Psychology In The Workplace

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Author John Towler, Ph.D.
Original Publication Exchange Magazine

Using psychology to facilitate leadership, teamwork, profitability and workplace satisfaction.

Erik Erikson was a famous Danish psychologist who developed a very useful theory about how we mature. He talked about leadership, getting along with others and making sense of our world. Although every psychology student knows about Erikson, the business world has been slow to realize that his theory also applies to the workplace.

Erikson said that at each one of eight stages we learn how to master a specific task. If we are successful, this leads to the development of a lasting strength or ability, which helps us deal with our world and those around us.

In the first stage we learn either to trust or mistrust people. Most of us find that we can trust people to behave in certain ways. Erikson says that those of us who learn this, develop drive, the ability to hope and be optimistic.

How does this apply at work? When you join a new firm, you must determine whether you can trust the people there and rely on them. If, for example, you find that your boss "has it in for you'', you will not trust that person. Your efforts will not likely be rewarded. On the other hand, if your employer evokes your trust, you become a person with drive and renewed hope for your future at the firm.

In the next stage, Erikson suggested that we learn one of two things — autonomy or to feel doubt when we assert ourselves. If, for example, your employer allows and encourages you to be independent, you feel good and will likely become autonomous. This sets the stage for the development of self-control and exercising of your will power.

Erikson's third stage involves learning to either show some initiative or feel guilty when you do. Most people want to use their brains. However, if you are put down each time you make suggestions, you will soon feel guilty about doing anything other than what you are told. Erikson says people who are allowed to show initiative are able to bring direction and purpose to their lives and their work.

Next, we learn either to be industrious or are made to feel inferior when we don’t produce. Of course, every employer wants their employees to be industrious, but all too often, managers concentrate only on the negatives. A better approach would be to encourage both the hard workers and those who aren't as proficient. This helps them become more confident and competent in what they are doing.

You have probably heard of, or used, one of Erikson's terms — identity crisis. Every time we take on a new position, join a new organization or even add a new role to our lives (such as parenthood), we have to figure out what behavior is appropriate in our new role. Once we understand what that is, we feel more comfortable and confident. This leads to the ability to devote ourselves to a particular role and be true to the behavior the role demands.

In regards to the workplace, let's say a person knows precisely what to do, how to do it and is confident that they can do it easily and well. There is no confusion about their role or identity. However, if an individual is unsure about the task at hand, that person will experience role confusion and not be very successful at the duties they have take on.

At Erikson's sixth stage of development he explains that we are usually learning either to be intimate with others (usually the stage when one marries and starts a family) or we become isolated and withdrawn. In the workplace this involves establishing relationships with fellow workers — be they close or distant.

People who can't — or won't — allow others to get too close tend to become "loners" who, more often than not, aren't very effective workers. On the other hand, those who learn to relate to others develop the lasting ability that is the foundation for love and affiliation.

The stage of generativity or stagnation usually occurs at midlife. This is when the well-adjusted individual begins to devote his or her time to helping the next generation grow and develop. It is not difficult to see how this stage applies in the workplace: Middle-aged employees now turn their attention to helping younger employees develop new skills. This is usually the time when mentoring relationships begin.

The last stage is really the last stage of life (Erikson calls this a period of wisdom or despair), but applies equally well to those who are retiring from the workforce. Some retirees may feel they have made valuable contributions to their organizations and feel good about themselves and their accomplishments. But those who retire with feelings of resentment and bitterness about how they have been treated are unhappy and filled with despair for the past and the future.

What stage are you at now in your working life? Are you developing in the healthiest direction? Perhaps Erikson's ideas will offer some insight as to where you and your co-workers stand or why you act and feel the way you do.

John Towler is a Psychologist and the founder of Creative Organizational Design. Please send comments about this article to jtowler@creativeorgdesign.com. For more information, please contact us.

Re-printable with permission.