The science of… Occupational Psychology

I did it! Yay me! A complete look at the Science of… Occupational Psychology. The purpose of the series of posts has been simply to provide some better insight into the methodologies that occ psychs use. L&D is my heart and soul, and long may it continue. I enjoy what occ psych has to offer though, and I don’t know if I’ll venture back into that world proper, but it is a fascinating world. Not least because some smart folks identified a need for a new type of consultant and produced this new profession!

Cynicism aside, occupational psychology will continue to be the specialists that organisations seek to help produce the structures I’ve mentioned because they’ve got a business to worry about. HR teams will know these things are needed, but often have so many operational and strategic tasks that need to be achieved, that there’s no wonder consultants are sought.

So that’s it. There’s no more. I’m tired of 2 weeks of posting. Gonna take a break for a few days and go back to my infrequent posting and ranting. It’s much more fun. For me, at least. I thank you 🙂

A great and obvious suggestion from Martin Couzins.

Here’s a list of the posts in this series:

The science of… Assessment Centres
The science of… Psychometrics
The science of… Competency Frameworks
The science of… Ergonomics
The science of… Appraisals
The science of… Learning and Development

The science of… Learning and Development

HA! I could really fall flat on my face on this one if I don’t get it right. Especially after many of my self-righteous rants over recent weeks. And here it is. The truth about L&D. Let’s dance.

Learning and Development has been around for a long time. You could argue anyone involved in delivering knowledge is an L&Der. You could also argue that L&D is not restricted to sitting in HR. You could argue that L&D should be lead by business leaders. You could argue that L&D is a mickey mouse department in a company. We’re not here to argue who should be involved in L&D. We’re here to discuss the mechanics of providing an effective L&D function.

Business Needs Analysis

Typically referred to as Training Needs Analysis. I’ve left the ‘Training’ piece off the subtitle and called it ‘Business’ as I don’t believe L&D is restricted to ‘training’. Purpose of the function aside, the place to start is by identifying what are the needs of the business. This doesn’t mean looking at the business objectives and then drawing a line of sight to L&D objectives. It also doesn’t mean analysing appraisals to identify what training has been requested.

It’s about looking at the way the business operates and identifying the areas where support is needed to develop further. For example, a production line may be efficient at the number of units it produces in an hour. It may not be efficient though at highlighting issues with machinery and reporting these. Or, a project team may work well according to instruction and direction from the project manager, but may not work well together. Or, an individual in a lone role may know how to network well and spread knowledge through a business but time management may be a crucial issue in delivering projects.

By looking at the way the business operates – and that’s the only objective place you can gain the information – you can confidently target the L&D intervention needed.

Design and Development

So you’ve identified the business need. Then comes designing and developing the appropriate intervention. This sounds like it’s the easy part. But you have to consider so much when designing an intervention. Be it e-learning, blended learning, training course, workshop, facilitated discussion, coaching, mentoring, job shadowing, accreditation, qualification based, or some other form of intervention there are some basics to be considered.

First comes understanding about the way people learn. There’s a lot of research on learning styles, memory (both short term and long term), models about change, the learning process, human behaviour, and it’s all relevant stuff. The intervention has to consider whether or not it has considered these variants, and how it will be inclusive of most if not all of them.

Then comes considering whether or not you’ve actually developed an appropriate intervention. What’s the best way for the group to learn the required skill? Is it what you’ve decided or what the business needs? You may well have a belief that a particular methodology is the best approach, but it may not be appropriate for the group. Take the production line example. Taking them offsite for in-depth case study review and training on risk management may work and be effective, but might be easier if it’s done on the job and with real life management of the situation.

Importantly, the design also includes the collateral. Workbook? Handouts? Deck? Flipcharts? Branding? These are all important and although may go unmissed, if done well add to the learning experience.


Ah the best part of the job. Well for me anyway. Standing up and showing off your knowledge and being the centre of attention (not like me at all *coughs*). The person delivering has a lot to learn about how to engage with a group on so many levels.

Do you get body language? Not just eye contact, nodding, pacing, proximity, boredom and obvious behaviours like that. But things like – curious looks, note taking, the tone of voice someone takes, the way one person reacts to another, and more – these are the key behaviours that need to be understood, so that they can be responded to.

Do you get language? It’s easy to miss the essence of what someone is asking if you just take it at face value. Have you listened to the way the question has been phrased? What about how they’re responding verbally to others? And the way they’re commenting on what you’ve said. It’s vital to be tuned in to these things so you know in what direction the conversation needs to be lead.

If it’s a course, then you may also need to consider the use of exercises. Should they be practical? (Yes) Can they be theoretical? (Possibly) What about role plays? (only as a last resort) Should I use case studies (If appropriate) What about theoretical? (Again, if appropriate). The aim of any exercise should be always to raise awareness of a missing skill that needs to be learned. Through the exercise there should be learning that says “this is how you do it”.


The oft missed piece of any training. I blogged about this a couple of weeks ago. Essentially though what you’re looking to confirm is – was the training effective and helped improve a skill or not? Read my previous post for more info as I’ll just be repeating myself.

And that’s the heart of any L&D function right there. I don’t think I’ve missed anything. I may have skimmed over certain bits, but this is all about looking at the science of it. The science piece here is about the process identified above. Pull me up if I’ve missed something and be sure to add your own stuff in the comments.

Posts in this series:

The science of… Assessment Centres
The science of… Psychometrics
The science of… Competency Frameworks
The science of… Ergonomics
The science of… Appraisals
The science of… Occupational Psychology

The science of… Appraisals

Look. I had to get to this one eventually. I’ve been pushing it aside long enough. It was us ok? It was occupational psychologists that said: You need to set SMART objectives, you need to do annual appraisals, you need competency frameworks, you need to give effective feedback. IT WAS ALL US. There. I’ve said it. Now, here’s the science…

It’s nothing you don’t know already. You want to recognise and reward performance but how can you do it unless you appraise your staff? It’s a win-win argument. I can review the objectives I’ve set you, review your projects, review your behaviour and appraise how well you’ve done. Then – and only then, can I decide on what level of salary increase you are likely to deserve. The logic is flawless.

The appraisal provides an opportune moment to provide feedback, develop your staff, give some coaching and all in one neat package. HOW COULD THIS FAIL?

Because of complete, total and utter misunderstanding of the truth behind appraisals. An appraisal should only ever be a summary of every conversation you have ever had with your direct report. The annual review was meant to be the one point of the year where you formally sit down and do the review of the collection of your reviews you’ve already been doing.

And that’s where it all started to go horribly wrong. Everyone knows about the initiatives for continuous improvement that came and went. Total Quality Management, Management By Objectives, Competency Frameworks, Coaching. These are all excellent models. The one and only reason they are looked on with such hatred is the piss poor education about how they should be implemented and used.

The best – truly – appraisal I had was a 45 minutes discussion with my first manager in my 3rd year of working for him. He understood what he was meant to do over the course of the year. We had regular catch ups, he regularly reviewed my work, I regularly received feedback, he would give me coaching when I clearly needed it, and he recognised my work. The annual review was then a formal point to sit down and say “Well, what do you want to do next year?”.

The reason appraisals are given a bad name is because the process is not understood, respective parties aren’t sure what they’re meant to be doing, no follow up is taken, and the review ends up being a 3 hour meeting producing a 15 page review document. I am not exaggerating on any of those things I’ve mentioned. I have experienced all and am shocked by all.

So, where’s the science? It’s in the application of the process. It doesn’t really matter what document you have, what framework or model you adhere to. The important piece comes from understanding the process and engaging with it fully. Seek out training, understand the process, ask questions, find out what’s expected – fully engage yourself with the process. It will make for a much more valid and reliable appraisal process. And that will sing to the heart of every occupational psychologist who came before me, and will sing to every one of your staff who you involve in this truly developmental process.

Posts in this series:

The science of… Assessment Centres
The science of… Psychometrics
The science of… Competency Frameworks
The science of… Ergonomics
The science of… Learning and Development
The science of… Occupational Psychology

The science of… Ergonomics

Last week I posted 3 pieces in my series of The Science of… Occupational Psychology. I’m going to try and be disciplined and finish them off this week. Next up then, we look at ergonomics.

Ergonomics is all about the design of a physical object and the way we interact with it. For example, take your standard chair. It has a particular design and purpose. The study of ergonomics informs us about what enables good design and what doesn’t. This particular topic is not restricted to occupational psychology. It also crosses boundaries with Health and Safety, Art, Architecture, Home Furnishings and even Technology.

So why would an occupational psychologist be concerned with the design and use of an object? Well, when you think about it, one of the outputs of the way we interact with an object informs about how much we enjoy and are pleased with that object. If you have purchased a new chair for work and it is comfortable, aids your posture, and is adjustable to your liking, you will have an association with this object. That association will stay with you until you are convinced the object needs to change.

A lot of research goes into the design of pretty much any object you can see on your desk. Your telephone, laptop, monitor, mouse, chair, pedestal, desk, tray stack, and more, have undergone some level of research and development into identifying the ideal way they can be utilised. What this enables is a pleasant work environment that you are comfortable with and have good memories of. If you consider Herzberg’s theory of motivation, where he discusses motivational and hygiene factors, ergonomics is clearly a hygiene factor. Get it right and people will be passe about their interaction with it, get it wrong and you’ll have hell to pay.

In the wider context then, this also plays out with how office spaces are designed. Open plan or walled up offices? Same building or remote work spaces? Dedicated desk, or hot-desk? All these play an important part in an employee’s state of well-being and engagement. Sure, ergonomics doesn’t directly affect all those, but the design and use of the objects that enable all those will have an affect.

I’ve not gone into the actual science of ergonomics, as this isn’t my field of speciality. Instead, I wanted to give an insight into why it’s important. Consider for a moment if the mouse you are using were instead oval shaped, you held it by encasing the whole thing in the palm of your hand and the buttons were at your finger tips. How would that change your experience of, interaction with and association with that mouse? That’s what ergonomics aims to uncover and provide insight into.

Posts in this series:

The science of… Assessment Centres
The science of… Psychometrics
The science of… Competency Frameworks
The science of… Appraisals
The science of… Learning and Development
The science of… Occupational Psychology

The science of… Competency Frameworks

Seems like an apt one to choose seeing I went on a competency framework workshop today. I have an issue with the workshop, but will save that for another post once this series is completed.

So today’s post in the Science of… Occupational Psychology is all about competency frameworks. What a beast this is!

Where in the world do I begin with this? Ok here it is, the age old mantra about competency frameworks – You know your staff can do the technical side of their job, and that’s measurable, but how do you measure how they behave? With a competency framework!

Ok, so look, I know they can be contentious, but they mean well. Something about the road to hell comes to mind. And, I’m in the middle of developing our own company competency framework. They’re not bad. They just get sidelined. But this post isn’t about justifying the existence of competency frameworks, it’s about how they get constructed. I warn you now, there will be jargon, I can’t help it today.

Company Values

The first place to start is to identify and define what the company values are and how these are understood by staff. What this means in reality is to do an audit of how staff define and understand the values. Is it the cleaner at Nasa scenario or is it a blank face?

Once you’ve got this, you have a fair place of understanding what the competency framework needs to look at. That’s to say, is performance the issue? Is it interpersonal skills? Is it communication? Is it development? Is it being fun? Or a mix of these?

Job Analysis

This is the crux of it. This is where it all starts from. Meeting with staff, carrying out focus groups, interviews, workshops, offsites, party’s (well not quite). The key questions here are about:
– what are the key activities you do day to day?
– what are the behaviours expected of you at work?
– what are the positive behaviours you see and are rewarded for?
– what are the negative behaviours you understand are not in line with company values?

The responses from those produce rich information about understanding the behaviours cum competencies that staff currently exhibit. This isn’t about what management want them to exhibit, it’s what they’re currently exhibiting. This information then needs to be grouped, or themed to produce the core competencies.

These competencies then form the standard, consistent basis that everyone will be measured against. You then need to produce indicators of those behaviours e.g. “making the right decision” would need a positive indicator such as “able to collect accurate information to make informed decisions” and a negative indicator such as “makes no effort to gather information, making judgements based on own subjective opinions”.

This is a lot of work. A LOT OF WORK. While at my last company, a team of us spent 2 weeks doing nothing but producing the competency framework for the client who needed it. It was the bane of my life. But extremely satisfying once complete. If only because it was complete.

Throughout this process though, there needs to be regular reviews with the business to ensure the competency framework is being produced in line with the language, culture and values. If a team does this in solo, you run the very high chance of producing something which might be excellent but simply not fit for purpose.


So it’s complete. It’s produced. You can now announce to the world you have a new competency framework. Everyone cheers and forgets about it 2 minutes later.

The key thing is to embed the framework in every part of your being as a business. First hit the obvious places – recruitment, appraisals, promotions, objective setting. Those will be the high profile areas that everyone will already understand and then be able to draw the line of sight of how the competency framework will only enhance and strengthen those processes. There will need to be training and roll out of the framework, but this should be with the objective in mind of updating the current processes – not a new way of doing things, an improved way of doing things. What the framework enables you to do is to give structure to all these processes – and that structure comes from staff not from HR. What’s the importance of that? It’s a business initiative, not a HR initiative.

This will take time. At least a year. Then once you’ve got that, you can think about other initiatives the competency framework should be used. Talent management, leadership development, business planning, learning and development, culture development, employee engagement – you get the idea? You have a core base from which you are already measuring staff. You’re not just taking it further and demonstrating how you can use it strengthen the company culture and brand.


How often should it be revised? When managers start to complain en masse about it’s applicability to the business. Not 2-3 years, but when you have every department coming to you with feedback that says – I cannot use this anymore we need to update it.

And what do you do in that case? Follow the above process. It’s a long, involved process. But once developed and used effectively, it becomes a core piece of the way a business functions.

Is it really objective?

No. It’s still based on interpretation of each competency and of each indicator. How does “Making the right decisions” differ from “Ability to discern quality information”? Or “ability to communicate well with all staff” to “understands how to engage actively with others”?

It’s objective insofar that it’s developed in conjunction with the business. If a sole developer or consultancy or business unit takes charge then it will be subjective as there’s no business context that underpins it. It is validated through the business. It’s use is only validated when managers actively come back to you and say – “I found it useful to use the competency framework because I got stuck on how to further develop my staff”.

Posts in this series:

The science of… Assessment Centres
The science of… Psychometrics
The science of… Ergonomics
The science of… Appraisals
The science of… Learning and Development
The science of… Occupational Psychology

The science of… Psychometrics

Yesterday I started a series of posts on: The science of… Occupational Psychology. Today I continue with talking about psychometrics.

You mention psychometrics and people immediately think about profiling, being boxed in, being classed as unsuitable, and a host of other negative associations. It’s all hogwash of course. These things are spouted by those who have zero concept about how psychometrics should be used, their value and the insight they provide.<

Personality Theory

Where do we start? Well the first thing to understand is that psychometric tests are all about providing an easy to understand frame of reference for personality. This frame of reference is often steeped in two schools of thought. They are either based in trait theory or type theory.

Trait theory is about a scale of behaviour. The theory argues that we all have a range of behaviours, and we will exhibit various strengths of those behaviours. For example, we all have the capacity for ‘social boldness’ but we may differ the extent to which we display that behaviour. We can have a strength in this behaviour or it can be a weakness. The most popular psychometric that uses trait theory is the 16PF personality questionnaire – distributed by OPP Ltd in the UK.

Type theory is about either exhibiting a behaviour, or not. The theory argues that we will all have preferences for behaviour, and this is the place we will default to in any given situation. We might be able to learn the opposite behaviour, but this does not mean we can do both at the same time. It means that we develop a maturity in our understanding of behaviours and are able to exhibit both types. Thus, we may be extrovert by preference, but equally able to exhibit introvert behaviours when appropriate. The most popular psychometric tool that uses type theory is the Myers Briggs Type Indicator – distributed again by OPP Ltd in the UK.

Types of Psychometrics

As well as personality based psychometrics, there are also other types of psychometrics which are very commonplace – the biggest distributor of which is SHL in the UK.

Aptitude tests and ability tests measure your ability to do a certain task e.g. analytical skills, inference skills, deduction skills, critical reasoning.

Verbal reasoning tests measure your ability to understand verbal instruction.
Numerical reasoning tests measure your ability to understand mathematical problems

Construction of Psychometrics

The key thing that sets psychometrics apart from other questionnaires such as Belbin team roles or the Honey and Mumford Learning Styles, is that there is rigorous construction of the questionnaires. Every psychometric developed goes through a process of being validated.

This means it has to show to be reliable. That is, if you retake the questionnaire, your answers will be consistent.

It has to also show to be valid. That is, a set of or bank of questions measure what it purports to measure.

A set of norms is produced to enable a benchmark from the results. That is, whatever your results may show from a psychometric, you are measured against an appropriate norm group, and as such your results interpreted appropriately.

Standardised administration is a key part of psychometrics. Instructions on how to complete a questionnaire must be understood by anyone undertaking the test.

Feedback and Interpretation

The most important part of completing the questionnaires is receiving feedback from a fully qualified person. Qualification means they have attended a training programme where they learn about all the things I’ve mentioned above. Any person claiming they are qualified will have 2 certificates to prove this. One is the ability to administer and feedback results – a Level A qualification in occupational competence. The second is the ability to use, administer and interpret a specific personality tool. This is the Level B qualification in occupational competence.

A qualified person will be able to take your results and provide insight to you based on the answers you’ve provided. At no point should this be judgemental or profiling. Instead it should be only about feedback and insight.

Once you’ve received feedback you should always receive a report that explains the results.

Myths about Psychometrics

There are those who will tell you that you can fake a test, or answer it in your favour. The likelihood of you being able to do this is seriously slim. The construction of psychometrics means that the questions are designed to not be faked. that’s why you’ll often find that the same question seems to be asked several times in different ways. That’s done so you answer consistently. You might be clever, and you might think you can fake it, but you can’t. Trust me.

There are those who will tell you that you can’t change once you’ve been profiled. Oh that’s just nonsense. First you’re not being profiled. You’ve provided a set of answers and based on the information you’ve provided a set of results are produced. It’s totally based on the information you’ve given. Second – and importantly – you can change your behaviours. Significant life changing events can have profound impacts on us and they do. Death, birth, job change, redundancy, divorce, marriage, all have profound effects on our condition. And they can influence and change your behaviour. It does normally have to be something quite significant though in order for your behaviour to change.

There are those who will claim they can exhibit all behaviours all times of the day. Idiots. As I’ve explained above, you can learn behaviours, but that takes time and you will default to a way of being in most situations. You can and will learn how to act differently, but this will often be in relation to and dependent on the situation you are in.

Posts in this series:

The science of… Assessment Centres
The science of… Competency Frameworks
The science of… Ergonomics
The science of… Appraisals
The science of… Learning and Development
The science of… Occupational Psychology

The science of… Assessment Centres

Is occupational psychology a dark art? Do you know what you’re getting when you ask for an occupational psychology consultancy to darken your doors?
Well here’s an insight into this weird and wonderful world that I chose to put myself through. I’ll be writing a series of informative posts about the variety of topics an occupational psychologist is likely to be involved in.

At it’s core, occupational psychology aims to take psychological principles and apply them to the workplace. Concepts such as memory, behaviours, cognitive processes, emotions, communication and many others are fascinating topics. Research tells us truly interesting insights about the human condition ad nauseam.

There are distinct fields that occ psych ventures into: selection and assessment, organisational development, training and development, employee relations, counselling, human machine interaction, ergonomics, performance appraisal and research methods and statistics. Today I’ll start with…

Selection and Assessment

This can be broken into 2 categories. The first is concerned the use of assessment centres, and the second development centres. Assessment centres are for recruitment purposes, and development centres for initiatives such as personal or individual development. I’ll be dealing with assessment centres today.

For the uninformed, an assessment centre is where you have a day of exercises that are designed to test a variety of skills and elicit behaviours. For example, you might have to take part in a group exercise, an interview, a role related task and a presentation. From each of those exercises, you are ‘tested’ against criteria that have been pre-defined.

But how do these things get created? You could in all honesty, throw a bunch of exercises together, call a team meeting, decide on criteria to be assessed and Bob’s your uncle. I’d recommend you don’t do this as fairness and consistency is thrown out of the window.

For excellence though, you need to follow a formula of sorts. The first thing that is done is to do a job analysis of the role you are hiring for. This is done with people who are already in their role within the company. This forms the fundamental basis of the assessment centre. The job analysis provides information about the behaviours you expect someone to be displaying. These then form the criteria for the exercises you are being assessed in.

Once a job analysis is completed, and a list of behaviours drawn out from this, the next thing to do is create a set of exercises that will test the range of the behaviours. This is why there are typically 3-4 exercises in an assessment centre as each exercise will test a specific set of behaviours. You can then see if that same behaviour is displayed in another exercise.

The next stage is probably the most difficult part of an assessment centre – to draw up the competency framework that clearly defines each behaviour expected to be displayed in each exercise. This framework is then tested with incumbents and a group of managers who in effect validate the exercises and the competency framework.

That’s not it though! A set of mock exercises need to be carried out with incumbents and typically videoed so that you can deliver effective training to the managers expected to take part. The manager’s role on the day is to observe candidates against the criteria and make a judgement at the end of the day if the candidate is suitable or not. The mock exercises and training serve as a platform for consistency and fairness for the candidates and understanding of the exercises themselves.

The final piece is for the manages to understand how to conduct a ‘wash up’. The wash up is where you discuss the performance of each candidate once all exercises have been completed and all notes written up. From the mock exercises, there will have been an agreed pass mark, and agreed fail mark, and an agreed discussion mark. The pass and fail marks are self explanatory. The discussion marks are where a candidate has shown some of the desired behaviours but hasn’t been consistent with this in all exercises. The managers then need to discuss and decide should they be given a pass or a fail.

And that my dear friends is the science behind assessment centres. I’ve not talked about psychometrics as that requires a whole post to itself. I’ve also not talked about development centres as again that will be for another post.

Note, I’ve not said an occ psych needs to be the one who carries out all of the above. It tends to be occ psychs who are brought in to do all this, but it could equally be done by someone following the process.

Posts in this series:

The science of… Psychometrics
The science of… Competency Frameworks
The science of… Ergonomics
The science of… Appraisals
The science of… Learning and Development
The science of… Occupational Psychology