NTUs Dr Zara Whysall applies psychology to work behaviour

NTU's Dr Zara Whysall applies psychology to work behaviour

 September 19, 2019

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Where Women Work meets Dr Zara Whysall who is an Associate Professor at Nottingham Trent University who undertakes teaching, research and consultancy within the Executive Education Team in the Business School, and is Course Leader for the Post-Graduate Cert/Dip in Global Business.

Zara conducts research and consultancy for public and private sector clients, on topics including presenteeism, leadership development, talent management, diversity management and organisational culture change. She supervises students on the PhD and DBA programmes in research areas of relevance to her areas of interest and expertise.

In the following interview, Zara shares insight into working with Nottingham Trent University

How would you describe yourself professionally and personally?

My Hogan personality profile suggests: driven, diligent, pragmatic, fun-loving… and I’d probably add impatient!

How would you summarise your area of academic interest?

As a business psychologist my work is about applying psychology to better understand how people think and behave at work, and using this to enhance peoples’ performance and experience at work. Specifically, I focus on three main areas:

  • talent management and development - how to most effectively develop and enhance capability among critical talent populations, whether that’s leaders or functional specialists with other strategically critical skills
  • performance and wellbeing – the reciprocal relationships between work and health, and how work should be designed and managed in order to maximise both performance and well-being (including presenteeism)
  • Diversity and inclusion – how can we minimise implicit bias in the workplace? I’m interested in how implicit bias can lurk in the deeper levels of organisational culture – the deep-routed values, beliefs and assumptions – and undermine any potentially ‘superficial’ approaches to managing diversity such as diversity targets

I balance my academic role with another role in practice, so my research interests tend to reflect the complex challenges actually experienced by business leaders in the real world. It means I’ll probably never have the luxury of a narrow area of academic focus, but to me that doesn’t reflect reality, so that’s fine with me.

What's a particularly interesting element about the field you operate in?

Understanding what makes people behave the way they do at work. People can do some quite surprising things at work (good and bad), and however irrational it may seem, there’s usually a reason for it. The reasons are not always easy to identify – for instance it could be due to the individual’s own personality, background and experiences, or it could be as a result of how people are being rewarded, and the behaviour that’s being modelled as desirable in that context - inevitably it’s usually a combination of factors, but there are usually reasons for it, if we can only find them!

Which of your published works are you most proud of and why?

Because of my emphasis on practice, some of the outputs I’m most proud of are commercially confidential publications. One research report for a large government department, for example, involved a collaboration between academics, talent practitioners and reward specialists. We advised the client on how to improve recruitment and retention of key talent populations which were critical to their business but in general shortage in the external market. The client praised how the report directly addressed their challenge, providing specific, practical recommendations which would certainly add value. This may sound like a fundamental requirement but you’d be surprised how many academics tend to address the questions which relate to their own research interests, as opposed to the client’s actual issues!

From a primarily academic perspective, it would be my journal article on presenteeism – the first study to quantify the cost of presenteeism in terms of lost productivity within a UK context.

What challenges might women academics face more so than men?

Sadly, the sector suffers from the same issues which still pervade most other sectors – under representation of women in senior leadership roles, gender pay gaps (Universities have a much higher pay gap than the national average in Britain), and a general bias towards seeing men as more capable.

In practice, part-time working is also much less common amongst academics that you might expect, so if you choose this option – for instance whilst raising young children – you can feel that the system isn’t really set up for you. The predominant measure for success in academia remains research funding secured and papers published, which are both ‘long games’, and performance expectations aren’t necessarily ‘pro-rated’ if you’re part-time.

What's your advice for women academics considering promotion?

Don’t get me started – this is an area I focus on in research and practice, so I could go on for hours, but it’s important to acknowledge that unconscious bias does (still) exist regarding the suitability of women versus men for senior roles in organisations generally; there’s plenty of good quality evidence demonstrating that. But the important point is that women don’t need “fixing”, the system does, and the implicit beliefs it fuels among both men and women (research shows that even women tend to perceive other women negatively when they display traits typically associated with effective leadership).

But since most of us aren’t in a position to ‘fix the system’, to counter-act these challenges I’d suggest not under-estimating the value of networks, sponsors and mentors. Earlier in my career, I tried to do it all myself – get my head down and work hard, and hope that it will pay off. But as I’ve progressed - both in my academic and corporate careers – I’ve realised that approach is neither necessary nor necessarily effective. Others already have some of the answers – so ask! And you get more done when you collaborate, and so long as you choose the right collaborators, without losing recognition. Finally, I’ve learnt (and the research was already there to tell me) that it’s not just about hard work, you need to ensure that those in the driving seat see the value of that work.

How does NTU actively support women's advancement?

I’m hopeful that being part of the Athena Swan initiative will help to level the field, but in addition to that I think NTU’s career pathways are a very strong step forwards for diversity in general – not just for gender diversity.

NTU has been quite forward-thinking in recognising that a good University needs to be ambidextrous. NTU developed three career pathways which allow academics to place an emphasis on either teaching and research, teaching and practice, or teaching and scholarship. Teaching is fundamental to all pathways (because without students, we wouldn’t be here!), and all routes have elements of the other two, but there is scope to focus on the area that suits your interests, background, strengths and aspirations. It’s a first step towards broadening the existing stereotype of what makes a good academic, which can only be good for diversity, not just for women but also more broadly.

What's an interesting fact about you?

This is difficult…I must make an effort to be more interesting! At a risk of seeming like I haven’t done anything interesting since my childhood, I’m going to say: I achieved the highest award in Girl Guiding, but was also the first person in the long history of our unit (along with my friend) to get sent home from international camp. I think this reflects the combination of hard-working yet fun-loving which I mentioned at the start!

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