Episode 21 – IO Psychology – Autonomy paradox & the power of (learning) goals

Industrial-organizational (IO) psychology applies psychological theories and principles to organizations. Questions about workplace productivity, quality of work(-life), structure of work, leadership as well as the effect of personal traits are important research topics in this field. In this Podcast Session I talked to Prof. Dr. Tanja Bipp, professor for industrial-organizational psychology at the University of Wuerzburg. In the discussion we tried to combine the macro and micro level of this topic by looking at the implications of digital transformation on individual workers, workplace environment, and productivity. We talked about current research on skills and competences of the future, job-crafting, and the potential of AI in context of HR selection and development.

IO Psychology – Autonomy paradox & the power of goals

In times of digital transformation and rapid technological progress, the psychological aspects of work, have become even more important as they highly affect the productivity of workers and therefore organizations in general. IO psychology applies knowledge from psychology to the field of work – the main goal is to contribute to the optimization process of work from research point of view by considering the perspective of employees, organizations, and factors that contribute to motivation, health, and productivity.

The (old) fear of technological unemployment

IO psychology became prominent in the 1920s-30s, times of massive technological change and the implementation of mass production. Similar to nowadays, people were afraid that machines will replace their jobs – the (old) fear of technological unemployment. (Under the following link, one can find a calculation of probabilities, at which a certain job might be substituted by robots/machines: https://job-futuromat.iab.de/ )
But what we learned from the past hundred years in IO psychology is that there is a constant change and the economy as well as workers and organizations are adapting constantly. The question is, how does the economic system deal with the faster technological and disruptive innovations? Will the system be able to adapt again? As innovation cycles become shorter and the speed of progress has been increasing constantly, organizations do not have much time to adapt. Getting along with this development, organizations must develop concepts how to select, train, motivate, and keep employees healthy on a long-run perspective. By focusing on rivals and competition on the market, organizations tend to underestimate internal challenges – today more than ever, this could have severe consequences.

Autonomy paradox

What has changed in the past decades is that employees have become much more expected to be responsible for their careers – to plan, to be ahead of time, to think what kind of skills they will need in the future and how to develop themselves (1). Times when employees entered a company and basically stayed there for the rest of their work-life have passed. This is also accompanied by an increase in autonomy at work – implying a higher motivation – but also increasing individual responsibility and therefore higher pressure. Research has shown that there are advantages and disadvantages associated with that.
If we pick as an example the increasing use of information and communications technology (ICT), robots, algorithms, and other technologies support work-life, we observe on the one side more autonomy (flexibility of work) and on the other side higher pressure since employees have become accessible 24/7. This creates an “autonomy paradox” (2) and organizations – especially for executives and leaders in an organization – must take this development seriously as it affects productivity and long-term health of their employees. They must be aware of that and are challenged to design a working environment, where employees stay motived and healthy in the long run. With that, they can stimulate work motivation and performance. What sounds easy in theory is much more difficult in practice – that we can say for sure – there is no „one size fits all“ job design-model. (s. scientific overview on the topic: https://bit.ly/2FFJnYB )

Leadership: performance and learning/mastery experiences

Leading by incentives and goals are powerful and important strategies – once again goals are not efficiently used in practice. Most organizations have a yearly evaluating session. Research shows, that goals work best on a more regular basis when combined with feedback (not only for the end product, but also in the process). Leaders should take more time and talk to their employees, set goals together, so that people are really committed to pursue and reach them. Rewarding success promotes effort – monetary incentives are not always the most efficient ones. Research indicates that the effects of rewards on a non-financial basis have an even higher impact. Which means: honoring what employees are achieving and thanking them can have a more beneficial impact than giving a financial bonus. This is not a new concept, but nowadays, with the use of ICT technologies and the higher pace, it is probably more important than ever to give constant feedback.

Considering leading by goals, one should respect their wide range. Research on goal orientation (3) emphasizes a variety of different types of goals. Performance goals are the most common goals, but they do not always lead to the best outcome, especially when they are comparing employees with each other. Learning goals are a powerful tool to create commitment and foster motivation. Learning goals stimulate employees to learn and develop competences and skills. Start by reverse-engineering: Leaders and employees jointly look forward into the future. Where do we want to go? What skills and competences do you need? How do you want to evolve yourself? How can we achieve these goals? In contrast to performance goals, this means obtaining a mastery experiences by progressing and not comparing or judging. This does not mean that performance goals are irrelevant – but organizations should start thinking more about learning goals and how to develop employees (4). The performance-goal approach is useful, if you want to achieve something/somebody to be better than something/somebody else – considering motivation and personal development of employees, performance goals might work better if they are combined with learning goals. The world of sports is – once again – a good example: here you have performance goals (e.g. winning a Olympic Medal) and mastery goals (steady performance development by thinking and improving from „game“ to „game“).

#iopsychology #psychology #business #digital #digitaltransformation #change #organization #autonomy #technologicalunemployment #industrialrevolution #autonomy #paradoxon #ICT #learning #learningcycles #education #goals #incentives #leadership #performance #learninggoals #masterygoals #performancemanagement

(1)Van Dam, K., Bipp, T., & Ruysselveld, J. (2015). The role of employee adaptability, goal striving and proactivity for sustainable careers. In A. de Vos & B. I. J. M. van der Heijden (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Sustainable Careers (pp. 190-204). Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.
(2) Janiesch, C., Bipp, T., Kübler, A., Kröhn, M. & Kebinger, S. (2017). Unterstützung der Selbstregulation für das Arbeiten in der digitalen Welt. HMD Praxis der Wirtschaftsinformatik – Sonderheft Digital Workplace, 54(6), 950-964.
(4) Beinicke, A., & Bipp, T. (2018) (Hrsg.). Strategische Personalentwicklung – psychologische, pädagogische und betriebswirtschaftliche Kernthemen. Buch in der Reihe „Meet the Experts“ (Herausgeber der Reihe: B. Spinath). Heidelberg: Springer.

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