Psychology in the Workplace by Phillippa Morassi (Manager: Marketing)

Many psychological theories exist through which we can better understand individuals. These theories can be applied to the workplace in order to understand your employees, executives, colleagues, or team members as people. Psychology is a profession with people at the heart of it; so, too, is your c...



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Psychology in the Workplace by Phillippa Morassi (Manager: Marketing)

| Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Many psychological theories exist through which we can better understand individuals. These theories can be applied to the workplace in order to understand your employees, executives, colleagues, or team members as people. Psychology is a profession with people at the heart of it; so, too, is your company.

According to Sigmund Freud’s Psychodynamic Theory, people have unconscious drives, desires and motivations. Various factors influence a person’s behaviour, such as values, beliefs and culture. However, a person’s fundamental drivers are usually unconscious and have been determined from infancy. These unconscious internal drives or instincts determine how a person perceives himself, how he relates to others and even how he interacts with persons of authority. Although in many workplaces, it may not be possible to have such in depth discussion you’re your employees, if you are able to gain insight into a person’s basic drivers on a high level, you will be able to understand your colleagues and team members more effectively and guide their actions in a more productive way, depending on what they would best respond to.

People are constantly searching for meaning in their lives according to Victor Frankl’s Existential Theory. Work is a large part of our lives, and people generally wish to feel that what they do matters. Of course, people attribute meaning and value to different things. For some, it could be making money and breaking every record the company has ever had; for others, it could be leaving a legacy behind wherein people will remember their work and their contribution to the company. How we look to the future determines what value we place on our daily work. Often people can become discouraged because they feel they are not working towards their overall goals. It can be very useful to break down a person’s future goals into smaller, more achievable milestones to create a sense of accomplishment and fulfilment within your team members.

In a related approach, Alfred Adler’s Individual Psychology theory shows that people strive for perfection in their lives, in different ways, and regarding various aspects of their lives. Again, perfection is a subjective idea, and people define ‘perfection’ in different ways. In addition, it is important to note that some individuals are more driven than others in terms of work ethic, productivity, and success. The key is to find what each individual values in their working life, and how they see ‘perfection.’ In this way, you are able to guide them in the right direction.

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs shows that each person is on a journey towards self-actualisation and is operating according to a specific set of needs. A person operating on the level of Safety Needs will be preoccupied with security – perhaps financial security in terms of earning a salary sufficient to meet their needs. A person on a higher level of Belonging Needs will be striving for a sense of community within their company, and with their colleagues. On an even higher level, Esteem Needs are based on a person’s confidence, competence and sense of achievement. Tied to this is a feeling of appreciation and being valued by colleagues or managers. If you can understand which stage in which your people are operating, you are in a key position to help them to grow.

Erik Erikson’s Stages of Life explains that people are generally functioning within a specific stage in their lives, aligned to their age. This stage determines what drives them, and what makes them feel valued. Generally, in a working environment, you will come across individuals who are in their later twenties to mid-fifties. Individuals in their late twenties are operating according to the Generativity vs Self-Absorption principle; trying to be successful while finding a balance between work and home life. Individuals in their mid-fifties are trying to work through the Integrity vs Despair stage, where they are hoping to leave a legacy of their working life, and are facing the inevitable end of their working careers.

As we know from observing children, humans learn from imitating models. Albert Bandura’s Observational Learning theory shows that this continues throughout our lives. Whether good models or bad models, behaviour can be contagious in this way, and people generally become more like the people they spend the most time with. In a working environment, especially for managers or leaders, it is important to be aware of the type of model you are providing to your colleagues and team members in the workplace. You may not be aware that others are imitating your behaviour, but it is important to be conscious of the role you play in influencing others.

In addition to using models as guides in behaviour, B. F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning theory shows that people learn from positive and negative reinforcement. Through a process called ‘shaping’, behaviour modification is therefore possible via a system of positive and negative reinforcements. Positive reinforcement comes from rewarding certain behaviours, for example, paying commission on sales made. Negative reinforcement involves removing a negative stimulus to make the environment more pleasurable for the individual, for example, reducing your micro-managing style based on good performance.

On a personal level, Carl Jung’s Theory of Personality explains the nature of an individual’s personality characteristics. People are either primarily introverted or extraverted, although there are other personality traits that also come into play. As a general principle, introverts prefer their internal world of thoughts, feelings and emotions, while extroverts prefer the external world of people and activities. You will quite easily be able to identify these different types of individuals in your workplace, as we tend to choose our job roles based on our personality types. Your Administration team may comprise the more introverted individuals who prefer office work, while your Sales team is more likely to be made up of highly extroverted individuals who thrive on interacting with people and getting big deals! Many psychometric tests are based on personality theories, and use them as a guide to show which types of professions or job roles an individual would be best suited to. If you are struggling with an individual in a certain role, it may be useful to identify their personality type and plot this against the job role. You might find they would be better suited to a different division, which matches their skills and their primary working style.

Among the many things that we as humans value, the greatest is positive regard; a feeling of being appreciated by others for who we are. Carl Roger’s explains that we have an Actualising Tendency, where we strive to develop our potential to the fullest extent possible. Unfortunately, we usually place conditions of worth on ourselves to feel valued, for example, ‘If I don’t meet this deadline, I am not worthy.’ The biggest challenge is to strive for unconditional positive regard and self-acceptance; to accept that we are not what we do– our actions can be separate from our self-concept. For example, missing a sales target does not make you a bad person; or losing a bid in a tender process does not mean you are an inadequate salesperson. This, of course, is easier said than done, and takes a lot of patience, practice and focus.

In closing, it is appropriate to end with a Systems Theory. This means that a person can only be understood as part of his overall system, which includes all facets of his life and environment. Each part of the system is interconnected and influences the other parts in a circular fashion. Parts of the system can be any aspect of your life; your workplace, your family environment, or your church. As each part influences the other parts, they in turn change themselves and influence a reciprocal change on the original parts. This circular process is ever-changing, and grows as you grow. Of course, the system’s parts are often both positive and negative, and we are who we are as a result of these interactions. Therefore, it is important that you look at your influence on the system, and how you react to the other parts within your system. How do they influence you? How do you influence them?

As is evident by many studies and stories, a company’s success is often related to the productivity of its employees. By understanding people, you can guide them, grow them and provide an environment for them to thrive in. It takes hard work, but the rewards can be phenomenal.

PM.Ideas has evolved from a company founded in 2001 by a team of entrepreneurial and passionate project managers to the leading global project management, leadership and business skills training provider. We are a company that embraces a strong foundation of commitment, integrity, quality, flexibility and excellence in all that we do.

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