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3 Classic Studies Every People Manager Should Know

Businesses mince no words about the failure of universities to equip workers with skills needed to compete in global markets. So academia digs in deeper, reaffirming its commitment to the academic mission of creating broad-minded critical thinkers and lifetime learners, while engaging in scientific research free from patronage and for the benefit of all.

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This communication breakdown is unfortunate. Several academic studies provide uncommon insight into what managers really want to know: how to get their people and organizations to perform consistently well; how to find and develop the best talent; and how to adapt their organizations without breaking them. The three such studies below treat human capital management and the organizational behavior that surrounds it.

1. (Schmidt & Hunter, 1998): The validity and utility of selection methods in personnel psychology: Practical and theoretical implications of 85 years of research findings [1]

Personnel selection is complex, risky and laborious. So it is understandable that we revert to rules of thumb and feelings of affinity with candidates. But as business management enters an era characterized by analytics and data science, we should respect the findings of 85 years of data, one million data points, and an exceptionally well-tested methodology.

Schmidt and Hunter demonstrate that the three best predictors of job success are general mental ability (referred to as g), conscientiousness and performance on a valid work sample. Of these three, g is the most predictive.

The study’s subtler message is that effective personnel selection requires multiple valid predictors, some of which exert more predictive power than others. Since many job performance predictors are not observable during screening, employers must specify roles and positions, as well as provide valid performance metrics. Intuition and affinity should complement, not supplant valid prediction measures.

2. (Pfeffer, 2007): Human resources from an organizational behavior perspective: Some paradoxes explained [2]

HR managers typically do not receive due credit from their organizations. Frequently, they have advanced degrees that complement keen organizational savvy and a strong sense of mission. In short, HR knows what the right things are and want to do them. So why is there such a disconnection between knowing and doing in HR?

Pfeffer provides some uncanny insight. Far from the stereotype that HR senior management’s hatchet man, the interests of the truly powerful in organizations and HR have become entirely misaligned — for two reasons. First, HR gradually lost much of its power and legitimacy over the last century. HR has shifted focus from employee advocacy in a well-delineated labor-management relationship to mere compliance in a tangled web of rules across increasingly complex organizations.

Second, other business functions abide by authoritative rules of practice and strong institutional controls, but HR does not — so it represents numerous risks in all organizations. To minimize risks, HR departments imitate one another across organizations, eliminating any differentiation that might drive competitive advantage.

3. (Gallimore & Tharp, 2004): What a coach can teach a teacher, 1975-2004: Reflections and reanalysis of John Wooden’s teaching practices [3]

Few can match the late UCLA basketball coach John Wooden either in professional success or integrity. Dozens of publications have documented his simple, gentle demeanor, profound wisdom and strength, attempting to apply his methods to various leadership situations. One of the best of these is Gallimore and Tharp’s article, which analyzes the actual spoken interactions Wooden had with his players. It addresses how managers should interact with their reports to optimize performance.

Wooden was sparse in both reproof and praise, each representing about 7 percent of his interactions with his players. But 50 percent of Wooden’s spoken interactions involved delivering specific instruction. An additional 13 percent reinforced previous instruction, either by retrieving prior knowledge or strengthening current behavior. In total, nearly two-thirds of the time Wooden engaged his players with learning and development opportunities, either by fresh knowledge or application of prior knowledge.

Finally, it is worth noting that Wooden did not permit the use of profane language or criticism of colleagues, and required strict punctuality for all team meetings, practices and events.

A Final Note

Of these three articles, Schmidt & Hunter (1989) is the most challenging to readers without specialized training. However, Pfeffer (2007) and Gallimore & Tharp (2004) are written for professional audiences, in a crisp and engaging style.

[1] Schmidt, F. L. & Hunter, J. E. (1998). The validity and utility of selection methods in personnel psychology: Practical and theoretical implications of 85 years of research findings. Psychological Bulletin, 124 (2), 262-274.

[2] Pfeffer, J. (2007). Human resources from an organizational behavior perspective: Some paradoxes explained. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 21 (4): 115-134.

[3] Gallimore, R. & Tharp, R. (2004). What a coach can teach a teacher, 1975-2004: Reflections and reanalysis of John Wooden’s teaching practices. Sport Psychologist, 18, 119-137.

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      Author's profile photo Ferenc Acs
      Ferenc Acs

      As a professional psychologist I completely agree with the views expressed in this blog post. This is a quite sad development, because there has been a time when workforce analytics has been used to assess personnel by scientific means. To my best knowledge it has been after the Second World War until the 70’s in the USA – quite before my time.  Only back then it was called psychometric assessment. As many new ideas it could not meet up with the high expectations that were raised by the promoters. In my eyes the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater here. Only a few organizations kept up using such assessment tools.  Today we see the renaissance of using the term “workforce analytics”. With the norms ISO 10667 and DIN 33430 there is a code of conduct how decent assessment can be done. So I hope with the tools available today the game will be played right again.