It is time that HR professionals shed the multifold pseudoscientific practices that are popular in their field and turn towards applying solutions that are evidence-based, says HR consultant Patrick Vermeren.
Patrick Vermeren is an HR consultant who has been waging war against pseudoscience in his field for decades. He is also a board member of SKEPP, a Belgian organization that investigates pseudoscience and claims of the paranormal.
With A Skeptic’s HR Dictionary, Vermeren has recently delivered his magnum opus, an “incalculably important book,” in the words of Michael Shermer, in which over more than 1,000 pages popular myths, near-myths, and partial truths in HR are put under the microscope. Communicators will find, among others the chapters on change management, Mehrabian’s 8-37-55 rule, and SMART objectives of great interest to them.
While he is in the midst of promoting his book on the Belgian market, I was grateful to have some time with Patrick to talk about the book.
The harm of pseudoscience
A map of London will not get you to find your way in Paris.
Jo: In the introduction to your book I read that you consider quite a lot of HR people to be amoral people lovers. What do you mean by that?
Patrick: They cause harm to either staff or the company they serve. And that does not happen all of the time of course, but it happens often enough, and it is likely to happen when they apply pseudoscientific solutions to their problems.
Jo: Can you give me an example of such pseudoscientific practice that is not only inefficient but also plain harmful?
Patrick: There are plenty mentioned in the book. The Enneagram is one example. It employs quasi-psychiatric depictions to categorize people. So there is potential here for people to feel very bad about themselves when they receive an assessment that is based on the Enneagram.
Many such models, also transactional analysis for example, are based on psychoanalysis and that bears the risk that people will put the blame for any problems they incur during their lives on somebody else, most of the time their parents. Needless to say, if others are to blame, for example your next of kin, the assessments have a potential to sever relationships that are crucial to people’s happiness.
There are also indirect consequences from using bogus assessment tools. You might have received an erroneous assessment of your personality, and hear that you are for example an “introverted type” and therefore not too well suited, for that very reason, for a leadership role. You might as a result of that put shelf those ambitions and settle for a job which will pay you less. The financial consequences of such decisions are enormous when considered over a lifetime.
Jo: The argument that some models such as MBTI might make for good conversations starters is not one you support, I hear.
Patrick: No. Pseudoscience never informs a good conversation starter. You mention MBTI. Did you know that 50 to 60 percent of MBTI results look different when the test is redone only four to six weeks later? You can not learn anything about yourself through MBTI or any other non evidence-based theory or set of theories. A map of London will not get you to find your way in Paris.
Pseudoscientific memes in abundance
A lot of HR professionals are not equipped to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Jo: Why, Patrick, is this omnipresence of pseudoscience in the HR practice still an issue in 2019? I thought we would be passed this now.
Patrick: My answer contains no less than 5 reasons. First of all, a lot of HR professionals are not educated well enough to be able to navigate sufficiently well through academic discussions on which approaches work and which don’t. They are simply not equipped to evaluate theories and separate the wheat from the chaff. Many HR professionals are not psychologists, they have a law degree for example, or have majored in economy, and their career path led them to now have a job in HR. So there is a knowledge problem.
Then there is a problem with how people look at the world, their beliefs about how human beings function. I called this in the book “Platonic Idealism” – people will often tend to believe that all people are inherently good and can be intrinsically motivated. Alas, this is not the case.
What also plays a role is what is called “authority bias.” We are lazy by nature as no single organism will put more energy than is strictly necessary in obtaining a desired outcome. So we don’t investigate things ourselves. A great shortcut for our ancestors was to believe others, and today still, people resort to believing what (so-called) authority figures have to say about any topic, using those received insights as shortcuts, in lieu of going out to explore the truth themselves.
Then there are the memes, the earworms. Pseudoscience comes often in the shape of sticky earworms. Evolutionary psychologist Steve Stewart-Williams has studied memetics in great detail. One of the reasons a meme will often stick, he found out, is because it dovetails with assumptions from folk psychology. It is very difficult to combat earworms with arguments. Very often, only other memes can compete with them.
Finally, there is our coalitional psychology that makes that we look at the world in terms of in-group versus out-group. Us versus them. We will push back against any arguments against the beliefs that we share with our in-group. If I am a member of the club of MBTI certified coaches, any critical assessment of MBTI is now an attack on my in-group that I will try to fence off with great force. It does not matter here whether the arguments against MBTI are valid or not. Psychologists call this motivated reasoning: I’ll do just anything to show my loyalty to my in-group.
You know, I said earlier that a problem is that a lot of HR professionals are not psychologists, but I actually wished they were all biologists. Most biologists have a much better understanding of human nature than psychologists do. You will not find a lot of biologists among the Platonic Idealists.
Mapping theories against plausibility and evidence
The answer whether something is pseudoscientific or not is not a binary one.
Jo: We are having a conversation here on the perils of pseudoscience in HR. But allow me to ask you: what is pseudoscience anyway? And once we are in agreement on what is pseudoscientific and what is not, how can anyone recognize pseudoscience when they see it?
Patrick: The answer whether something is pseudoscientific or not is not a binary one. I plot all the theories that I discuss in the book on two axes: their level of theoretical plausibility and the degree to which they are backed by empirical data.
So theoretical plausibility is about the likelihood of the theory in question. If any model that is proposed implies apples falling up in lieu of down, you have a big issue when it comes to theoretical plausibility. Empirical validation is all about the data that is available to buttress the theory’s claims.
And to be clear, the mere fact of an approach having been evaluated positively in an article published in a scientific magazine does not make it deserving of a high score on either axis per se. There are sadly enough too many academic magazines out there that are of unacceptable quality.
Jo: Which of the theories has the lowest score?
Patrick: That would be neuro-linguistic programming.
Jo: Assessing where theories stand on both axes is asking a lot from the economist who turned HR professional, is it not?
Patrick: It is, but that is why I wrote this book. I did the work for them. In the book, I also list a few rules of thumb that can help people judge theories for themselves. I would for example always look to see if a theory that is proposed complies with the consensus between top experts on the topic at hand. Of course, those experts can be wrong, but the stronger the consensus that exists, the higher the burden of proof for whomever challenges the consensus.
Also, another rule of thumb: Are the claims made compatible with the “harder” sciences that undergird the field? Psychology builds on biology which rests on chemistry which relies on physics. If whatever you are claiming is not compatible with the body of knowledge of any of these three fields, don’t waste your time and effort on it.
Mehrabian’s faulty 8-37-55 rule
Jo: You mention Albert Mehrabian in the book with his famous 8-37-55 rule (it pertains to the respective impact of words, voice and non-verbal communication on what is said, Jo). In some instances, such as the one of Mehrabian, the problem lies not with the theory in itself but with how it has been vulgarized and misinterpreted, no?
Patrick: You are correct. I do think that he should also have been a little bit more careful in putting forward an equation which was not yet completely finished.
I have had e-mail conversations with Mehrabian. You know, Mehrabian has tried himself to counter the misinterpretations of his work. He was really not happy with what people did with his findings. The 8-37-55 rule is an excellent example of an earworm that is difficult to make disappear.
Jo: It makes sense to us, that body language would be so important. It intuitively feels right. So the 8-37-55 rule sticks.
Jo: What would be the most nefarious earworms at this time?
Patrick: A very dangerous one for organizations is the completely bogus belief that companies can make do without leaders. Self-management as advocated by Frederic Laloux among others has cost many companies already a lot of money.
One of the most dangerous memes for individuals is the idea from transactional analysis that it is your choice as a toddler which “life script” you end up following. That script is the root cause of everything that happens to you in life.
Not being SMART about objectives
Jo: One more example of an approach that needs to be reconsidered are SMART objectives. I was surprised to see them in your list because I considered them to be not only not harmful but even efficient in helping organizations accomplish goals, but there is more to it, I now understand.
Patrick: It is listed as a partial truth in my book. Scientific research teaches us that for goals to be efficient in moving people to work towards accomplishing them they need to be transparent, fair, specific and adapted to the people who need to accomplish them.
So my issue with SMART objectives is not that I have a problem with those objectives being timely, realistic, etc., but my problem is that that SMART objectives are only about form, and not about the criteria that make them good goals. You can have SMART objectives which are very inadequate for the reasons I just mentioned.
General Electrics’ former CEO Jack Welch popularized SMART objectives in 1984. He was inspired by George T. Doran’s article on SMART objectives that appeared in Management Review in 1981. There was nothing scientific about that article by the way. And then the meme proved impossible to resist. And part of its popularity lies with the meme flattering its users of course. How can anyone who uses SMART objectives not be smart?
Teaching children to think for themselves
Jo: We have talked in great length about what goes wrong in the HR field. What is to be done now to turn the tide?
Patrick: What you are seeing is a battle between memes and science. Continuously new memes are being launched. Two recent examples are Spiral Dynamics and the 70:20:10 framework that now reached Europe after having “invaded” Australia. It always takes time for people to realize that something does not work so inevitably you first have a lot of damage incurred. So, I am not optimistic of any measures preventing that first damage.
One thing that SKEPP is heavily involved in is helping children think critically. So we go to schools to teach children to ask critical questions. I think it is part of human nature that people will always be susceptible to pseudoscience, but working with children will surely arm them through their lives.
Applying what works
But can I add one thing to all of this? We have focused a lot of attention now on everything that does not work, but I am also covering in the book approaches based on theories that actually score high on both theoretical plausibility and empirical evidence. There are solutions to HR’s challenges that actually work!
Jo: The floor is yours. Can you give me an example of one such approach?
Patrick: Companies need leadership to understand well what it is that motivates people. They need to understand how to set effective objectives. They also need to be adroit at recruiting the right people. And we do have solid, scientifically validated tools that can map out people’s personalities. I have listed some approaches that do not do the job, but there are alternatives that actually do work and the Six-Factor Model of Personality – HEXACO – is one of those approaches.
For example, combining scientifically developed measures of intelligence with the integrity domains of HEXACO will increase the likelihood of recruiting the right people. We can also train people in leadership skills with Behavior Modeling Training, coach them individually with Cognitive-Behavioral Coaching, and finally train them in negotiating ambitious but engaging goals.
Jo: You are adamant about giving praise to what works because you want people to get to work with the validated body of knowledge as fast as they can.
Patrick: Of course I do. The validated know-how contributes positively in two ways to companies’ bottom lines: it is much cheaper to acquire than the commercialized pseudoscientific solutions and it’s efficient in achieving organizational objectives. Let’s put it to use.
My book really has two messages: Be critical and ask yourself “is that really so.” Ask for the scientific evidence. The second message is that there is really a lot of scientifically sound stuff out there.
Did you enjoy this interview with Patrick Vermeren?
You might also like my interview with Paul Gibbons where he talks about the need for change managers to apply more scientifically grounded approaches.