Is it possible to measure how the mind works? That is the essential question posed by psychometric tests, which have become ubiquitous in recruitment and organisational development.
For sceptics, the originators of such tests create systems that keep score using measurement frameworks that they have also invented. This can create the impression of a design ethos that is rather self-serving. Then there is the issue that psychometric tests focus on individuals – but often fail to predict how those individuals will function in a complex system. You might be classed as, say, a “fieldmarshal” (ENTJ) under Myers-Briggs – but what does that mean in an organisational culture that has an endemic problem with authority?
Mathematical psychology – an approach to psychological research that has been around since the early 19th century – attempts to resolve questions like this by yoking together psychology, science, mathematics and behavioural economics. In doing so, it seeks to create predictive models that are both objectively accurate and replicable across organisational systems. As counterintuitive as it might sound, a discipline as dry as mathematics might hold part of the key to how we can all be more innovative, happy and human at work.
Martin Lucas is an expert in mathematical psychology whose work has informed the business strategies of industry-leading companies in fashion (Diesel), travel (Cruise 1st) and beauty (L’Oreal). “There are five related research areas in mathematical psychology: learning and memory, perception and psychophysics, choice and decision making, language and thinking, and measurement and scaling,” he says. Together they help build a complete picture of how the individual and collective mind functions, and how people are likely to behave in any given situation.
“An organisation is a system of behavioural levers – communication, rules, support structures, values, and so on – each of which has an impact on the employee experience. Executed well, mathematical psychology can bring positive change by helping leaders identify which levers to move, and by precisely how much to move them.”
For Lucas, marginal changes can often bring the biggest impacts. “When planning change, you need to account for the emotional, behavioural and habitual components of the workforce. When you try and do too much, too soon, the impression of progress might delight the Board, but it can bristle the workforce and they reject it,” he says.
Instead, Lucas asserts, the preferable way to use psychological insight is to inform small but meaningful actions. Here are three simple hacks that are proven to drive positive psychological shifts in workforces – and in turn improve organisational performance.
Hack 1: Cull your values to no more than four
Start by looking at your values, Lucas suggests. “Single words – which is what most organizations use – are meaningless to the mind, which can’t find a way of processing and assimilating them.”
Instead of single words, Lucas believes that organisations should create four short behaviour-based statements that all employees use as a sign off to their ideas and actions. And there should be no more than four statements in total.
“There is a neuroscience gain to working this way,” he states. “We humans can only chunk four key pieces of information at a time. Any business with five or more values is setting itself up to fail.”
Hack 2: Engage employees in solving system-wide issues – and reward them for doing so
In terms of how to define those values, Lucas proposes a simple hack with a broader application: leaders should ensure that employees feel their voices are being properly heard. “The danger of hierarchies in business is that they trick people into thinking that the people at the top have the answers and are demonstrably smarter than those at the bottom.”
The answer is to open up channels of communication – and to do so with some clear objectives or problems you wish to solve. “This is a direct and indirect psychology win. Reward people for solving those problems and celebrate it when it happens. You might be amazed how a simple action like celebration will open the door for other employees to do the same,” says Lucas.
Hack 3: Stop sending internal emails – full stop
Finally, there is Lucas’ top tip for leaders wanting to improve their organization’s performance: stop sending internal emails. “Email is emotionless,” he asserts. “It drains employees’ cognitive fluency and it fuels disengagement.” Psychology aside, this sentiment should resonate with many.
Returning to psychometric tests, Lucas is a defender of them but adds a note of caution that is applicable to organisational development as a whole. “Many psychometric models are statistically valid. But when any discipline becomes popular businesses and individuals run the risk of becoming slaves to them,” he states. The key to success is making sure you have the right tools for the job. “Organisational psychology extends well beyond psychometrics, and sometimes those adjacent disciplines can be more valuable.”
Wherever possible, Lucas believes that angling for payment by results also helps. “Psychologists can be as guilty as anyone of intellectual arrogance,” he says. But they need to walk it like they talk it – and, like the rest of us, be held to account for the value they add.
Originally published on Forbes.com