Interview with Dr. Richard A. MacKinnon, Insight Director at the Future Work Centre

Dr. Richard MacKinnon is the Insight Director at the Future Work Centre. A Chartered Psychologist, Chartered Scientist and Registered Coaching Psychologist, Richard has over 16 years of experience as a practitioner in a variety of organisational settings. At the Future Work Centre, Richard is responsible for setting the research agenda, developing evidence-based solutions for clients and representing the centre at conferences and media events.

Edit: Richard is now the Managing Director of WorkLifePsych Ltd, a team of accredited and experienced workplace psychologists.

Richard, when did your adventure with the Future Work Centre start and what lead you to found this organization?

I co-founded the centre with colleagues just over two years ago and its birth came out of our shared frustration at the prevalence of evidence-free products and solutions in the workplace. We are all occupational psychologists or have a strong background in psychology applied at work and we saw the steady productization and over-simplification of our profession. And the negative impacts an evidence-free approach can have.

We saw the myths about people, personality and the brain, the fads and fashions that have swept through workplaces for the last few decades, and we decided to try to do something about it.

We wanted to draw people’s attention back to the core of the science, de-mystify psychology, explain its benefits to them and gather even more high-quality evidence so that individuals and organisations alike can make better decisions.

In revisiting the science, we want to raise the bar of how psychology in the workplace is practiced and in doing so, improve the experience of work for as many people as possible. Lofty goals, but why not?

Great goals, I would say! Now, if you had to summarize your mission in one sentence, what would you say?

We want to find out what works, in what way and for whom – and to share these insights with as many people as possible.

In doing this, with which kind of clients do you work and how do you help them?

We have worked with a range of organisations since our inception. On the one hand, we help educate a broad range of practitioners in the essentials of identifying and using evidence when they attend our popular ‘Insight into Action’ workshops.

We also offer ‘critical friend’ meetings with clients, where we walk them through their planned initiatives and point out where an evidence-based approach could be of benefit. Clients have included hospitals in the UK National Health Service (NHS), charities and third sector organisations and professional services organisations. Really, we’ll work with anyone who wants to build good quality evidence in how they carry out their work.

Ok, now let’s write a brief case study: can you give me a practical example of one of your latest projects?

Recently, we worked with a large NHS hospital to give them better insight into their employee opinion survey data. Traditionally, organisations limit their examination of the data to purely descriptive statistics (e.g. 60% of employees are satisfied), while also relying on concepts such as engagement – for which there is little good quality evidence.

Our impact was three-fold:

  • We helped to move them from a focus on ‘employee engagement’ to a more holistic focus on the ‘employee experience’. Words matter and, in this case, it has moved attention from a single metric, with little evidence, to an examination of employee feedback across a range of topics.
  • We examined the data more rigorously, to help them understand the story beneath the high-level numbers. This included demonstrating the statistical relationships between factors such as grade, professional division and tenure when it came to how employees felt about working there.
  • We also demonstrated how what they called ‘engagement’ was really made up three distinct factors that they had a choice as to where they put their post-survey energy. We explained the limitations of cross-sectional surveys (i.e. those carried out at one point in time), the benefits of tracking this data over time and the benefits of linking employee perception to key organisational metrics.

Crucially, we will be working with them in 2017 to help them understand what impact employee opinion has on their behaviour and then on the patient experience. This is, after all, what everyone in the hospital is there to improve, in one way or another.

I was delighted to co-present a summary of this work with the client at an HR Analytics conference in London on November and look forward to increased cooperation and working together in the year ahead.

And why do you think using scientific evidence is important when making decisions about people at work?

For so many reasons!

Firstly, it’s too easy to take action when presented with a challenge in the workplace. We can easily fall into an ‘action bias’, believing that doing something, anything, is better than nothing. This, of course, isn’t true. Reflecting on good quality evidence can help us shape our responses to presenting problems, by illustrating what has or hasn’t worked in similar contexts.

I also think that using scientific evidence helps us think more scientifically, or even just more inquisitively. Asking good quality questions is the route to good quality interventions and even the best research leaves us with unanswered questions. This is part of what’s so exciting about a scientific approach.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, making decisions about work and people are organised or treated in the absence of evidence can backfire and have various negative consequences. Simply deciding to join the latest organisational trend or fashion is disruptive, expensive and potentially harmful.

Finally, if you had to give just one advice to decision-makers in organizations, what would it be?

I always tend to start with advising them to be clear about the problem they’re trying to solve. It’s very easy to get caught up in selecting from an attractive range of solutions before even being clear on the presenting problem.

It’s always interesting to discuss perceptions of the problem with different stakeholders from the same team – you tend to find differences in perception and it’s key to firm up a shared understand of the problem before taking action.

Thank you, Dr. MacKinnon, for your tremendous work in promoting evidence-based practice in management and organizational decision making.

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