Time on the couch: Psychologists help biz owners leverage their 'people assets'

Building and managing a business is complex and stressful. The "people assets" of a business can provide both its greatest rewards and its greatest management challenges. Being the conductor of such a menagerie of personalities and abilities is akin to nothing less than assembling a confounding jigsaw puzzle—while driving on a rocky road.

But that is your role as a business owner: aligning your team, both among themselves and with your business' operations and strategic plan. This, simply, is often the essential difference between a good business with a good product and a great business with a great product.

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Financial advisors can provide businesses many financial insights and strategies to optimize finance, tax and estate planning. But when our business-owner clients begin to describe a malaise or tension that's affecting their firm, our discussions will explore the people comprising the business. In such instances, we bring in a unique and dynamic tool to work through such issues: our on-staff organizational psychologist.

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Psychologists can be one of the business owner's most effective tools. Their training in the "science of the mind" can help unlock the issues and drivers behind employee behaviors and alter the consequences of their actions. Thoughtful adoption of the psychologist's methods, analysis and solutions can make a dramatic difference in your business.

We are all hardwired to act and react in a certain manner. Whether someone acts in a certain manner because of nature or nurture is not important. What is important is the business owner's understanding that in a business setting, you can't fundamentally change people, but you can adapt their behaviors and channel their talents toward success.

Three factors

The psychologist will focus on three ways employee behaviors—and your own as an employer—can be impacting your business. First, whether or not interpersonal skills may be deficient, which in turn could cause morale or conflict issues. Second, if an employee's attributes are matched to his or her position. And third, if the structure of employees and their roles are aligned to company-wide success.

Quality of interpersonal skills is often a grating issue in a business. One assessment a psychologist may follow is determining which employees are "learners" as opposed to "judgers." There is an excellent body of work on this point by Marilee Adams, Ph.D., founder and president of consulting and coaching organization the Inquiry Institute.

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By asking a question in a learning fashion (e.g., "I wonder why we're doing this process this way," versus "Why would you do this process that way?"), the learner doesn't challenge but instead cooperates and teaches. In the previous example, the latter question is more judgmental and confrontation-oriented. Recognizing, valuing and teaching the difference has a tremendous impact on an organization; it becomes part of your culture.

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Our organizational psychologist continues by assessing the attributes of key, and other, employees. A measurement of more than 20 of these characteristics is telling, particularly as to the suitability of a given employee to his or her role. This "profile" is shared with employees for discussion and introspection about how they play off their strengths and modify their behavior or weaknesses, if possible.

For example, salespersons with low "ego strength"—desire for recognition—or low "ego resilience," their ability to bounce back from a setback, will probably not be effective in their role. They are not wired as such; their profiles will show this and explain why they have not been successful. However, they might be very effective customer service representatives if they are otherwise "empathetic" and "accommodating."

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Another example is measuring "idea orientation," or creativity. If an employee measures high in this area, his or her role in a job that requires adherence to a stated process for a consistent result would be a frustrating failure. Such people will continuously try to reinvent the process. Move them to R&D!

Achieving alignment

The psychologist is looking to inform the employee and business owner of where someone has been underutilized, where this employee's skills may be more appropriate in another area of the organization or how by adaptation an employee can overcome attributes that have been holding him or her back. We have found the profile is almost always a remarkably spot-on assessment.

Let's consider the third concept a psychologist examines: alignment. Alignment is the arrangement of people, their skills and their responsibilities with the systems and structure of the business. It is the sum of the parts. When perfectly aligned, your business is a near perpetual-motion machine, self-correcting and efficient. However, as people and systems become unaligned, through growth or other changes, the friction created threatens the business.

"Your employees have their observations and judgments. Correct or not, they must be addressed so the team can work together most effectively."

An organizational psychologist is looking at the results of the individual analysis, position descriptions, systems and structures, known problems and desired enhancements. A very effective tool is the "360 Assessment," where the psychologist will meet with integral employees to confidentially gain insight into what the employees are very ready to share, what and who works in the business, and what and who does not. Your employees have their observations and judgments. Correct or not, they must be addressed so the team can work together most effectively.

This process almost always serves as a great relief valve in a company. Problems and solutions are identified, or often people and systems are improved, if only incrementally.

In addition to the efficiency gains a business owner gets from bringing in a skilled organizational psychologist, the process reflects well on the culture of the organization. The process confirms to the employees that the company is caring and that improvement is an everyday commitment.

—By Grant Rawdin, special to CNBC.com. Rawdin, a lawyer and certified financial planner, is founder and CEO of Wescott Financial Advisory Group.