In a world where business leaders are increasingly accepting emotional intelligence and psychometric testing with open arms, Robert Spillane stands out as a lone dissenting voice.
Spillane, a professor at Macquarie Graduate School of Management and author of The Rise of Psycho Management in Australia, believes that the increasing use of office psychology has been severely detrimental to Australian businesses.
“It’s been a complete and utter disaster,” he says. “It’s undermined traditional management and it has undermined office performance.”
There is a push in Australian business to bring psychology into the office in a range of different forms, from in-house counselling to selection testing. Professor Spillane thinks that we’re going down a dangerous path.
“Managers are shoving their noses into places where they’re not needed. Management by personality has insinuated itself into our companies,” he says.
Spillane thinks that that the problem is becoming part of Australian business culture.
“There’s a view in Australia that people have to get along with each other, whereas in America it’s more about performance. People who are bringing in results are getting into trouble because they lack emotional intelligence.” Just recently, the CEO of Boral, Mark Selway, was pushed out of his role not for his performance, but for his style (see Mutiny on the good ship Boral).
A report released yesterday by the Inspire Foundation said that workplaces lost $237 million a year because of sick days taken and productivity lost due to mental illness among employees. In its recommendations it suggested that employers gain a better understanding of their employees’ mental health and how they could support them.
Spillane made a different diagnosis about what was affecting productivity in Australia.
The problem these days is that researchers are confusing stress into mental illness, he says. “There’s certainly a link between stress and productivity. Sick days caused by stress cost the community a lot of money.”
For Spillane, stress isn’t a mental illness. “The key element in occupational stress is a loss of control in what you do,” he says. “Sadly they’ve complicated the matter now by calling it ‘psychological injury’.”
“What [stress] used to be thought of is a condition from working in a job where there is too much or too little stimulation. For 30 or 40 years academics and researchers have been trying to redesign jobs to give people more control over what they do. However that becomes more difficult in a rigid hierarchy. In Australia we’re over managed and the more managers the less control you have.”
His low opinion of office psychology includes the practice of using psychometric testing for selection and development of employees.
“If those tests were able to predict performance there could be no technical objection to them. However they don’t and they never have. You might as well use a fortune teller.”
Not only did Spillane consider the testing to be inaccurate, he also believed it was unethical.
“They stereotype people, preferring an introvert over an extrovert or someone with low anxiety over high anxiety with no evidence that’s the correct decision,” he says.
“They’re being used to demote and promote however there is no evidence that they work in any way.”
Despite what Spillane says, he’s increasingly in the minority. Psychometric testing is being used more and more as businesses scramble to get the winning edge over their competitors in an increasingly tough market. However Spillane is unmoved.
“We’re in this postmodern and precious political world where people aren’t concerned about truth or facts and more with feelings,” he says.
“Workplaces in the country are high as a kite on psychomanagement at the moment.”