ORGTHINK: The Price of Staying (Part 3)

ORGTHINK: The Price of Staying (Part 3)

Welcome to Issue 3 of Org Think, an interview series where we explore organisational psychology ideas from different perspectives. Previously, in “The Price of Staying (Part 1)“, we spoke to Murdoch University Research Lecturer Dr. Brody Heritage about the psychological factors that keep us from leaving our jobs, otherwise known as Job Embeddedness. On “The Price of Staying (Part 2)”, we explored this concept from an employee perspective through our in-depth interview with Gordon, a WA engineer, about his employee experience.

In this issue, we approach this concept with a strong focus on solutions, as we seek out the perspective of an Organisational Psychology Practitioner. Psychologist Jon Wilson was generous enough to speak with us and offered us great insights on this subject. Jon is a Director Management Consulting firm 3Pillars Asia Pacific and Managing Director in Australia for Blue Provident, a specialist provider of survey-based diagnostic and assessment services.


Before we start getting into the meaty stuff, I would like to get to know you a little bit – would you mind explaining what a psychologist specializing in organisational psychology does, in your own context?

My personal view is that organisational psychology is about developing, improving and enhancing the extent to which the organisational system is inherently effective in delivering its mission and healthy for its people. I see this as the core business of organisational psychology. It’s more about how the organisation itself actually functions, and the dynamics within that – not necessarily the psychology of the individuals within it. While you can’t fully separate the two, improving individual employee functioning and capabilities is sometimes an input to our core business and almost always a bi-product of our core business. However, if we can have a more ‘macro’ impact on the system of work, everybody within that system of work will benefit, rather than trying to support one person at a time.

That makes sense. Your focus is more about moving the current, and not the individual fish swimming against it.

What do you think is the ultimate mission for organisational psychology as a field?

To help organisations develop and mature beyond their current state. This involves a good understanding of how individuals affect the organization and how organisations affect individuals. It also involves leveraging the value of a scientist-practitioner approach so there is strong evidence for the actions we take to make improvements.

What are the day-to-day activities and responsibilities of your current role?

As a consultant, I work with clients to deliver projects or help them achieve positive outcomes for their organisations and their people. Most of these projects involve either better understanding the organisational environment (through workplace and culture assessments), or making changes to improve how the organisation functions or performs. I have to add value to our clients and leave them more aware, capable and/or effective than before they hired us.

Which areas are you currently focusing on right now? I understand you incorporate a wide range of the organisational psychological field in your work.

I have amazing variety in the work I do. I’m working on:

  • A project to help the Australian Defence Force to develop and retain specialist Doctors.
  • A project to measure and develop the culture of a large WA Government Department.
  • Preparing to facilitate the development of a strategic plan for the leaders of a new WA mining project.

I focus a lot on:

  • Measuring and developing different aspects of organisational culture.
  • Helping large companies implement changes to their processes – to become more effective at delivering their services.

In a previous interview about what makes people stay in their jobs, Dr Brody Heritage discussed the psychological concept called Job Embeddedness. This theory suggests that it is the extent to which we feel embedded in our job – through the social Links we make at work, the way we Fit in our organisation, and what we might Sacrifice if we leave – can have an influence over whether we stay or leave our jobs.  What do you think of Job Embeddedness as a way of understanding how people work or stay in theirs jobsDo you see this emerge with the current workforce in Australia today?

I saw those Embeddedness factors are very relevant to a majority of employees. I wonder whether there’s any research about how that theory applies to high performing individuals, or leaders who are particularly effective or entrepreneurial.

That’s a good point actually – a lot of research is actually done on the general workforce instead of focusing specifically on high-performance individuals or leaders – how did you imagine it would play differently in that context?

I don’t think high performers get as locked in around the environment, because they are strongly driven by a higher purpose or a need to learn, so I don’t think people in that category become strongly embedded, but often operate beyond those kinds of social forces. Organisations that want to be high-performing need to create a good environment for their best people. They need to set a system that is fundamentally good for high performance; not just play defense against bad performance.

What are some of the ways they can do that?

Organisations need a consistent method of distinguishing who the high performers are, so that that’s based on real capability rather than whether people liked them, or other non-work-related factors that can play out. There’s got to be a maturity of the organisaiton to actually understand what the drivers and values are within the business – and actually make sure from a management intervention perspective, that there’s a lot of effort around enabling their employees to do a really awesome job that they value, rather than trying to keep everyone compliant.

So that’s essentially building up a kind of intrinsic motivation, right? On how they feel about the job they are doing.

Absolutely. If we compare to a sporting team or environment as an example (where the factors are clearer for us to compare), you’re not going to get an amazing player, just to have them comply to your requirements. You are actually going to leverage around that player’s capability so you can ‘flex’ that role to get the best out of that person. Organisations do that as well, but some organisations don’t have a systematic approach to that, so it ends up being that they have a general principle of treating everyone fairly, but as a result, they set the bar to average.

Research has also found that the Sacrifice aspect – the possibly or sacrificing what we already have at our current job – is the strong factor influencing an individual’s decision to stay in their work, despite not feeling satisfied with their job. This sentiment is echoed by our interview with a geotechnical engineer. Do you think that is the case?

I think many people are very engaged with their work, their customers (internal or external) and their work mates, but they can still be disengaged with their organisations. This is a huge challenge and opportunity for senior leaders – as most of the policies, processes and systems that make it difficult for good people to perform well and stay engaged, can be changed. This of course takes vision, focus and courage.

I believe many people become ‘trapped’ in organisations and stay in situations that are inherently unhealthy, but unlikely to change. Low levels of employee engagement in Australian organisations (and organisations in other similar economies) reflect this point.

I also believe that money is only an incentive to the extent that it compensates people whose jobs are otherwise less than fulfilling. This view aligns strongly with research on employee retention, engagement and incentivisation.

What do you think employers or leaders can do to decrease employee turnover or absenteeism in their organisations?

I think most people start their jobs with a high level of engagement. In many ways, it should be quite hard for organisations to lose employees regularly or retain them with lower engagement. However, organisations are efficient at producing low engagement and employee turnover!

Importantly, employers need to play offence rather than defence. You can’t stop people leaving – you need to compel them to stay! Compelling them to stay can involve progressing them to roles they aspire to, or which fundamentally match their interests and capabilities. It can also involve creating strong support network and relationships.

Most people also stay longer in organisations that perform effectively – that delight their customers and sustainably make money or deliver effectively on their mission. Focusing on sustainable performance is a great retention strategy.

Organisations should also insist on standards of behavior that you would want and expect in any home, school or workplace – where people are treated well and expected to contribute positively.

If you’re doing none of the above, the only remaining retention strategy is to pay people a fortune to compensate for other aspects of the environment – which is a very unhealthy situation for organsiations and individuals.

What do you think is the most important thing a leader can do to engage their employees?

It’s pretty simple really!

Firstly, leaders need to stop doing the technical work and start enabling employees. Develop aspirations for employees and support them to improve. Leverage their strengths and set them up to succeed. Ironically, doing this also makes it easier to hold employees accountable and manage poor performance as and when required.

Secondly, employees don’t exist in a bubble – their roles absolutely need to contribute value to the customer or core purpose of the organization. Ensure the customers and the core purpose are valued beyond all else. Give people purpose beyond their job tasks.

Thirdly, ask lots of questions, listen deeply to the workforce and develop solutions with (not for) the workforce.

Where does a psychologist specialising in organisational psychology fit in with this process? What can you do to address these issues?

We should be influential in helping organisations address these issues and create more effective environments. We can help organisations understand the cause and effect between the way they operate and the impact on their workforce and their performance.

We also have to avoid protecting organisations from the consequences of their own poor decisions. If we use our skills to buffer the impact rather than showing the impact and creating solutions, we simply prolong the dysfunction and the pain.

We also need to do more to lead strategies that make a positive difference. We can’t afford to be the knowledgeable advisor – we have to apply interventions (i.e. help organisations to implement improvements) and influence positive outcomes using our evidence based approaches.

Do you have any advice for people who are feeling dissatisfied in their current jobs?

Firstly, there’s almost always a way for dissatisfied employees to learn, grow and contribute value for themselves, their customers and their work mates. It’s important for people’s own sense of self (and psychological wellbeing) that they can look themselves in the mirror, and be confident that their behaviours were in line with their personal values and standards, even when they are frustrated or dissatisfied. That’s an important battle to focus on rather than fighting against the system.

Secondly, if employees are already dissatisfied and considering leaving, what’s the risk of striving to change the status quo? So long as it’s done in the best interests of the organization, customers and other employees, I’d like to see more employees take a risk on constructively improving how things are done and outcomes are achieved.

Thirdly, if people who are most valuable to an organization were more active in ‘voting with their feet’, organisations would be far more accountable for how they manage and support their people.