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Psychology at Work to Improve Performance

Most of what gets in the way of optimal performance is rooted in psychological or emotional issues. That is why the most valued traits for a manager are communication, emotional and social intelligence, empathy, and adaptability.



Psychology is the study of the way the mind functions and influences behavior. Individual psychology influences relationships and relationships are the key to effective performance, wellness, and optimal living. It follows that attention to psychology is a pillar of performance management.

Though, in many organizations, psychology has gotten a bad name.  It falls into the mental health realm. Attention to it is often avoided unless behavior gets so severe that it undeniably gets in the way of living and performing well.


Take for example a steering group of peers charged with making important decisions. One member is designated as chairperson. The chairperson takes the title to heart, does a lot of good work, but attempts to silence anyone who raises issues regarding the team’s process and performance.

One team member confronts the chairperson by raising uncomfortable issues. Over time the relationship between the two deteriorated. The chairperson has left the team member out of important meetings, does not respond to emails and has ignored  a direct outreach by the team member to meet and discuss their relationship in any way the chairperson chooses – one on one, mediated, in person, virtual, etc.

The refusal to engage in a dialog effects the degree to which the group can make effective decisions because it blocks the social interaction that is critical to team performance. The rest of the team “feels” the subtle disturbance. Hearts and minds close down. The free flow of discussion is blocked. Life goes on, but it is not pleasant.



One doesn’t need a PhD in psychology to know that there is a psychological process at work in this relationship, that effects performance. Causes may be fear of competition, over-aggressive perfectionism, aversion to conflict, or over-controlling. These are all related to the participants’ mindsets.

This is just one example. Performance is effected by issues that stem from anxiety, depression, need for excessive control, excessive competitiveness, obsessive and compulsive urges, and addiction expressed as anger, withdrawal, and the kind of behavior that disturbs relationships – angry outbursts, abuse, withdrawal, unnecessary and poorly managed conflict, discrimination, gossiping, absenteeism, and more.

But there is avoidance. Handling psychological or emotional issues remains difficult. Some people believe that personal psychology is  “too personal” to be addressed in “public”.  They want to separate the personal world from their work world, as if that was possible.


Some are not introspective and don’t acknowledge the internal processes that lead to external behavior or, if they do, they may not think they can influence the process with self-management.

Some just don’t care how their behavior affects others, thinking and saying “This is who I am, live with it.”


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Changing the Narrative

Interest in emotional intelligence with a focus on performance has  changed the narrative  by changing the terminology – people want to be more intelligent, they do not want to be lumped into a mental health category. However, to become more emotionally intelligent one must

  • Acknowledge that behavior results from internal psychological processes, the individual’s mindset, and setting.
  • Recognize the effect on others of their speech, actions, and even their “vibe.”
  • Care.
  • Accept that mindful self-awareness enables self-management.
  • Manage emotions to optimally perform.

It becomes obvious that the person who expresses anger overtly or as passive aggressive behavior impacts the team’s performance. One who views any criticism as an attack gets in the way of performance improvement. One who is afraid of speaking up robs the group of valuable insights and information.


Look to the Process

Promoting process thinking is the key to being able to manage psychological issues. Process thinking recognizes that everything is caused by something – a process.

In general, a group will operate more effectively if the members acknowledge and skillfully address both the visible processes and the processes operating below the line of consciousness, as needed, to optimize performance.


For example, to overcome aversion to criticism, cultivate awareness of both the process improvement process and the presence of internal psychological processes that lead individuals to be overly and unskillfully critical or unable to accept and value criticism.

Participants can work together when they realize that the problem of aversion to criticism gets in the way of effective performance. It involves a conflict between the idea that constructive criticism makes a positive contribution vs. the need to protect oneself or one’s position.


Overcome Resistance

Cognitively knowing that behavior is the result of a process is an important starting point for cultivating the capacity to avoid unskillful behavior. However intellectually knowing that mental habits like aggression or avoidance are not effective does not immediately translate into behavioral change.

Rational thought is lost to the emotions and to unhealthy beliefs and mental habits. Psychological issues are often deep and painful. Habits are hard to change.


So how do we get people who are stuck in neurotic patterns like resistance to criticism, shutting down communication, and yelling, to change their behavior?

There is no simple formula. The complexities include the degree to which organizations can require people to be self-aware and overcome the resistance to psychotherapy.

With the knowledge that organizational performance is the sum of team and individual performance, effectiveness becomes the measure of how well teams functions. Organizations are motivated to create a culture in which addressing emotional and psychological issues is part of performance management.


At the same time the workplace is not the forum for psychotherapy. At work, addressing these issues is about changing behavior. It is up to each individual to assess the causes of the their own disruptive behavior and adapt it to benefit the health of the team.

Stop focusing on labels like depression and anxiety. Instead, focus on the symptoms and their impact on performance, where performance includes the happiness and wellbeing of the people involved.


Going Forward

There is a simple, though not easy, process: raise consciousness, apply it, and adjust so that it there is neither too much nor too little attention to psychology and its effect.

Cultural change is set in motion by training to acknowledge the need for self-management, process-awareness, and self-awareness and how to apply them in teams.

Regularly (not too often) dialogue about the symptoms and impact of psychological issues on performance and what to do about them. When issues arise address them in the context of what the team has learned. Over time, assess your process and adjust.


With the right mindset, behavior that downgrades performance automatically motivates action. That mindset needs the team to be willing and able to cut through the psychological issues that get in the way.

Depending on the culture and individuals involved, readiness for this kind of change can be quick and self-supported, or can take months or even years with expert coaching and consulting.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.