x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Business success is a head game

A new master's programme in Dubai teaches the importance of psychology in the business world.

Annie Crookes helps her students understand how psychology is essential to career and business success.
Annie Crookes helps her students understand how psychology is essential to career and business success.

When the events coordinator, Anam Arabi, goes to work, she does so with the knowledge that every situation she encounters has a psychological principle behind it.

The 20-year-old Ms Arabi, from India, is among the first group of 10 students pursuing a master's degree in business and psychology at Heriot-Watt University in Dubai.

The Dh60,000 part-time master's programme offers in-depth psychological insights into every aspect of human behaviour in the workplace. And for students like Ms Arabi, who graduated with a degree in business administration this summer, it's a way to understand the business world better - from what influences people's consumer decisions to why companies need more women in the boardroom and how to deal with increasing diversity in the office.

"The course is related to my work," says Ms Arabi as she explains why she decided to enrol on a master's programme so soon after graduating. "In events management, we need to know all the aspects of the business and it's all to do with managing people. This course has modules that help me in my job and I have been able to identify why some issues have happened at work because of what I have learnt."

The master's programme, which teaches eight modules including consumer and economic behaviour, ergonomics and leadership, launched this academic year along with a management and psychology undergraduate programme. Both are the first of their kind in the UAE - showing the nation is catching on to an internationally accepted understanding of the link between business and psychology.

Career climbers and senior managers that are attracted to the course soon learn that the relationship between psychology and business can help them optimise their sales and managerial effectiveness.

"Psychology acknowledges that human behaviour is very complex and you can't just apply a rational formula to the way people spend money," says Dr Annie Crookes, the course director at Heriot-Watt, which recently opened its new campus in Dubai's Academic City.

"It's entirely irrational and very emotional and this is where psychology has an input because it's saying there aren't simple formulas; instead you have to understand individual differences. But with that acknowledgement you can then predict consumer behaviour and have manageable solutions."

Because the master's programme runs on weeknights and weekends, it allows students to study alongside a full-time job. The first intake of students includes marketing, HR and IT professionals as well as recent graduates such as Ms Arabi, who have more limited work experience.

"It's something they can do as career development as the focus of the course is very much how it applies to you," says Dr Crookes. "There are psychology master's and MBAs and this is really trying to be an integration of those two things. We start by examining what psychology says about social behaviour and then we build it up to how it might apply in the workplace. We teach from the ground up."

Dr Crookes uses a number of examples to illustrate how an understanding of psychology is essential to career and business success.

Her first reference is cultural awareness programmes - a popular initiative in the UAE where many companies employ several different nationalities and want to encourage a greater understanding among colleagues.

But Dr Crookes says far from creating cohesion, the initiatives can actually distance employees.

"More and more companies are implementing these things with great intentions and finding employees are resistant to them," she explains.

"All it does is make people more aware of their differences. As soon as you label a difference between people, our brains start to automatically see the difference."

Similarly, Dr Crookes says managers who attempt to lower their employee's stress levels by reducing workloads should examine psychological data to find the better solutions to this common problem.

"There was a review of what the most predictable factors for the physical symptoms of stress are and it wasn't workload or long hours. The biggest predictors of stress were the restraints that you have if you are given a big task to do such as not having the authority or the tools you need to complete that task.

"That's something that's relatively easy to solve. Companies can't get rid of big, difficult projects but they can certainly enable individuals once they've been given those projects."

And the constant debate over how to get more women in the boardroom also has a strong psychological component.

Rather than just satisfying a gender imbalance, studies show that women add a level of open communication to a boardroom environment.

"There is often this problem of 'groupthink' in boardrooms where people with similar backgrounds tend to agree on everything which is detrimental to executive decision making. Women have a slightly different communication style which eases that dynamic and can suddenly open up a very closed environment."

Many might argue, however, that understanding the psychology behind how to manage a customer complaint or how to manage the career expectations of your employees should just be common sense that is learnt on the job.

Simon Dolan is the founder of SJD Accountancy in the United Kingdom, a company with 200 employees and 11,000 clients he built up from scratch after leaving school at 16.

His philosophy towards young employment seekers is to get the first job they can and ignore the lure of further education.

"It seems ludicrous to me that you can employ someone because of a piece of paper rather than whether or not they can do the job. If every other man on the street has an MBA or such like it makes it worthless.

"You only start learning how to do a job when you are actually doing it. Theories are OK, but you don't run a business in a vacuum and you certainly don't run it in a theoretical way. It's an ever-evolving and changing swirl of people and ideas and you can't theorise it."

But while Dr Crookes would agree that the popularity of the MBA, once the pinnacle of academic achievement, has reduced its worth as a job clincher, she believes her master's programme is "unique".

"An MBA is the office buzzword here but now it's over saturated particularly at a time when graduates have to get a master's just to get their first job, so you need to do something different. Our course is the 'psychological MBA', if you like."

And there's no doubt learning about diversity and organisational culture is particularly relevant in the UAE.

"There isn't enough psychology out here. People tend to get very entrenched in formal management speak and we want to raise awareness there is a psychological element to what they are talking about.

"You have mangers managing a diverse mix of international cultures and you also have people being promoted into management positions very quickly so this course is ideal for them so they can go back and pick up the people skills, which if you are quite young you might not know from worldly experience. We take you back and show you all those things."

Ms Arabi certainly sees the worth in spending Dh60,000 on her master's degree.

"In terms of career development, I think I get an equal contribution from my job and the master's," says Ms Arabi, who has lived in the UAE her whole life. "I wanted to have that extra qualification to help me in my field and get a job. It is definitely a plus when I mention it interviews. It gives me an edge."

An appreciation for such skills might explain the increase in demand for workplace psychologists in recent years.

"An occupational psychologist can look after a company's training development so companies are going for people with a psychology rather than an HR background. In other parts of the world people with psychology backgrounds have no problem getting into management or graduate trainee schemes whereas here it's something that's very new," says Dr Crookes.

"When there is a meltdown, the executive training centres are usually the first to go because no one can afford it yet company heads keep psychologists on as consultants. That's because psychology isn't just having a superficial effect on training. It's this realisation that psychology can actually advise you on how to make a company work long-term."

arayer@thenational.ae