Psychological Science at Work

The indispensable research blog on the science of the modern workplace, covering everything from leadership and management to the behavioral, social, and cognitive dynamics behind performance and achievement.

From Failing to Fortune

Five years ago, Facebook declined to hire a man named Brian Acton. As they’re realizing now, that was a big mistake. That’s because, following his unsuccessful bid to work for the social media giant, Brian Acton built his own start-up instead. He co-founded WhatsApp, a hugely successful messaging application — one that Facebook recently purchased for a hefty sum of $19 billion.

Facebook couldn’t have known it at the time, but letting Brian Acton walk away was a missed opportunity — the kind a hiring manager would love to get back. How do people and companies improve their practices following mistakes like this? Is there some way to figure out exactly what went wrong so it doesn’t happen again?

According to a study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science,…


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Trust Tramples Turnover

The costs of employee turnover are difficult to quantify, but unmistakably high. A resignation will hit you in tangible and intangible ways – lowered productivity, lost knowledge, recruiting expenses, and time spent training a replacement.

So how do you encourage employees to stick around? You might start by making sure they trust you. Workers are less likely to voluntarily resign if employers fulfill their promises and obligations. Even when you have to break promises for some reason, you’re more apt to keep your star players if they perceive you as fair and honest, a new study suggests.

Michael Clinton and David Guest, psychological scientists at Kings College, London, drew these conclusions in a study involving personnel in the Royal Air Force (RAF). Their work focused on the psychological contract, a term…


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For Black Professional Men, It’s Who You Are, Not Who You Know

President Obama last week announced a new public-private initiative aimed at giving young minority men better opportunities — as long as they “work hard” and “take responsibility.”

Indeed, those qualities tend to be more critical to the success of African American men than they are for other groups, who appear better able to leverage social and professional contacts to get ahead. Studies have shown that social capital — defined as one’s professional network — is a big factor in career advancement. But those studies focused largely on Caucasians.

As a recent study shows, networking seems to be less of a factor in Black men’s career accomplishments than are education and motivation.

A few years ago, a pair of researchers at the University of Georgia set out to…


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Burnout Comes in Three Varieties

As of this month, more than 10 million people in the United States are unemployed, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Given that there are so many people looking for jobs, it’s curious that a large percentage of American workers want nothing more than to quit. As of this past December, 1.7% of all employed people left their jobs. That rate has been climbing — albeit slowly — since 2009.

“Burnout syndrome” — that is, the fatigue, cynicism, and professional inefficacy that comes with work-related stress — may play a significant role in this trend.

Some level of stress is an inevitable part of every work experience. But at what point do those stressors become overbearing? What combination of factors makes one individual quit and another endure?

New research suggests that there…


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Overdosing on Incentives

Stock options, gift certificates, and lump sums of cash are the tools of choice that employers use to motivate staff to strive for success. It’s widely assumed that the promise of a monetary bonus improves a worker’s drive, concentration, and performance.

But a new study shows that these motivational rewards may have the opposite effect on some people. In these individuals, the potential for a bonus can send the brain’s reward centers into overdrive and interfere with their ability to process information, a team of American and European researchers has concluded.

The chemical in question is dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a variety of roles in the brain. In addition to fueling reward-seeking behavior, it also plays a role in learning, attention, problem-solving, and other cognitive functions, as well as…


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