An Evidence-Based Take on Understanding Workplace Behaviors: Interview with John Ballard, PhD, Author of Decoding the Workplace

John Ballard

John Ballard is emeritus professor of management at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 2016 the university presented him its Distinguished Scholar Award for his efforts to bridge the management scholar-practitioner gap through his blogs, tweets, and his award-winning book. He is co-author of the much-acclaimed Who Built Maslow’s Pyramid? A History of the Creation of Management Studies’ Most Famous Symbol and Its Implications for Management Education” with Todd Bridgman and Steve Cummings of Victoria University of Wellington.

 John, tell us a little bit about your background and experience? 

Glad to. But first my congratulations to you and the staff of ScienceForWork on being honored with the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology’s Presidential Award for bridging science and practice. Well deserved.

Thank you. Isn’t bridging science and practice something you try to do also?

Very much so. I started my career as a management engineer in the U.S. Air Force. That job was data driven. Time-and-motion studies, work sampling, job analyses, things like that. I crafted my job and built a consulting team that impacted real problems. This led to many studies in and outside the Air Force. To me part of good consulting is knowing the research literature and applying that knowledge to the problem, issue, or opportunity at hand.

Most of my work in the Air Force was as an industrial-organizational psychologist. For several years I managed all Air Force personnel testing and surveys worldwide. My academic career began at the Air Force Institute of Technology. Most of my years as a professor were at Mount St. Joseph. My educational background is psychology but my academic positions have been in business programs teaching and researching management and organizational behavior.

Let’s talk about Decoding the Workplace. There are thousands of business books claiming to help people be more effective in the workplace. How is your book different?

Many business books are based just on personal experiences. “This was true for me so it is probably true for you.” The management scholar Stephen Robbins talked about this in his book The Truth about Managing People. He said that a lot of the information in these books tends to be superficial, even wrong.

In fact, even the most influential business books may have problems. Back in 2007 Phil Rosenzweig had a “must read” article in the California Management Review that spoke directly to this issue. He analyzed the data supporting In Search of Excellence, Built to Last, and Good to Great and found the quality of the data, and hence the conclusions, questionable.

Decoding the Workplace is not like that. It’s based on decades of management and organizational behavior research. If I give an opinion, I tell you it’s my opinion.

A senior editor at a major publisher told me years ago that as professors we know a lot about workplace dynamics but we mainly just talk to each other and nobody can understand our papers. “I need a book about the workplace that people can understand.” Decoding the Workplace is that book: evidence-based and easy-to-read with over a hundred stories to illustrate the concepts.

And 50 keys. Your book is subtitled 50 Keys to Understanding People in Organizations. Why keys? Why 50?

I use keys as a metaphor. They unlock things, decode programs. The keys in the book can help you decode the world around you, perhaps see things you had not seen. These new perceptions might suggest ideas to make you more effective. There are ideas in the book for most people to “up their game.”

Here’s an example. One key is “Be aware, as best you can, of the impressions that you create.” The discussion is about impression management and the blindspots we have. I tell the story of Ted, a manager, seen as technically proficient but aloof. Ted’s direct reports just did their jobs but had no desire to go beyond that. He was not approachable. A reader emailed she saw herself in the story of Ted, changed some behaviors, starting joining others for lunch, and became more effective. I thanked her for sharing.

Why 50? There are probably many more than 50 keys in the book. I focused on the 50 I found most useful as a consultant and manager. Readers might find other keys I did not identify as such. For example, I tell the story of Gerald who was not given the opportunity to give high profile presentations because, as he discovers, has an “ehm” problem. I then describe how Gerald overcame that problem. For some people, that might be the key to improving their effectiveness, getting rid of an “uh”, ”um”, or “like” problem in public speaking, but I did not identify that as a key.

And publishers of business books seem to like numbers in the title. 7 Habits? 10 Clowns Don’t Make a Circus? 1001 Ways to Reward Employees.

So what topics do you cover? How is the book organized?

You’ll find many of the topics that you’d find in an organizational behavior textbook, just presented very, very differently, topics such as norms, roles, perception, leadership, power, to name a few. I laughed at this question because I wrestled with how to tie all the concepts together. After several months, the model I developed was a pentagram. Proudly I showed it to my wife who remarked, “So it’s a book about witchcraft?” I had to laugh. That never occurred to me. The pentagram model remains somewhere in my discarded files.

Can you give us an example of the kind of advice you offer?

Great question. Another way this book is different. It’s not preachy. A few of the keys may be considered advice but there are very few. Most keys state evidence-based insights. An example: As you experience a new workplace, you create a psychological contract with the organization—a contract with costs and benefits as you see them.” The discussion that follows talks about the evolving contract, how hard we work, the degree of “buy in” to an organization’s values and culture, the costs others may not see. The readings following each key clarify, amplify, and illustrate.

The Kirkus Review of Decoding the Workplace commented that the book “covers a lot of territory” and that’s true. The idea is to give people food for thoughts on a broad variety of topics and foster reflection. My favorite management philosopher is Mary Follett from almost a century ago. She emphasized learning from our experiences by observing how people respond to us, reflecting on those observations, and then adjusting our behaviors to obtain new evidence and so forth. In a sense the book is a guide to reflecting on our experiences based on what science has found to be relevant factors in understanding workplace dynamics. It’s not a book just to be read. It’s a book to use.

There’s a lot of information around us about us that we don’t pay attention to. Decoding the Workplace makes that information easier to identify. To help with reflections, I provide pdf supplements at the book’s website.

Is there a key that speaks to an aspect of the workplace that people probably don’t think about?

Actually several. A lot of people have commented on how the keys on systems and systems thinking helped them. We know organizations are systems but we don’t think about what that really means in our day-to-day work life. Key: If you have a systems perspective, then you will probably make better decisions. Early in my consulting I was amazed how leaders and other decision makers simply failed to consider implications of their decisions for all parts of their organizations. Just having the right people at the table could have avoided problems and saved time and money. Unfortunately this lack of a systems perspective I found to be common.

What can scholars do to bring principles established through years of empirical research to business application?

It’s not easy. We tend to do that which leads to more satisfying outcomes and not that which leads to less satisfying, the Law of Effect. For many scholars there is little reward in doing their part to bridge the science-practice gap. The rewards result from journal publications, the more prestigious the better. Some institutions may reward great teaching. I was fortunate to be at a university that supported and rewarded my efforts toward reducing the science-practice gap. We need more discussion of this gap in graduate programs, both basic science programs such as organizational psychology and applied professional programs such as MBAs. Furthermore we need better reward systems for faculty who choose to work this issue.

On the other hand, what’s practitioners’ responsibility when it comes to informing their opinions before making workplace decisions?

The Law of Effect applies here too. Practitioners are constrained by many factors in getting jobs done. Not enough resources. Not enough time. Lack of access to relevant and applicable scientific evidence. Lack of skill to understand the science. Faddism often rules the workplace. The boss likes a method, instrument, or approach. Just do it.

Denise Rousseau and Sharon McCarthy talked about decision constraints and other factors inhibiting evidence-based management in a 2007 issue of the Academy of Management Learning & Education journal. Often absent is organizational leadership that seeks evidence and facts in making decisions. What we need are leaders and practitioners who value the scientific method, the knowledge derived from that method, and evidence so produced. This is a mindset that questions and seeks facts, that rewards those who seek sound solutions systematically, that understands organizational complexities and the importance of systems thinking. Evidence-based leaders build an organization’s capacity to learn, grow employees, serve others, and contribute to society. The need for evidence-based management underscores the importance of ScienceForWork and the efforts of all who work on bridging the science-practice gap.  

Last, John, I have to ask about your interest in the work of Abraham Maslow. Maslow’s theory is not known for evidence-based support.

Very true. I think part of the problem is Maslow’s theory is not very well known. What is known is Douglas McGregor’s interpretation of Maslow. I’ve worked with my colleagues Todd Bridgman and Steve Cummings to clarify this in our recent paper in the Academy of Management Learning & Education journal.

I have read nearly all of Maslow’s publications, his journal, and many letters and notes in his archives at the University of Akron. There is a richness of ideas in his writings. Some almost need a translator. Others could be developed into meaningful hypotheses. Over time he determined the empirical side of scholarship should not be his focus. He left others to test his theories.

What I like most about Maslow is his belief in human potential. He would sometimes challenge his graduate students asking them what they were going to contribute to humanity, what great work would they undertake.

My hope is that Decoding the Workplace will help people understand the workplace around them and perhaps in some way make their work lives more satisfying, more effective.

Thank you, John, for your contribution to making science impact business practice and setting an example of what scholars can do to facilitate evidence-based practice in management and leadership.

ScienceForWork is an independent, non-profit foundation of evidence-based practitioners who want to #MakeWorkBetter.

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