'Science is a world without walls'

Zoe Sanderson (University of Bristol) meets Professor Frederik Anseel, current President of the European Association of Work and Organizational Psychology, who will hold their biennial conference in Glasgow in 2021.

Frederik Anseel has recently moved from London, where he was Vice Dean Research at King’s Business School at King’s College London, to become Associate Dean of Research at UNSW Business School in Sydney, Australia. He is the current President of the European Association of Work and Organizational Psychology (EAWOP). Zoe Sanderson caught up with him to discuss how psychology is changing across Europe, the academic-practitioner divide, and what we can expect when the next EAWOP conference comes to Glasgow in 2021.

You’ve worked in several European countries, recently including the UK, and have a unique vantage point on work and organizational psychology across the continent through your involvement in EAWOP. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in pan-European cooperation in psychology in recent years? 

I often get asked “what is the European perspective?” on a particular topic… the answer always is “there is none!” because all the different European countries have their own unique perspectives on psychology. For example, psychology in the Netherlands is very closely related to the UK and US traditions, but French psychology includes many more critical perspectives such as psychoanalysis, and in Germany there is a strong cognitive tradition and a focus on measurement. Organisations like EAWOP bring this diversity together so we can learn from each other, especially at the conference.  

Having said that, in recent years I’ve noticed more convergence between psychological traditions. I remember when I attended my first EAWOP conference in Lisbon in 2003, my submission was rejected. I wanted to present a study on feedback-seeking behaviour from my dissertation. At that time, feedback-seeking behaviour had existed in the US literature for 20 years and was fashionable, but the committee judged that there wasn’t enough evidence on this subject to warrant a presentation at the conference. This shows the wide differences in perspectives and knowledge that existed then across Europe, and between Europe and the rest of the world. When I went to the conference, I remember at times it felt very exotic because there were all sorts of research perspectives and questions, some of which you don’t see any more.

In academia we have all been pushed into the same mould of how to do research and publishing. Visitors from the US and Canada tend to comment that the quality of the EAWOP conference is increasing, which is code for “we recognise this paradigm more so we feel like it is higher quality research”. We are internalising the US model across Europe in psychology, asking more similar kinds of research questions. There are some benefits to this, of course. Sharing knowledge and building on each other’s expertise is easier when we have common frames of reference, rather than many narrow research traditions that speak their own languages, sometimes literally. On the other hand, this represents a loss of perspectives and some valuable research traditions.

Do you notice any resistance to this tendency towards homogenisation and the spread of US norms in European psychology?  

One of the mission statements of EAWOP is to build psychological capacity across Europe in different people and countries. Some people think we need to be more restrictive in who we allow to present at the EAWOP conferences, saying “why don’t you raise the bar and only allow star researchers to present their work?”. We don’t want that! Developing psychology in Europe involves focusing on young people and including people from all countries. We accept PhD students and encourage them to present their first studies to gain experience. I find that very important, even if it creates some variety in quality; we’ve all had to learn some time.

How would you characterise the distinctiveness of UK psychology within Europe?

UK psychology has an amazing intellectual tradition of extraordinary quality, scope, and breadth. You lead the world. This rich research tradition is a strength, but also a weakness. Elsewhere in Europe, we don’t have to deal so much with the weight of tradition you do in the UK. When you have psychologists who have been doing research in a certain way since the sixties, sometimes it’s hard to get new ideas off the ground. Take the open science and replicability revolution that is happening in psychology right now, for example. Globally, it’s being led by the Netherlands. They are very small country, but they’re probably the most progressive and uncompromising ones in the whole debate. Now many UK departments are following them, but tradition may be slowing you down.  

We often talk about the challenges of bridging the academic-practitioner divide, although of course many psychologists belong to both these groups at various times. You’ve moved fluidly between academia and practice throughout your career. What are the main conditions for successfully navigating between these worlds?

Most academics think about impact wrongly. I’m frustrated by the current approach of valorisation, in which academics research questions that fill a gap in the literature, publish their findings, and then try to throw a finished product towards end users. If their website or blog is read by enough people, it counts as success. This is not impact. Impact is changing something with your research.  

This approach to impact requires that research questions are driven by the people who need something. My main encouragement to academics is to get out of the building they work in. Work and organizational psychologists have to physically go into organisations in order to understand the problems, for example. Talk to people. We need to develop shared understandings of problems with the people who eventually will use our research, and only then can we ever expect to have an impact, by which I mean changing things in reality.  

I started doing this very early in my career because I get bored of sitting at my desk. I spent time with friends in industry, and this shaped my research questions. Although I’ve never really experienced the academia-practice gap, I can see that the incentives for academic progress are misaligned with this kind of practical impact. Academics need to let go of the need to produce large quantities of papers. I would be happy with people having only 10 publications over their entire careers, as long as those are meaningful publications that have engaged with a real problem in the real world and changed something. Research should add value to society.

What are the challenges of this kind of approach in your experience?

In Belgium and the Netherlands, academia is very close to business, society, and government. It is highly esteemed. Companies listen to academics and respect the value of research. Professors write in mainstream publications. In London, I found that the distance between universities and society was much bigger. In the UK, you have the best researchers in the world, so it amazes me how far removed they are from public debate, and how little value is attached to their views by society.

How is the UK’s changing role in Europe likely to affect psychology? 

Brexit wasn’t the main reason EAWOP chose to have our next conference in Glasgow, but we felt strongly that we didn’t want to allow barriers to be built between the UK and Europe in psychology: science is a world without walls. We don’t want to lose the UK, so if the UK does not come to us, we will come to the UK. We will not let go of you!  

As European funding pulls away from the UK due to Brexit, there is a risk that our research and practice collaborations are disrupted, so we need to be more proactive, resisting the idea that only money determines co-operation. We chose to have the conference in Glasgow because we want to reach out to UK colleagues and say “even if there is no European money, we will make partnerships work, because we all benefit from that”. We all face similar challenges and there’s strength in standing together.  

Let’s talk more about the EAWOP conference that will be hosted by the BPS in Glasgow in May 2021.  What are your hopes for that event?

I would love to see an injection of practitioner perspectives and ideas. I want all the practitioners who normally go to the Division of Occupational Psychology conference to come to the EAWOP conference, shake us up, and change us! We will have 1000 to 1200 of the best academics in work and organisational psychology in Europe together for three days, so this is a unique opportunity to influence research for years to come. If practitioners come to the conference, they can set the research agenda, and in four years’ time, hopefully we’ll have answers to the research questions they’re asking.  

What might tempt psychologists who don’t specialise in work and organisations to come to this event?  

Work and Organizational Psychology is an applied discipline. We’ve taken basic theories, insights and methods from cognitive, clinical and social psychology, built on them and refined them to better understand people’s careers and the role of work in their lives. I think psychologists working in the more fundamental subdisciplines in psychology might be amazed to see how far we’ve come with their theories at explaining and predicting behaviour in the ‘real world’ so to speak. Maybe the time has come for these applied developments to come back and inform more basic theories. Come and check us out if you don’t believe me!  

What are you looking forward to most about the conference?

The experience of the conference as President is a very stressful one. I don’t sleep a lot. I get excited if people from all sorts of traditions seem to be mingling and enjoying themselves. And when people come to me and say “I’ve just been to a great session, this is the best talk I’ve heard in the last five years”, this makes my conference! Often a buzz develops around certain sessions, and it’s very difficult to predict what they will be. Last year a session on computational modelling was the talk of the town. When the standing-room only session was finished, the audience was so excited that the session just went on for another hour in the hallway. Computational modelling: who would have thought? It’s always a surprise!

In a recent publication you described the push and pull factors that you see shaping academic work and organizational psychology, such as the opportunities of data abundance and digitalisation, but also low reproducibility rates, alarming levels of mental illness among academics, and critiques about relevance. Many of these concerns relate equally strongly to other fields of academic psychology. What should be the priorities for how we respond to these challenges and opportunities?

We must get rid of our learned helplessness. I see so many pieces about crises, about how academia is heading in the wrong direction, as if we are passive victims of some distant dictator. We are academia. We can do what we want, as long as we do it collectively. For example, how will we deal with the publisher abuse model? If we collectively take possession of this issue, we’re very powerful! For instance, in the Netherlands, a couple of universities have resisted by making everything publicly available. This is very strong. Psychology departments are strong in universities because we have lots of students. If psychology departments collectively say no to certain funding or publication models, we can change those things. Every time somebody is appointed as the editor of the journal, or a Dean in a department, they need to take a stand. I get frustrated when I see nostalgic reports about how academia used to be better. Academia is us. Change it!

Your term as EAWOP President ends in 2021.  What are you hoping will be the legacies of your leadership? 

First, I hope we make progress in bringing academics and practitioners together. Second, I want us to be open to new approaches and innovations, such as the Future of Work and Organizational Psychology movement of academics and practitioners who are working to change this field together. The leadership of organisations like EAWOP must listen and give space for grassroots movements like these to grow, but also need to keep our distance so they can thrive. Thirdly, we want to preserve the mission of EAWOP to develop capacity in work and organizational psychology across Europe, so we must not become elitist and we must work hard to include all countries.  

You’ve been away from Europe and a resident of Australia for around three months. What do you miss most?

When I was in London on almost a daily basis we would have visitors from all over the world. People deliberately stop in London on their way around the world and can quickly go from there to many places in the UK. It’s academic heaven! On any given day, you can attend a seminar by a world leading scholar in your domain. Australia is more isolated, so it’s harder to get people to come. It’s a privileged position for the whole world to land on your doorstep to come and talk to you. That’s something I miss. I don’t miss the daily crowded commutes on the tube, however!  

And are the wines as good in Australia?

No. I’ve been researching this carefully for several months now and I haven’t yet found an Australian red that can match my favourite Italian ones. Please don’t tell my new colleagues.  

- Find out more about EAWOP 20201, and more about Frederik Anseel.

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