Home Business & Industry Former BlackRock Exec Jeff Smith on How Studying Psychology Can Benefit HR Professionals

Former BlackRock Exec Jeff Smith on How Studying Psychology Can Benefit HR Professionals

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It’s an old trope that psychology majors are often unsure of what they want to do after university. There are directly related career options in research and academia, but those opportunities are few and far between, unlike more career-oriented fields of study like business or medicine. For Jeff Smith, a human resources executive who has held leadership positions at companies like BlackRock and Time Warner, the path from psychology to a career in HR is a logical fit.

Smith, who earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology and a doctorate in industrial-organisational psychology, believes that the rigorous study of the human mind and statistical research methods emphasised in psychology can translate to a skill set that helps manage employees, create effective and rigorous processes, and make data-based decisions. 

“I think being ‘psychologically minded’ is very helpful in terms of thinking through interpersonal dynamics and not just focusing on the business issue at hand, but on the people who are dealing with the issue,” he says. “I always found it helpful in building strong relationships and also in building teams.

“The other thing that is very useful – that people often don’t associate with psychology – is you actually have to be good at math, statistics in particular, and that helps a great deal with business.”

HR stands at the intersection of organisational success and employee well-being. Professionals in this field are increasingly recognising the value of integrating psychological principles into their work to foster a more harmonious and productive workplace through a nuanced understanding of human behaviour, motivations, and interpersonal dynamics. This understanding is central to several fundamental HR responsibilities, including talent management and recruitment, employee engagement and satisfaction, and leadership development.

Talent recruitment and predicting job success

The process of talent acquisition and management can be significantly enhanced by a deep understanding of psychological principles.  One example would be what some psychologists call “the big five” personality characteristics: extraversion or introversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to new experience.

For years, cognitive ability was seen as the primary indicator of job success, with the assumption that more intelligent individuals will be more likely to excel in their roles. But a deeper understanding of the big five traits suggests that intelligence is just one piece of the puzzle. Other crucial aspects of job performance – such as creativity, leadership, integrity, attendance, and cooperation – are tied to personality rather than intellect. 

“In addition to understanding the business you are in, HR executives need to have a deep curiosity and understanding of different kinds of talent and what makes people excel in different jobs and environments,” says Jeff Smith, whose human resources agenda at BlackRock included acquiring the right talent in a wide variety of jobs.

Finding the right fit for a job requires a subtle understanding of how different skills and traits impact that position. For example, conscientiousness – characterised by being responsible, dependable, organised, and persistent – might seem to be considered universally beneficial for job success. However, some research suggests that, while this trait is advantageous in most conventional jobs, it could hinder performance in roles that demand innovation, creativity, and spontaneity, particularly in investigative, artistic, and social fields. 

Enhancing employee engagement and satisfaction

Employee engagement and satisfaction are critical indicators of organizational health, and an understanding of psychological research into intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can shed light on how to craft roles and responsibilities that align with employees’ personal values and career aspirations. 

Psychologists distinguish between hindrance and challenge stressors, and understanding the difference can help HR professionals represent two different perceptions of workplace stress with distinct impacts on employees’ motivation and performance. 

Hindrance stressors are seen as barriers to personal growth and goal achievement, often eliciting negative emotions and outcomes such as job dissatisfaction and increased intent to leave. These stressors include unclear job expectations, excessive bureaucracy, and interpersonal conflicts. 

In contrast, challenge stressors are viewed as opportunities for learning, growth, and achievement, despite being demanding. They’re associated with positive outcomes, including improved performance and greater job satisfaction. Examples of challenge stressors encompass high workloads, tight deadlines, and complex tasks that demand skill development.

The key difference lies in their perceived effects on personal and professional development: hindrance stressors obstruct progress, while challenge stressors facilitate it. For HR departments, understanding this distinction is critical for creating environments that minimize hindrances and maximise fulfilling challenges, thereby enhancing employee engagement and productivity.

“I prefer to work in and grow companies that actually care about people as much as most companies say they care about people,” says Smith. “I think it’s a huge advantage to have the best talent that is motivated and incentivized to make decisions for the company in a way they would about themselves, that they actually care.”

Leadership development

Leadership development can also benefit significantly from psychological insights, says Jeff Smith. 

“Most leaders don’t like conflict and want you as the HR person to have all the conversations and do the ‘dirty work,’ and you need to balance this with developing the capability of leaders to give feedback, to have difficult conversations, to learn to grow and develop their people, and to hold them accountable.”

Psychologically minded HR departments can work to create work environments that facilitate open, productive communication between leadership and employees. A 2021 McKinsey & Company study highlighted the crucial role of psychological safety in organisations and how it can be fostered through specific leadership behaviours. This includes creating a positive team climate by demonstrating supportive, consultative behaviours and challenging teams to exceed their potential. The research underlines the importance of leadership development programmes in equipping leaders with the skills necessary to promote psychological safety, such as empathy, open dialogue skills, and situational humility. 

This approach highlights the interconnectedness of leadership development, psychological insights, and organisational success, suggesting that a focus on developing specific leadership skills can have a profound impact on fostering a culture of safety and inclusiveness within teams and organisations as a whole​.




David Radar, a psychology graduate from the University of Hertfordshire, has a keen interest in the fields of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.

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