‘If young people don’t see themselves in psychology…’

Ella Rhodes reports from the European Congress of Psychology in Moscow.

In a discussion on advancing the leadership of psychology in Europe, organised by the British Psychological Society, former Society President Nicola Gale said psychology and psychologists have much to offer in terms of leadership and in tackling many of society’s intractable problems. Yet psychologists, having often set out on a career path to support wellbeing, do not always embrace leadership opportunities. 

Dr Waikaremoana Waitoki (University of Waikato), President Elect of the New Zealand Psychological Society (NZPsS), has been working to ensure the rights of the country’s indigenous people and psychologists are reflected by, and embedded in, the society’s work. Also a convenor on the National Standing Committee for Bicultural Issues, and Senior Research Officer for the Māori Psychology Research Unit, Waitoki said as an indigenous person from a colonised country she hoped to establish approaches in the NZPsS that reflected the fact New Zealand’s indigenous people were the first people of the country. 

Each of the society’s policies and practices are set up to recognise the ‘spirit and intent of the treaty of Waitangi’.  Waitoki pointed to the importance of leadership in addressing iniquities and ensuring the needs of indigenous people are reflected in psychology, and that indigenous psychologists feel a sense of belonging in the NZPsS.

The version of psychology many of us are taught is endemically western and thus not always applicable or relevant to people from non-western communities. Waitoki said that following the horrific terrorist attacks on Mosques in Christchurch, this became obvious – it was difficult to find helpful psychological material which was specific and relevant to the Muslim community. While Māori people make up around three per cent of the psychological workforce in New Zealand they have the highest suicide rate in the world – Waitoki asked what we can do if our psychology is not applicable to non-western people. Good leadership, she suggested, can show the next generation what they can hope to be and what they can aspire to do. ‘If young people don’t see themselves in psychology they’ll move on to other things.’ 

Incoming BPS President David Murphy has been deeply involved in encouraging and developing leadership skills and confidence in trainee clinical psychologists at the University of Oxford. Leadership development can be seen as a toolbox, giving someone the skills to lead, or more like watering a garden, giving people development opportunities and constructive feedback. 

Helping people to see themselves as leaders is a key component in increasing people’s motivation to lead. Motivation to lead has been studied in various populations – very high levels can be found among US Army Officer cadets and business students, but in Murphy’s Clinical Psychology students levels were below average, with no difference between genders. 

The leadership development programme Murphy introduced at Oxford runs for the three years of its Clinical Psychology Doctorate programme and encourages students to recognise the leadership skills they may not have realised they had. He surveyed students who took part before and after the programme and found positive gains in their leadership identity and motivation to lead which were maintained over time.

What can we do to persuade psychologists that leadership may suit them? Nicola Gale ended the discussion by suggesting we should ask trainees what kind of future they hope to see, what part they’d like to play in creating that and how they would like to make a difference. 

- See also 'Moving psychological science forward in Europe'

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber