Understanding the psychology of one’s business

Alex Burlingham PhD

An introduction to a series of exploratory ideas and observations, all targeted at drawing attention to the things we all might miss regarding the swirling systemic and situational forces which affect us all, and our ability to perform effectively, every day.
It’s really striking, the extent to which we don’t seem to consider the psychology of our own profession, whatever one’s walk of life may be. Is it a part of our culture, at least in a western liberal democratic perspective, to be unconsciously blind to it? Or is it perhaps that we are conscious of it, but we’re just too busy with actual work to do so; we don’t perhaps consider it actual work in itself, even though such consideration is absolutely fundamental to one’s output whatever your bottom line is - financial or capability-based. Either way, I sense, only from my own observations across areas of the public and private sectors, that while some are better than others at trying to keep it front and centre, culturally we appear pre-disposed to avoid navel-gazing and ‘just get on with work’, whatever that may be that particular day. And sometimes, that can really come back to bite us.

Such consideration can prove phenomenally powerful in improving individual and collective performance. Confession time: I say that, only having my own eyes forcibly opened to it in 2015, having been given the task of grappling with an organisational response to a moment of high-profile failure; to find and thus address factors that were ancillary to the actual event itself. Before that, I myself had progressed through and ignored various exhortations to ‘be more self-aware’ , for example numerous coaching courses, but never had I really paid it much mind - because, funny old thing, I was ‘too busy’ to do so. I myself was in the grips of an unconscious psychological incompetence. I saw no real need to consider the psychology of my then business of Armed Service because I felt no disadvantage in not doing so.
As a result of being tasked to work on an organisational answer to that moment of failure, I now see the immense potential of understanding how we are influenced every day; to the point, in fact, where I’m in danger of becoming evangelical (let’s just leave it at, ‘I care about the topic deeply’). 
This is really powerful stuff for us all if we choose to harness it through leadership and education. I have been told ‘you haven’t so much drunk the koolaid Alex, you have become the koolaid’. To channel my inner Jon Heder and Will Ferrell, I don’t even know what that means, but it sounds provocative. And I think I like it. I want us all to grapple with the issue of our psychology in our work environment consciously because it can be so transformative if we do, and damaging if we don’t.

I should be clear on what I mean by ‘the psychology of one’s business’. Here I’m channelling pure Philip Zimbardo.
Philip Zimbardo: leader of the infamous Stamford Prison experiment. 
In most if not all walks of life we are influenced by long term systemic forces, which essentially pre-dispose us to react in a certain way either through a culture or an ethos we come to imbue through consistent exposure. Then there are the more immediate situational forces which lean on the systemic and heap on top an instinctive reaction to any event. We are influenced by these forces purely due to human nature. Studies and content abound about how we are hard wired to react to crowd, peer or authority pressures in a certain way. Wilful blindness and instinctive conformity are psychological symptoms of the deeper root cause of essential survival. In that regard they serve a function.
However, the characteristics of a profession in medicine, finance, or armed service are all different - and those characteristics can be both positive and negative.
Therefore understanding ‘the psychology of one’s business’, to me, means recognising the sharp edges of one’s profession, having the honesty to call them out, and put in place measures to round them off, deal with them, for the sake of the individual in the workforce - their mental health and performance - and for the sake of the organisation’s performance - whether the ultimate recipient be a shareholder or tax payer.

The subsequent entries of this blog will offer no recommendations or suggestions, no exhortations that ‘you should do this’. The wonderful kaleidoscope of talented people in the fields of management consultancy and keynote speaker landscape is already wonderfully colourful. This will simply be a tale of what I have seen happen when an organisation has the maturity to find its sharp edges, if it has any. It may or may not be relevant to you - I’ll leave that judgement in your half of the court. That tale has however been an utterly fascinating, transformative and empowering experience, full of sparky conversations and innovative answers. One does not need a moment of failure to trigger such a shift, far better to grasp the nettle beforehand.
So let’s get after it.
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