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Spotlight on research: Workaholics, toxic leaders and employee silence - exploring the dark psychology of the workplace

This week's Spotlight on Research is with Dr Melrona Kirrane, Lecturer in Organisational Psychology, DCU Business School and Professor of Leadership in PNU, Riyadh

You look at the psychology of the workplace – why is that important?

 “We need to understand what makes people perform - what motivates and rewards them, what drives innovation and creativity, what makes teams function effectively and the central role of leadership in all these processes. On the flip side, we need to understand the dark side of organisations – envy at work, conflict and competition between colleagues and the damage done to organisations by destructive leadership. As psychologists, we focus on these issues, and more, to help create environments where people can bring their best selves to work.”

 What kinds of topics do you explore?

 “A big topic I teach is managing change, which ultimately is all about understanding people. People are threatened by what they don’t know and fear of the unknown is the main reason people resist change. So building awareness and expertise amongst leaders of how to expertly navigate these complex pathways to ultimately achieve desired organizational ends is a big feature of what I do. I’m really interested in unconscious drivers of behaviour – especially in the field of leadership. The prevalence of hubristic leadership which leads to toxic and dysfunctional work environments is a hot research topic right now. The personality traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy are central features of hubris and research suggests that early life experiences play a big role here. I am also interested in workaholism, which our research has found can actually be quite rewarding for the workaholic - they are experiencing what has been called harmonious passion – sounds great! The problem is that other people around them tend to pay a price for this type of work behaviour. We have also recently published research on why employees keep silent, and the role of emotion, especially fear, in employees not speaking up when things are going on at work. To counteract this, we need to build work environments where people feel psychologically safe at work. This means the dominant vibe at work should be learning not blaming.

Tell us more about the dark side, why do some people become workaholics?

 “When you think of workaholics you might think of miserable people chained to their desks and lot of research has characterized them as addicts. But our research has shown that sociocultural factors such as messages you got from teachers or parents as a child about performance and reward, as well as organizational cultures that explicitly and implicitly reward long hours have a big role to play here too. People who have a deeply-rooted need to prove themselves worthy can be quite effected by such forces and thus engage in excessive work practices.

 Interestingly, we also found a cohort of people we call former workaholics – people who have stopped working excessively. Sometimes the trigger is a change in family circumstances, or tragically, the death of a loved one, which has led people to change their perspective on the role of work in their lives”

 What is most challenging about your research?

“I think it’s getting responses to surveys. Companies are really enthusiastic about becoming involved in research - they realise the value of good data, but getting sign-off for a study to take place and getting people to actually complete questionnaires can be a challenge.”

 You are very interested in gender diversity in leadership, what have you been doing there?

 “This is an area that I’ve been interested in for a long time. There’s a leaky pipeline in leadership meaning that a lot of high-potential women don’t get to senior management positions. This happens for all sorts of reasons, including unconscious bias and systemic obstacles in the paths of women’s careers. I’m involved in initiatives that address these factors and build awareness that leadership diversity brings value to organisations. DCU is involved in an ongoing study with the 30% Club that gathers data on gender in management hierarchies in Ireland – we hope our annual publication on trends in this domain will keep this issue in the spotlight and ensure it is addressed appropriately.”


7th July, 2017
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