Rethinking The Growth and Care of Organizations: A Proposal

As The Workologist Newsletter subscribers know, I recently "gave myself permission" (it's complicated) to look for a full-time job in addition to continuing to run and develop everything I'm doing with The Workologist. In a nutshell, I've been entirely entrepreneurially focused since quitting my high school teaching job and coming to graduate school in 2011. There's nothing wrong with that kind of single-minded focus but I've realized that it has limited me from other potential opportunities that might be just as rewarding as trying to develop my own company.

All that is to say I've been perusing cyberspace over the past few weeks in an effort to see what kind of job opportunities are out there and even dipping my toes in the water when I've seen something I like. There are a handful of positions with companies I admire out there but unfortunately I have seen nothing that 100% matches what I'm visualizing someone with my skill set (or a similar one) could bring to an organization.

I'm writing to propose a new position that companies should be hiring for. I don't have a good name for it yet (I'd love to hear your ideas.) I'm also 95% sure this position doesn't already exist in most companies but if it does exist in yours then props to you. From what I can tell not many companies are thinking about what an organizational development/positive psychologist/coach/personal productivity expert/researcher could bring to the table.

Firstly, let's lay out what someone in this position would need in order to do this job well (in no particular order): insatiable curiosity around what it means to do great work on an individual, team, and organizational level; a deep knowledge of productivity best-practices and the contextual factors that limit or enhance each; coaching expertise; a working knowledge of foundational positive psychology, organizational psychology, cognitive psychology, and leadership theories and concepts; the interpersonal skills to facilitate small group discussions, workshops, and one-on-one conversations; a deep appreciation for the power of scientific experimentation and the willingness to use those principles in the quest for more efficient, meaningful and productive work; and a dedication to uncovering the best processes, systems, and approaches to helping an organization operate as efficiently and meaningfully as possible.

Easy as pie, right?

I think the benefits of having someone on the team who is constantly thinking about how to amplify everyone else's impact on an individual level ("making people better"), at the group level ("making teams better"), and at the organizational level ("making systems and processes better") would be huge. That's not to say this is the only person who would be thinking about these topics. However, hiring someone whose express job it is to think about and act on this stuff not only ensures that someone is thinking about it, but it frees up everyone else to use more of their cognitive ability for the substantive work that justifies the organization's existence. The pace of work in most companies is accelerating and being responsive, agile, and innovative may be buzzwords but they also ring true for many companies striving to make an impact in the world. Someone in this position not only frees people up to become more fully engaged in their primary work tasks, but also ensures that everything else that can be done to amplify the effectiveness of the organization is being done.

This isn't a general HR position or a short-term consulting gig or even a training and development specialist. I'm talking about someone who is much more baked into the everyday processes and interactions in an organization and whose only job is to make sure everyone else can be even better in their roles. One person could cover a ton of ground if their primary responsibility was to simply ensure that the organization was firing on all cylinders (and to maybe find cylinders that aren't even firing yet). Obviously, a small organization needs everyone to be operating at full capacity at all times in order to be successful. However, small organizations and startups often quickly grow to the point where questions need to be answered about organizational structure, norms, culture, etc. that often get (not) made by default (to everyone's detriment) instead of being consciously and deliberately decided. The person in this role would be expected to notice when this is happening and step in to facilitate the process of making these decisions consciously.

Hopefully I've been somewhat clear for what this position might entail. To make it even clearer, here's an extremely partial list of job responsibilities and actions this person would need to do:

  • Figure out what training/development/support individual employees need and either develop or find the appropriate resources.
  • Figure out what training/development/support teams need and either develop or find the appropriate resources for them.
  • Assess communication (how we email/text/Slack) and operating norms (how we schedule meetings, run meetings, do our daily routine work, make time for non-urgent but important work, how we keep track of who is doing what and by when, etc.) of the organization and suggest/facilitate tweaks where necessary.
  • Work with managers to develop their ability to successfully coach their employees.
  • Work with employees to develop the psychological resources (self-efficacy, hope, optimism, resilience, grit, self-leadership, etc.) to thrive at work (and beyond).
  • Work with members of the leadership team on developing leadership capabilities.
  • Assess and facilitate tweaks to physical workspaces given the best environmental psychology evidence.
  • Stay up to date on organizational psychology research that may be relevant to the organization and translate/synthesize findings into useful information for all members of the organization.
  • Be constantly thinking about how the organization goes about getting it's work done and note areas for improvement.
  • Support all members of the organization in the quest to make work a meaningful growth experience through the way each person approaches their work and makes sense of their role in the organization in an effort to support job satisfaction, engagement, and ultimately organizational performance.

Many of these responsibilities are currently offloaded to a hodgepodge of training and development specialists and consultants or thrust upon already overworked managers. The psychological health of an organization is too important to spread across disparate departments and individuals. It needs to be treated holistically and managed intelligently. I'm convinced bringing a positive organizational psychology trained, personal development and personal productivity obsessed, experienced coach and generally insatiably curious person into the fold of an organization would have huge ramifications.

The best way I can think of to describe this position is as a catalyst that is constantly circulating through an organization to make sure all the chemical reactions that need to be happening are happening. That areas that need a little boost are being boosted, that areas needing a little cooling get cooled, that by coordinating all the disparate reactions that are happening across the entire system the overall effect can be more explosive and productive than anyone ever expected.

Photo by Marcus Peaston

The Psychology of GTD, Part 2: Implementation Intentions

Last week I released the first part of my series on the Psychology of GTD. This week, we move on to the idea of "implementation intentions" and the science of goal setting.

At a very basic level, success with using a GTD system is all about setting and achieving goals. Both Projects and Next Actions could be considered goals. Projects are obviously larger and more long term (usually, but not always) than Next Actions but they are united by the fact that they are goals in the sense of describing an end state that you're trying to achieve. Given the reliance on goals and goal setting it makes sense that some of the research done in the field of psychology on this topic is relevant to GTD.

Implementation Intentions

The research on implementation intentions is all about how to best set and then take action toward meaningful goals. It's one thing to set a goal and a completely different thing to take regular action toward that goal. I only have to look as far as all the failed goals and habit changes I've ever experienced to see the difference between the two. Implementation intentions are all about how to get yourself to take "goal directed behavior" even when you may not feel like it or even realize you should.

How Implementation Intentions Work

You have some sort of goal that you wish to achieve, say, losing 15 pounds. You decide that an action you can take toward that stated goal is no longer eating a bowl of ice cream as a bedtime snack. You've basically set the intention to stop eating ice cream after dinner in the hope that it will support your ultimate goal of losing weight. The missing piece, according to the implementation intention researchers, is the details around how you're going to take that goal-directed action.

Instead of just setting an intention you have to also set the details around that implementation. This takes the form of an "if-then" statement that includes the positive behavior change. For example, the person in our ice cream example could set the implementation intention of, "IF I feel hungry after dinner THEN I will eat a piece of my favorite fruit." This statement helps create a cause-effect link in our ice cream eater's mind about when he is going to take certain goal relevant action. Now, instead of using his willpower to fight the urge to eat ice cream every night he simply has to enact his implementation intention ("eat a piece of my favorite fruit") when the proper environmental conditions are met ("it's after dinner and I'm hungry"). Over time this cause-effect relationship becomes even stronger and is enacted almost automatically.

Implications for GTD

When you're first starting GTD you have to use a lot of willpower to keep it going. There's all these lists and checklists and frameworks and it all seems so tedious and overwhelming! I think that's why a lot of people never really see enough success with GTD to keep it going. GTD doesn't really start "clicking" until you get the behaviors that promote it to happen automatically. Using your inbox to capture all information in your life, using some sort of ubiquitous capture tool, doing mental RAM dumps, doing Weekly Reviews, reviewing checklists... there are a lot of behaviors that need to be taken to make GTD successful for you.

Using the implementation intention idea can help these behaviors become automatic. For example, you could set an implementation intention like, "IF I have an idea when I'm not in front of my computer THEN I will pull out my smart phone and write myself a note," or "IF it's Sunday afternoon THEN I'm going to sit down and do my Weekly Review." Using the physical artifacts of a GTD system can also serve as the IF statement, "IF I'm looking at my Project list and I see a lack of Next Actions THEN I will take a moment to figure out what the Next Action is," for example. Forming implementation intentions is similar to creating a productivity system like GTD in that it's an external system. In the same way that GTD is an external system to hold tasks/projects/goals, implementation intentions are an external system for taking the actions to make those tasks/projects/goals actually happen.

Next week we will discuss the idea of how Csikszentmihalyi's idea of flow is connected to GTD.

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Photo by Angie Torres

The Psychology of GTD, Part 1: PsyCap

Introduction to the Psychology of GTD Series

Several months ago I had the honor of working closely with David Allen) and his company. In a nutshell, I helped analyze the Getting Things Done methodology and aligned it with some theories and principles of psychology. Given GTD's huge popularity we wanted to see if there were some scientific reasons behind its effectiveness and ubiquity. After we finished the project, I continued on with David Allen and produced an in-depth report of my findings. Over the next few weeks I want to share the major connections I uncovered between GTD and psychology here at The Workologist.

If you haven't read Getting Things Done or aren't familiar with it at all then these articles may not make a ton of sense. Obviously, the best course of action would be to read the book first. However, you can also get a pretty good gist of the system by checking out the various resources available online. The better you understand GTD the more meaningful these connections will be to you.

As a starting point, I should be clear that no empirical research has been conducted specifically on GTD (at least that I could find). There has been an interesting theoretical article written by Heylighen and Vidal about the cognitive science behind the system. The rest of the theories and ideas I'm going to present throughout this series have never been specifically investigated in a GTD complex but there are theoretical reasons to believe they are connected -- and I'll do my best to explain why as simply as possible.

Introduction to PsyCap

The first psychological concept I want to connect to GTD is the idea of positive psychological capital, or PsyCap. PsyCap is a "higher order construct" comprised of four other concepts; self-efficacy, optimism, resilience, and hope. Individually, each of these can predict various positive outcomes to a certain extent. However, when they're combined together into what psychologists call PsyCap you get much more explanatory power than treating them each separately. Basically, when you look at these four constructs together you are able to tap into the synergistic relationships between them, thus justifying the creation of a new variable, PsyCap.

In a little more detail, the four subcomponents of PsyCap are:

1. Self-efficacy - Having confidence to take on and put in the necessary effort to succeed at challenging tasks.

2. Optimism - Making positive attributions about succeeding now and in the future.

3. Hope - Persevering toward goals and, when necessary, redirecting paths to goals.

4. Resilience - When facing adversity and problems, bouncing back to the original -- or even better -- state of being.

PsyCap is what's known as a "state-like" construct as opposed to a "trait-like" construct. Traits (like most components of personality) don't really change over time. They are largely set by genetics and then remain at that relatively same level for the rest of our lives. On the other end of the continuum, state constructs vary from moment to moment (like mood). PsyCap isn't as variable as mood but it is open to development. The fact that it isn't a trait is quite heartening because that means it can be developed and improved with focused effort and training.

In its relatively short history as a construct, PsyCap has been connected to many positive individual and organizational outcomes such as job performance, job satisfaction, and psychological well being. A meta-analysis (a study of studies) connected PsyCap to desirable employee attitudes (job satisfaction, organizational commitment, psychological well-being), multiple measures of performance (self, supervisor evaluations, and objective), and negatively associated it with undesirable employee attitudes (cynicism, turnover intentions, job stress, and anxiety).

So what does this all have to do with GTD?

I think a case can be made that utilizing GTD can enhance an individual's level of PsyCap because aspects of the system line up with the very subcomponents of PsyCap. Let's dig into each of the four subcomponents of PsyCap as they relate to GTD.


GTD directly relates to the development of self-efficacy by enabling an individual to create and maintain a complete picture of their commitments, to themselves and others, in order to make good decisions about what to do (or not do) in any given moment. The process of identifying all "open loops" and moving them from memory to an external system while systematically identifying concrete and doable "next actions" can be seen as an exercise in developing self-efficacy. An individual utilizing GTD knows exactly what needs to be done and knows exactly what action they can take, given the restrictions of their available time, energy, and contextual restraints.


If you're doing GTD correctly you're doing a lot of front-end decision making. This "work before the work" is what you do when you figure out what the next actions are for all your various projects. There's strong case to be made that the process of front-end decision making is also an exercise in developing hope. Remember, the psychological definition of hope involves setting goals and figuring out multiple ways to attain them. The front-end decision making process involves setting goals ("What does done look like for this project?") and identifies the tasks needed to achieve those goals ("What's the next action?"). At the end of the front-end decision making process you're left with a clear sense of what needs to be done and how to best do it.


One of the biggest benefits of adopting GTD in my own life has been a more optimistic outlook on what I'm capable of. GTD has allowed me to complete more projects, take on more audacious assignments, and just generally do more than I ever thought possible. The end result of that is a growing sense of optimism regarding what I can do and what I'll be capable of in the future. The process of identifying meaningful projects, articulating the next steps needed to complete it, and sticking to the process long enough to complete it is a powerful experience.


When the crap hits the fan, the focus needs to be on action and not "figuring out what to do." A robust GTD system allows you to focus on actually doing the work at hand because you've already taken care of all the front-end decision making ahead of time (see above). While no empirical support exists for the idea that those individuals who utilize GTD would be more successful in bouncing back from failure, it's feasible to think this may be the case. Utilizing GTD gives an you a sense of calm and control over the situation that allows you to use your mental faculties on the task at hand -- and not having to remember what to do. In a time of stress or other adversity, those individuals who are able to think most clearly will be more likely to emerge from the stress in better shape than those who do not.


The changing nature of work requires that employees and independent workers be able to handle more information than ever. They need to be able to manage many projects, whether working from or at an office, to be optimally productive and satisfied. By deliberately striving to develop PsyCap in addition to economic, social, and human capital, people may be likely to be more productive and satisfied with their work. Adopting GTD may stimulate each of the four subcomponents of PsyCap, making it an ideal "mini-intervention" that has lasting effects. Given the impressive research already conducted in this area, the relationship between GTD and PsyCap seems feasible and is worth exploring further.

For the next installment of this series, I'm going to share how the research of Peter Gollwitzer (and others) on "implementation intentions" is connected to GTD (edit: You can read that article here). You can read Part 3 here.

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Photo by Adam Kuban

The Surprisingly Hopeful Upside of the Milgram Experiments

Nowadays there are certain hoops you have to (rightfully) jump through when you want to conduct a psychological experiment involving human participants. The impetus for those hoops are a couple of infamous experiments that most people who have taken an introduction to psychology class will be familiar with. One of those infamous experiments was conducted by an individual named Stanley Milgram.

Milgram was interested in the phenomenon of authority and whether people would follow orders even when it went against their own moral code or values. To test this phenomenon, he set up an experiment where a participant would be given the task of trying to teach another individual. When the learner got an answer wrong, the participant was instructed to flip a lever that administered a shock to the learner. There was a series of levers in front of the participant that were clearly labelled with increasing amounts of voltage. What the participant didn't know was that the learner was actually an actor and they weren't truly being shocked. It sure sounded and looked like it, though.

Milgram wanted to see how far people would go in shocking the learner. At the highest few levels of voltage the learner would be screaming and begging the participant to stop shocking them. Eventually, they would go silent, giving the impression they passed out or even died from the shocks. Milgram would be in the same room as the participant and wearing his official looking white lab coat. When a participant would experience unease Milgram would use the following four cues:

  • Please continue.
  • The experiment requires that you continue.
  • It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  • You have no other choice, you must go on.

If the subject still wished to stop after all four successive verbal prods, the experiment was halted. 

The results are very well known and quite distressing. The vast majority of people who participated in the experiment went all the way to the end, delivering the most violent shock three times in succession.  At this point it would appear that the learner had passed out, or possibly even died.

The Milgram Experiment, With a Twist

All of this is actually to set up what I really wanted to talk about and something I wasn't aware of until a few weeks ago. Milgram did many different replications and variations of this study. While Milgram's overall study a very distressing look at the human mind and what pain we are willing to inflict upon each other even with a relatively minor amount of official pressure, there was one variation that is incredibly hopeful.

In this variation the participant would be sitting in a waiting room while the person before them finished up the experiment. However, this "participant" was actually an actor and his role was to refuse to go on with the experiment once he realized he was "hurting" another human being (who, remember, was also an actor). When it was the actual participant's turn to be in the study the likelihood of them continuing all the way to the end dropped substantially. Apparently, seeing someone else be willing to stand up for what's right emboldened the participant to do the same thing. Whereas 65 out of 100 participants went all the way to the end and administered the massive shock in the original experiment, when there was an example of someone standing up and refusing to go further only 4 out of 40 went all the way to the end.

Positive Deviance: Do You Have It?

I don't want to beat you over the head with the implications of this because I think they're pretty clear. Where can you stand up and be a positive example to someone today? It's pretty clear we are constantly  scanning our environments for cures about how we're supposed to act. What kind of positive cues can you provide for your kids, your friends, your colleagues, or your employees? What status quo rubs you the wrong way and what small thing can you do to show others it's okay to feel, speak, or act in the opposite direction?

In one of the most eye-opening and distressing psychological experiments of all time there is a dollop of hope. You can be the domino that starts a positive chain reaction. In a world of conformity a few conspicuous non-conformists can have a huge impact. Is that you?

* I heard this story during a talk given by Dr. Phil Zimbardo in November of last year. That name might be familiar because of an eerily similar experiment he did...