Management is a Contact Sport | A Q&A with Productive Psychologist Adrian Furnham

9 May 2018

Renowned internationally as one of the most productive psychologists in the world, Professor Adrian Furnham is an engaging keynote speaker and a widely published journalist, as well as one of HR Magazine’s 20 Most Influential People in HR.

We asked for his tips on management, drawing on his psychology background.

What can business learn from applying psychological principles?

Psychologists are interested in helping people function. We know, for instance, that people don’t leave organisations, they leave managers and are often specifically motivated by managers. What psychology offers to business, then, is ‘the people stuff’ – it’s an understanding of the principles and processes of individuals. If you want to have an organisation that’s successful, it’s important that they are well-managed by people who understand the business of management.

Psychology is also useful when it comes to explaining economic phenomena, in the form of behavioural economics – that is, a relatively new field where psychologists have tried to show economists how people are not logical, but psychological, and that the way you present people with information largely determines how they make their decisions - in the workplace, in their buying habits, and so on. Psychological, rather than economic, principles underlie these decisions.

If a business was to use some of these principles to improve productivity, what three tips would you suggest for managers to take note of?

Number one - Motivation is more important than training, as is choosing the right people.

Number two – When it comes to motivation, don’t assume that money is the most important thing. Although you do have to pay people equitably, research shows that you have to rely on other factors too and that there are many other ways to motivate people.

Number three - Management is a contact sport. The ability to manage people is to form a team that is successful, so one’s knowledge of teamwork is very important.

Managers are different to leaders, and you talk about leadership derailment. Why is it that so many fail (about 50%!)?

Derailment is due to the three things:

  1. People select in, not select out. This means that they look for things they do want, not for things they don’t want – and so they don’t pick this up early.
  2. They assume linearity, meaning they assume more is better, when actually what you need really is an optimum amount, not a maximum amount.
  3. People don’t think about changes when they select people that those people might not be able to cope with.

What we do know is that is you want to select people that won’t fail or derail, there are three things that you need to look for. Are they able to establish and maintain a happy, healthy relationship/ are they good at forming friendships that last? Are they self-aware about their strengths and weaknesses? Have they been able in the past to adapt to new and difficult situations?

Thinking about how the workplace has changed, and about the future of work – what are your thoughts?

People have made all sorts of assumption in the past over the paperless office and the 20-hour week and flights to LA in one hour. I specialise in looking at futurologists who’ve got it wrong.

Populations are aging – there’s no doubt about that – and I think people are more interested in defending their wealth than creating it.

I think, most importantly, that there are some very specific factors, that we can see changing.

  • The workplace has been, in some senses, ‘feminised’, compare to the past
  • Technical advances are both an advantage and a scourge at work – they make people redundant, but they can do things faster.
  • People are looking for more authenticity and meaning in their lives.
  • I think crises will often be traceable to a lack of skilled workers.
  • There will be shorter working hours, rather than longer.
  • There will be more discretion for those with more autonomy.
  • They’ll be changes to how people’s performance is measured in the workplace.

There are some quite dramatic changes.

How will people’s performance be measured in the workplace?

Faced with new technology, take, for instance, wearables, such as a watch that has a button that tells where you are in the organisation, who you’re in contact with, how often you come in. Surveillance has gone up and monitoring is much cheaper. So, it’s quite possible that people will be measured on their behaviour rather than what other people say about that.

What make a successful speech, in your opinion?

I’d say that a successful speech is measured by what people can remember in two weeks and by what they do differently. I aim to hit them head and heart at the same time. A good speech is one that is memorable and a drive for action but move emotions at the same time. The greatest speeches of all time have not been heavily laden with facts and figures, but they have been a call to action – and one driven by emotion. I personally use humour a lot – you can say things under the guise of humour that you can’t say in other ways. It’s all very well for people to feel good immediately after, but it’s later on when you find how what do they REALLY take away, what insight, what plan, what goals. If I can persuade them to do one or two useful things on the topic of the speech that I think I’ve been successful.

For further information or to book Adrian Furnham, call us on +44 (0)20 7607 7070  or email .

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