Five ways that psychology can enhance L&D

L&D practitioners can benefit professionally and personally from a greater understanding of occupational psychology, says Ben White.

Every L&D practitioner aims to develop individuals and teams, so they can perform better and positively contribute to the organisation’s results. A growing number are realising that an understanding of the psychology of human behaviour – and how it applies in organisations – can help them to achieve their goals and get the best out of people.

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Some L&D teams think that occupational psychology is more about assessment, selection, organisational development or employee engagement than learning. Others associate it with reading people’s minds. To correct these misconceptions, here are five ways in which psychology can transform the practice of L&D:

1. It provides holistic understanding. Occupational psychology is the science behind how and why individuals, teams and organisations behave as they do. It gives L&D teams an overall perspective of working life, as well as insights into critical issues such as leadership, engagement, talent management, performance appraisal, change, culture and organisational development. It explains the interpersonal aspects of work relationships, conflict, unconscious bias, power, politics, how teams become high performing and how business decisions are made.

A greater understanding of the psychology of the workplace – and how all of these elements tie together – enables L&D practitioners to see their own role and their own challenges in a broader and beneficial context.

2. It facilitates practical and effective learning. When you have a broader perspective of how organisations work – and the issues and challenges faced by employees – you’re in a better position to diagnose why problems occur in the workplace. You’ll also be better equipped to design, deliver, evaluate or commission more effective learning interventions that will resolve any people-related problems.

In the same way that a skilled mechanic can assess what’s wrong with your car, and how to resolve it, a greater understanding of behaviour in the workplace will help you to comprehensively tackle the root cause of any problems, not the symptoms. You can therefore avoid initiating ‘knee-jerk’ responses. You’ll be able to prioritise and focus your time and energy on the most important learning challenges in your organisation. You’ll also be able to foresee potential employee issues before they arise, so you can help line managers take preventative steps to avoid them.

3. It instils rigour and discipline. Occupational psychology centres around what works at work. It teaches you the importance of evidence-based research methods and the need to critically evaluate data and information to make better decisions. As such, it promotes rigorous practice.

A greater understanding of behaviour in the workplace will help you to comprehensively tackle the root cause of any problems, not the symptoms

You’ll no longer take things simply at face value. Instead, you’ll start to appreciate the benefits that questionnaires, surveys, focus groups, critical-incident interviews, validations and case studies can bring to your work. You’ll gain a broader appreciation of the importance of job analyses, competencies, selection criteria, performance criteria and psychometrics – and how these can help your organisation to recruit and develop the right people and maintain healthy and productive working relationships. You’ll also be better able to measure the impact of learning in your organisation and prove your return on investment.

4. It encourages an individual focus. One of the greatest lessons of occupational psychology is that we’re all different. As humans, we’re all built the same biologically but, fascinatingly, I see the world very differently to you. Psychology reminds us of this. It encourages us to focus on the individual in learning and development – and avoid the natural tendency to treat everyone the same.

We all have our own thoughts, emotions and subconscious habitual behaviours. We’re motivated by different things, we’re susceptible to stress in different ways. All of this impacts on our attitude to learning, how we make decisions and how we choose to manage our careers.

The factors that influence positive and negative behaviour in the workplace should be a foundation for learning and development. L&D practitioners need to thoroughly understand individual employees if they’re to take them on a learning journey, change their behaviour and encourage them to go ‘above and beyond’ the expectations of the role.

An understanding of occupational psychology can help L&D practitioners to persuade line managers of the value in creating individual relationships with each member of their teams. Former football manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who consistently led winning teams over a 40-year career, is a prime example of someone who knew how to get best out of people. He made an effort to get to know and understand everyone he came into contact with, from the tea lady to his superstar players. His infamous ‘hairdryer’ treatment – of shouting in the face of wrongdoers – was only utilised on those who would ‘benefit’ from that reaction. For others, he employed the ‘arm around the shoulder’ tactic. Part of his genius was his ability to quickly recognise which of these approaches would work best with each player. His understanding of ‘what makes people tick’ was a central component of his inspirational success.

Occupational psychology provides a framework that can help L&D teams to connect the dots between employee behaviour and issues such as motivation, engagement, well-being, personal development and even bullying and harassment. Appreciative inquiry and positive psychology can also encourage performance improvements by focusing on the strengths of individual employees. Other developments such as neuroscience can provide additional insights that can help to make people more enthusiastic about learning and embed new behaviours.

Sir Alex Ferguson, who consistently led winning teams over a 40-year career, is a prime example of someone who knew how to get best out of people

5. It builds your personal credibility. Some of the concepts and principles of occupational psychology, such as motivation theories and the benefits of psychometrics, are widely understood in the L&D community. However, further enhancing your knowledge of psychology will not only serve your organisation, it will benefit you personally, as it can broaden your thinking and help you to critically evaluate the evidence base when making decisions. As a result, you could become more proficient in your role and this can boost your internal credibility.

Developing yourself through CPD – and gaining a more complete understanding of the dynamics of how behaviour impacts at different levels in your organisation – will help you to enhance the performance of employees and improve their job satisfaction through learning. It can also improve your own skills and practice in areas such as coaching, organisational development, leadership development, talent management, engagement and performance appraisal.

With a greater understanding of occupational psychology, you’ll start to appreciate the benefits of working with partners who offer these skills. Ultimately, you’ll be better placed to demonstrate the real value of learning in your organisation.

Ben White is a business psychologist and principal consultant at global learning consultancy OnTrack International. For further information please call him on 01279 652255 or visit

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