a festival that was experiencing declining popularity.

Perhaps women are seen as better crisis managers than men? (Ryan quoted Eleanor Roosevelt: ‘women are like teabags. You don’t know how strong they are until you put them in hot water.’) In another study, participants judged that a company in a stable context need a leader who was assertive, competitive, or possessed other traits judged to be stereotypically masculine by other participants in a pre-study phase. Meanwhile, leaders in crisis situations should be understanding, tactful, creative – more stereotypically feminine.

But what is it about crises that women are seen as suited for: taking control and improving performance, for instance? Not so; a follow-up that separated out different aspects of leading in crisis found female traits were only favoured for the purpose of soaking up criticism or enduring negative conditions. And another study showed that when the crisis situation had full support of senior leadership, there was no preference for women to take the role. The data suggests that women are preferred when the situation is not just risky but actively precarious, with likely negative repercussions for the situation and themselves.

What are the consequences for female board members? Well, there is evidence that female CEOs have far shorter tenures, and these may reflect the fact that their positions are often set up to fail. Ryan concluded that in the pursuit of equal opportunity, we shouldn't be misled by the raw numbers of women in leadership positions; the nature of the role matters just as much.

In an interesting extension of her experimental work, Ryan and colleagues collected folk theories for the glass cliff via the BBC website. Women tended to believe that women are singled out for precarious positions, or that they have fewer opportunities and therefore accept riskier positions. The majority of men simply didn’t believe that women are differentially placed on the glass cliff.

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Sample article:

ResearchBlogging.orgRyan MK, Haslam SA, Hersby MD, & Bongiorno R (2011). Think crisis-think female: the glass cliff and contextual variation in the think manager-think male stereotype. The Journal of applied psychology, 96 (3), 470-84 PMID: 21171729

Proceedings from the DOP annual conference


Last month saw the BPS's Division of Occupational Psychology hold their annual conference, this year on the theme of delivering excellence. Over our next posts, the Occupational Digest will give a round-up of what we learned at the conference, reporting on established phenomena as well as breaking research. Note as always that conference proceedings are yet to be peer reviewed.