Psychological Scientists in the Public Sector

Sleeping With the Enemy?

David B. Peterson, Personnel Decisions International

David B. Peterson Long before I knew such a thing existed, I wanted to be a scientist-practitioner. In college, majoring in linguistics, my goal was to do something that made a difference for people and that also provided intellectual challenge and stimulation. Many years later, I found it as an organizational consultant and coach.

I joined Personnel Decisions International (PDI) in the fall of 1985, just weeks before beginning my graduate school training in counseling and industrial/organizational psychology at the University of Minnesota.

I quickly discovered that I thrived on this alternating diet of academic coursework one day and practical application the next, even though I found myself frequently changing from a suit to blue jeans in the car. At the same time, I was increasingly bewildered by the chasm between these two worlds. At school, I read study after study of creative and well-designed research, with intriguing conclusions and often remarkable insights into people (or should I say, college students). But rarely was this research translated into advice that I could use in the business world. For that, I had to have a second education program at work, where I read the popular management books, studied training manuals on techniques for assessment and coaching, shadowed my colleagues, and went through a lengthy informal apprenticeship process.

That experience - bridging the gap between psychological theory and practice - provided an early glimmer of what has become a major part of my career mission - to translate psychology into practical tools and tactics that everyone can use. This personal mission really began to bear fruit when my colleague Mary Dee Hicks and I started writing a book together in 1993.

Our original topic, the human side of organizational change, expanded from one book to three as we realized we were really writing to three audiences. The first two books, about how people learn (Peterson and Hicks, 1995) and how others can help them learn (Peterson and Hicks, 1996) are aimed at learners and their coaches. The third, which is still in process, examines how organizations can foster learning.

Among our other endeavors, Mary Dee and I also asked over 20 clinical and counseling psychologists who moved into organizational consulting what they saw as their biggest surprises and challenges (Hicks & Peterson, 1998). We identified six themes:

  • "Am I really sleeping with the enemy?" The major concern that our sample voiced was the feeling that they had sold out. They had to come to terms with their stereotypes of greedy, power-hungry executives and get to know them as individuals. Sometimes they were surprised by what they learned. As one psychologist said, "I have seen the incredible talent at the top of organizations. These are decent, talented, well-integrated people. This is what highly-functional people look like. They have energy, humanity, ethics, the ability to function in very challenging situations, and the ability to learn."
  • "Where's my code book?" Many experienced a type of culture shock, moving into organizations where the language is different, norms aren't clear, and the values are different. Most of our sample did not expect to find the transition so disorientating. Communication styles can easily derail a therapist talking to a business person. In one meeting with a client, I brought along a talented psychologist with many years of clinical experience, who had recently joined PDI. The first time he opened his mouth, apart from introductions and small talk, he said, "If I hear what you are saying, then perhaps we should consider exploring that with some of the others." From that point on, the client completely ignored him; afterwards, based on that one sentence, he said, "Now David, I'll trust your judgment on this, but I'm not sure he has the experience to be credible with our guys. They won't listen to him if he talks like that." When I followed up with the clinician, I said my translation of his comment would be simple and action-oriented, not tentative, "Let's go ask them."
  • "Who's in control?" Therapists are almost always in control of the situation. Clients, seeking help and often feeling vulnerable, come to visit the therapist's office, where the diplomas are displayed prominently on the wall. In the world of business, the psychologist is almost never in control. You are meeting in their office, and all they want to know is what you can do for them and how fast.
  • "Who is the client?" A number of the people we talked to expressed a range of concerns having to do with their role, dual relationships, and confidentiality issues. Their professional training hadn't prepared them for a situation where the boss wants to know what's going on, not to mention the human resources person and sometimes the boss's boss. One psychologist summarized his lesson as, "Neglect them at your peril. They can be phenomenal resources if they are brought in. They can expand your ability to have an impact or reduce it significantly. The more you have people signing on the same page the better." As far as confidentiality, the recommendation is just to have clear ground rules in each instance for who talks to whom about what. In coaching, the person you are working with is typically motivated, intelligent, and resilient. You can jump into work faster and push them harder with less relationship-building. They are expecting more practice and planning than they are insight and processing. One clinician-coach now ends his sessions with, "What are your take-aways and what exactly will you do differently?" instead of "See you next week."
  • "What are the terms of engagement?" In therapy, there is the 50-minute hour. In coaching and organizational consulting, there are few agreed-upon norms of any kind. There is virtually no heritage of training, supervision, or licensure. There is no one to review your work every three sessions. In business, you agree on the terms and work the plan together.
  • "How do I market myself?" Finding clients is very similar to building a private practice; you talk to people you know, get some referrals, build a network, and rely on word of mouth. But new consultants often have to do some homework to find out what are the issues the people need help with, and what are they willing to pay for your assistance.

    The best lesson that I've learned in my own career is to be relentless in learning from your clients. For over five years, I asked every single person I worked with two questions: What's the most important lesson you've learned about business; what could I have done to make this experience more useful and more enjoyable for you?

    The first question I considered to be my free MBA program. The second question, which I still ask frequently, is one of the catalysts for my own continuous learning.

    Related Readings

    Hicks, M. D., & Peterson, D. B. (1997). Just enough to be dangerous:
    The rest of what you need to know about development. Consulting
    Psychology Journal, 49(3), 171-193.
    Hicks, M. D., & Peterson, D. B. (1998, November). The art and practice
    of executive coaching. Presented at Minnesota Psychological Association's
    First Friday Lecture Series, Minneapolis, MN.
    Peterson, D. B. (1993). Skill learning and behavior change in an individually
    tailored management coaching and training program. Unpublished
    doctoral dissertation. University of Minnesota.
    Peterson, D. B., & Hicks, M. D. (1995). Development FIRST: Strategies
    for Self-Development. Minneapolis, MN: Personnel Decisions International.
    Peterson, D. B., & Hicks, M. D. (1996). Leader as Coach: Strategies for
    Coaching and Developing Others. Minneapolis, MN: Personnel Decisions

    American Psychological Society
    October 2000
    Vol. 13, No. 8

    ©2001 American Psychological Society
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