It’s one thing to dispense advice about leadership. It’s another to make sure you’re giving advice that actually works. In a sea of self-proclaimed gurus, there is a discipline of scientists who rigorously study leadership, team makeup, recruiting, and pretty much every human aspect of the business world.

Industrial/organizational psychology got its start near the turn of the century, when Freud was cutting-edge. During World War I, industrial psychologists created intelligence tests for the military, giving recruiters tools to determine which soldiers were best for which jobs. Since then the field has evolved along with the rest of science. Today large companies keep I/O psychologists on staff or hire them as consultants to coach leaders, help with candidate selection, and give advice on keeping work forces productive and mentally healthy.

Donna Dennis, who owns a home-based consulting business in Pennington, has her doctorate in human and organizational development, and uses I/O techniques and research in her work with companies of all sizes, from BP on down.

Dennis spends much of her time helping businesses figure out the best practices in today’s fast-paced work environment, grappling with questions such as the ideal team size, how to manage stress, and how workers can telecommute effectively.

Dennis grew up in Evanston, Illinois, a small town in the suburbs of Chicago. She was raised in a blue collar family that did not especially value education. Her father was a municipal worker and her mother worked in a factory making airplane instruments during World War II. The family lived in a makeshift apartment above a dry cleaner. From her home Dennis could see the Chicago Northwestern railroad tracks, which carried commuters into the city. The briefcase-toting women who rode those trains became Dennis’s role models.

“I saw these women and thought, ‘There’s got to be a different world out there,’” she recalls. Her home life provided little such inspiration. “I was in awe of how my father got as he did. He only had a fourth-grade education,” she says. “I didn’t figure that out until he was an adult. He would always bring forms and stuff from work. He would say to us, ‘read this damn thing and tell me what they want from it.’”

With the help of ministers and teachers, Dennis was able to enroll in college, over her mother’s condition that it would only be for one year and that she had better come back with a husband. Her academic career began in Wittenberg University, a small institution in Springfield, Ohio, where, according to her mother’s wishes, she met her husband, who was pursuing a degree in math.

At age 20 Dennis taught school to support her husband while working towards her bachelor’s degree in education. She continued to balance the needs of school and motherhood over the next nine years, earning her diploma one course at a time at the University of Illinois. After a stint in day care in Hawaii, where her teaching certificate was not valid, she returned to Illinois, where she taught people how to be teacher’s assistants at Parkland Community College.

At the University of Illinois, she earned a master’s degree in early childhood education, and built up Parkland College’s childhood education program almost from zero into one of the largest in the country, and began looking for the next step in her career. She entered the field of consulting by traveling around the country helping federal Head Start sites improve. Unwilling to go through what she saw as a “hazing” process to get a PhD at the University of Illinois, she earned her doctorate at Fielding Graduate University, a distance-learning institution based in California.

In the midst of earning her doctorate in the early 1980s, Dennis was divorced and looking for a new challenge. On a longshot, she applied to a position as a training manager at RCA’s famous Sarnoff labs on Route 1, where 2,000 or so scientists and engineers were developing new technologies.

“I got a lot of resistance from people who thought I couldn’t pull it off,” she says. “But in the context of the job market at the time, they didn’t have as many applicants for each position as they have now. I’d be screened out in a hot second if I went in to do that interview again. They said, ‘What makes you think you can do training and development for engineers and scientists when you’ve only worked with preschoolers and college students,’ I was thinking, some of these people seem like four-year-olds.” Against the odds, she was hired to what she now thinks of as a dream job.

“It was a very stimulating environment, which was an anomaly within the rest of RCA, which was awash in bureaucratic and old rule-bound thinking. But here these guys would respect you if you knew something. At Sarnoff Labs it was all about knowledge, much more like it is now.”

Dennis stayed on in the human resources department when GE bought RCA two years later, and even worked directly with CEO Jack Welch briefly. She later became a consultant again, which is her current field. Most of her work lately has been focused on teams working across long distances via Skype and other virtual tools. “It’s a real hoot, sitting in your office in Pennington, teaching a class with people scattered all over the world,” she says.

Although her assignments require specific fixes, Dennis does have some advice, based on the latest research, that can be applied generally.

Multitasking is a double-edged sword: “When you look at the way work has changed, from when you went into an office every day and had relationships with everyone there, there are some plusses and minuses,” Dennis says. One of them is that people often do other things while attending virtual meetings. That can be a good thing when those tasks are on topic — for example, looking up deeper information while the speaker is talking — but it can also be distracting.

“What we’re finding is that multitasking impacts people tremendously.” She says people juggling multiple tasks can often fail to follow through on things and not pay enough attention. “It can be a good thing when it’s tied to what I am talking about, versus, ‘I’m trying to read my E-mail while we’re talking about something else.’”

Communication is more important: Whereas co-located workers often end up talking to each other, it’s easier for communication to break down if everyone is in a different place, especially if some of them are introverts. “You need to get to know people that you might not even feel like reaching out to,” she says. “It’s much more of a pain to do it using something like chat technology or E-mails or phone calls.”

Keep your commitments: Simply put, while it’s easier to allow commitments to fall through the cracks when someone is far away from the person who is counting on them, it’s still important to follow through. “If you say you’re going to get something to them, do it,” Dennis says.

Weathering the storm: Research has shown there is a predictable pattern when it comes to conflicts between members of virtual teams. The psychologist Bruce Tuckman has developed a model of teams called “Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing.” The “storming” stage is where most of the drama happens, as people’s opinions on how things should be done begin to clash, and they get frustrated with one another. Dennis says that on-site meetings and team building exercises, which big companies often do, is a great way to get teams to work better together.

E-mail is a lightning rod: “Storming” can be made more brutal because so much of virtual communication is through E-mail, a medium that often fails to deliver nuances and social graces that can help people avoid face-to-face conflict. The drama caused by miscommunications can cause conflict-averse employees to avoid interactions, which generally makes things worse. “The conflict goes on, productivity goes lower, and people are not collaborating,” Dennis says.

One way to overcome this is to build relationships face-to-face. Co-workers are less likely to get into an E-mail feud if they have recently shared a beer together and are willing to give one another the benefit of the doubt.

Culture clash: Virtual teams often work across cultural boundaries, and differences between cultures can cause misunderstandings. For example, Americans believe deadlines are deadlines, and that if a manager asks for something to be done by 2 p.m. on Tuesday, it must be done by that date and time. On the other hand, someone with different cultural values might send the project in on Thursday morning, believing is close enough.

One way to overcome this is to ask people to repeat back what you have told them. This can help clarify expectations. “Make sure they know you’re not grilling them just to embarrass them,” Dennis says. “You’re trying to go for clarity.”

Day of rest: Dennis says one of the biggest problems in modern workplace culture, be it with virtual teams or otherwise, is stress. “What people are telling me is that they are stressed way past what makes any sense at all,” she says. “People are being asked to do more with fewer resources. It seems to be a trend. You wonder, in terms of innovation and things that take a little more creativity, can you get the stuff done that you have to do? Are you able to feel energized enough and rested enough? How does innovation actually happen? I don’t think it happens when you’re exhausted. I just hear so many stories and I see people stressed out so much that I don’t know whether it is a good thing.”

Dennis says some companies have taken steps to reduce the burnout rate. One team that Dennis worked with banned travel on Sunday. (Many companies expect employees to travel Sunday to make Monday morning meetings.) The same company made sure Friday meetings ended in time for workers to be home by dinner, thereby ensuring they had a weekend to recuperate. She says humor is also a great way to combat stress.

Meeting overload: Dennis has found that many companies expect workers to attend too many meetings, which interferes with productivity. One project called for some workers to be in up to 10 meetings a week, leaving little time to do actual work, Dennis says.

Team size: Research indicates the optimal size for any team is about six to eight people. According to Dennis “10 to 15 is crazyland. You can’t possibly do a good job managing that many people.”

Dennis says that basing advice on actual research is bound to be much more sound than going by intuition or experience alone. “Google ‘Virtual Work,’ and you get a gazillion people telling you things, but not many of them are basing it on solid science.”

Dennis believes advice built on rigorous observations, repeated over time, and analyzed in the light of logic and evidence is bound to yield more reliable results than seat-of-the-pants pontificating.

“I feel like if I can’t stand up in front of people and give them something I know is going to be helpful, what is the point?”

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