Don’t just jump on the bandwagon!

Those looking to adopt an evidence-based approach first need to question ‘best practice’. It’s about understanding what works, in what way and for whom. For organisations, operating in this way also means challenging workplace fads and fashions, evaluating the impact of new products, systems and reorganisations and using good quality scientific evidence to make better decisions that impact the people in our business.

But that is often easier said than done. So what makes it so difficult? In this article published in Supply Management magazine , Dr. Richard MacKinnon, Insight Director at the Future Work Centre, highlights some of the barriers to being evidence-based in organisations and shares ideas for sparking more challenging conversations about finding out what works, in what way and for whom.

Read the full article



Common decision-making errors

Walking direction on asphalt.

In our last blog post, ‘Think like a Scientist!’, we outlined the benefits of adopting a sceptical approach to challenge myths, fads and fashions at work. Now we’re exploring some of the most common decision-making traps we all fall in to, along with some suggestions for how to avoid them.

Here’s the bad news: we don’t always make good decisions! We frequently rely on gut feel, choosing options we personally prefer or rely on faulty logic. And whilst we don’t set out to make poor decisions, it’s a function of how our brains operate, along with what else is going on in our environment. Every one of us has ‘cognitive biases’ which impact how we process information and make decisions, some of which we summarise below:

 We fail to deal with ‘information overload’?

Every day we’re bombarded with new information and making sense of it all can be challenging. To help process all this data and information we rely on mental short-cuts and a selective focus. These usually serve us well, so we can give our limited attention to the most important information and activities. However, even with these tricks up our mental sleeve, we can be overwhelmed by information and options. Confirmation bias occurs when we place more emphasis on the information that supports our own views, disregarding contradictory evidence. For example, we might have a very positive opinion of an employee, rating them positively and ignoring their performance issues as ‘occasional slip ups’.

We draw inaccurate conclusions – correlation does not equal causation!

As humans, we like the satisfaction of deriving meaning from information, even if that means we have to creatively fill in some blanks. One example of this is false causation, where we mistakenly believe one thing causes another, when in fact we don’t have any evidence for this – merely that the two things exist together. So, for example if you had data which correlated employee satisfaction with performance, you might be tempted to claim that more satisfied employees perform better. But not necessarily, it could equally be true that employees who receive higher performance ratings report being more satisfied (wouldn’t you?). So beware of claims based on correlational data!

We make decisions under time pressure – doing something, is better than doing nothing. Right?

A common trap that we can fall into when making decisions under pressure is to feel more comfortable taking some form of action over no action at all. Even when we’re unsure what we’re about to do will work. This is (unsurprisingly) called action bias and, as you might imagine, can lead to disruption and wasted time and resources.

How to deal with these biases?

We can improve the quality of our decision-making by:

  • Seeking input from colleagues, especially someone willing to be a ‘devil’s advocate’ who will make you explain your rationale to them.
  • Exploring possible alternative meanings of data, before making up your mind.
  • Pausing before action when decisions are made under time pressure.
  • Questioning whether a decision needs to be made immediately or even at all.
  • Focusing on the problem to be solved, not the selection of options that are immediately obvious.


We’ve developed a series of workshops called Pathway, to help you and your team overcome thinking errors and use evidence and data to make more effective decisions. To find out more visit: or contact –

Talking about evidence-based practice

Talking about the value of evidence-based practice is something we love to do, so it was a pleasure taking part in a podcast with Virtual Not Distant. They specialise in helping people in organisations become more effective at building and managing virtual teams. They also have an excellent blog and podcast series, focusing on how the 21st century workplace is changing and what that means for how we collaborate.

In this podcast, Dr. Richard A MacKinnon, Insight Director at Future Work Centre talks about the importance of using evidence to inform decisions and design interventions at work, and warns that we should all be wary of not being led by fashions and fads. In fact, if we thought more like scientists – asking more questions, being systematic, testing interventions and learning what works and what doesn’t – organisations would make better decisions and investments about their people.

Click here to listen to the podcast:

(Interview with Richard MacKinnon begins around 19 minutes 40 seconds.)

Employee engagement: emperor’s new clothes?


Last week, we held the latest in our series of ‘Evidence Matters’ breakfast seminars, in London. The focus was ’employee engagement’, an extremely popular topic in the HR world. We wanted to get under the skin of this concept, examine the claims made for its impact on people and organisations and start a debate. And thanks to delegates who attended, we had a very enjoyable and interactive session!

Our focus at the Future Work Centre is evidence-based practice and, while it’s a popular topic, we were determined to get past the hype and examine the evidence for the impact of employee engagement. We launched our white paper “Employee Engagement: The emperor’s new clothes?” at the event and you can download a copy here.

Wait. What’s wrong with ‘engagement’?

We argue that there are four central problems with engagement:

  1. There is no agreed definition of engagement. Looking at the photo below, you can see the variety of responses our delegates gave when asked ‘what do you mean by engagement?’. And they’re not alone. A lack of a shared understanding obviously leads to some additional problems, outlined below.

    Defining engagement

    Defining engagement

  2. Leading on from defining engagement, there is the problem of measurement. Employee engagement is primarily ensured using surveys, yet these surveys vary significantly in their contents and focus. If there isn’t agreement on what’s being measured and what’s included in the measurement itself, how can we make any claims about the topic we’re looking at?
  3. Engagement itself overlaps considerably with other concepts, such as employee satisfaction and motivation. In fact, some measures of engagement correlate with satisfaction to such an extent that they’re essentially measuring the same thing! It looks like engagement is really a combination of several existing concepts, not something new and different.
  4. Finally, our review of the literature on engagement illustrates there is very little quality evidence supporting the claims made about its impact on employee and organisational performance. Yes, there are plenty of case studies and ‘thought leadership’, but these do not represent good quality evidence.

So what’s the alternative?

We’re not suggesting that practitioners throw away their surveys and stop asking employees how they feel about work. We suggest you think about the following:

  • Instead of accepting the claims made by engagement advocates, consider the problem you’re trying to solve with an employee survey. If you can’t define the problem, maybe there isn’t one and maybe you don’t need a survey!
  • If you have a clearly-defined problem, and gathering more feedback from employees would help you understand it better, that should guide the design of your employee survey, not beliefs about what you should be measuring.
  • Find out what works in your organisation. Examine the impact employee opinions have on your key metrics – after all, that’s why they’re key. If you don’t find a relationship between satisfaction and productivity, look elsewhere. If you’re looking to increase productivity, that should be your starting point – not an assumption that increasing engagement (whatever that is) will increase productivity (it probably won’t!)
  • There are alternative and better-validated concepts you can measure in the workplace, if they’re relevant. These include employee satisfaction, commitment and motivation. And there are plenty of measures out there you can use to assess them. Don’t assume that because your survey mentions satisfaction that it measures it scientifically. But be warned, the evidence points to these factors having a weak association with either individual or organisational success.
  • Consider the value you’re getting from your employee survey. Are you analysing your data beyond simple descriptive statistics (e.g. 8 out of 10 people think it’s a great place to work). Does the time and effort expended on regular surveys give you any return at all? Be brave and consider changing your approach.

Find out more

You can find out more about this topic and how we can help you address it, by downloading our white paper or signing up for one of our future free events. Check out our events page for more information.


The journey to evidence-based practice

By Charlotte Abbott

At the Future Work Centre, we’re passionate about researching the world of work. Evidence underpins everything that we do, and we believe it’s vital for organisations to take an evidence-based approach in order to make the right decisions.

We aim to bridge the gap between high quality research about people and work, and the actions you take in your organisation. We want to make sure you’re making the right choices, for the right reasons, for the right people.

What are the challenges to an evidence-based approach?

We recognise that it can be difficult to use an evidence-based approach in the way you work. Often, the pressure to make decisions, the need to implement change quickly or the lack of resources mean that taking the time to look at the facts fully just seems unmanageable. However, being aware of these constraints is already a step in the right direction – and we can help you to overcome these barriers.

How can we help?

We’re here to support you in your journey to become an evidence-based practitioner – making decisions that are based on the facts, rather than popular opinion or ‘because everyone else is doing it’. So whether you want to hire the right person for the job, improve your performance management systems or train your leaders, we can help you make a knowledgeable decision, using nothing but the facts and our wide breadth of expertise.

Our Insight into Action workshops have been specifically designed to help you learn more about evidence-based practice. The open and friendly workshops begin with exploring the principles of an evidence-based approach and the influences on its success, such as the intervention itself, who is involved and what else is happening at the organisation. You’ll get the opportunity to explore what makes a skilled evidence-based practitioner, and what bias and ‘faulty thinking’ you may face during your journey. Following this, you’ll discuss your specific organisational challenge or initiative in smaller groups. This time with other professionals allows you to gain more insight into your challenge and see it from a different, more objective perspective, enabling you to leave with practical, actionable steps to address your challenge.

If you’re interested in attending a workshop, visit our Insight into Action page to find out more and book your place on one of the upcoming events.

Additionally, we’re happy to offer these workshops in-house for your team, so please contact us if you would like to run the workshop for your organisation.

At the Future Work Centre, we want to help you on your journey to evidence-based practice, so whether it’s supporting you in the first steps or guiding you all the way to your destination, we’re here to help.

New event series: Insight into Action

We’re excited to announce the launch of our new Insight into Action events, which give you the opportunity to share and learn with your peers. These highly interactive sessions are focused on unlocking solutions to your current challenges by sharing experiences, asking questions and identifying practical actions to take away and implement. By developing evidence-based approaches to your organisational challenges, you can facilitate evaluation, clarify success factors and ensure you start with the end in mind.

Our first event is taking place on Thursday 3 September in London. Visit our Insight into Action event page to find out more information about the event and to register to attend.



What the Miracle on the Hudson can teach us about making better decisions

FWC Launch Event-002

Remember Chesley Sullenberger?

He was the pilot who safely landed a passenger plane on the Hudson River, saving the lives of all 155 passengers and crew on board. And as Professor Frank Bond told delegates at our launch event, No More Blind Faith – Just the Facts, he did it by making good use of all the available evidence. In other words, he took an evidence-based approach.

In his 42-year career, Sullenberger had researched catastrophic risk management, written accident reports, completed formal and informal training and, of course, flown a lot of planes. So when US Airways Flight 1539 struck a flock of geese, damaging the engines, he was able to call upon a wealth of scientific, professional and experiential evidence as well as his and his organisation’s values to help him make a decision.

No more blind faith – just the facts

That was just one of the great stories to emerge at the event, which aimed to help delegates use evidence to make better decisions about people and work – a core part of our mission of making work better for everyone.

Over the course of a sunny July morning, an academic and a practitioner shared their perspectives on why evidence matters and how to use it, and how to overcome barriers. The two experts – Professor Frank Bond, director of the Institute of Management Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Wayne Mullen, senior director of global leadership and capability at an online gaming company – then joined our insight director Dr Richard MacKinnon for a lively and interesting panel discussion.

Delegates left the event armed with lots of insights and advice, including:

  • Not all evidence is created equal: there often isn’t enough of it, it isn’t diverse or clear enough and we don’t judge it critically for its quality or relevance, or use it in a systematic way.
  • Assessing the evidence in front of us means adopting a mindset of ‘enlightened scepticism’: who’s done this research, and with which population? How’s it going to relate to me, in my context?
  • There’s no one-size-fits-all approach or universal truth: evidence applicable in one organisation could be less useful in another.
  • Gathering and assessing scientific evidence is just one part of the process – there’s also room for using your professional judgement.
  • Taking an evidence-based approach can sometimes be challenging, time-consuming and hard to sell to your stakeholders. But it’s far more likely to give you the outcome you want.

Richard MacKinnon said: ‘I’m delighted we attracted such an enthusiastic and interested audience for this morning’s launch. A big thank you to everyone who came along and contributed to what I hope will be an ongoing debate on the importance of evidence-based practice.

‘We managed to cover the academic and practitioner perspectives on this topic, as well as share some of our own initial research findings. My sincere thanks to Professor Frank Bond and Wayne Mullen for their excellent contributions and support.’

Want to know more? Download the panel discussion

Why does HR need an evidence base?

Are people who work from home more productive? Will our open-plan office make people communicate more effectively? How does coaching work? Does 360-degree feedback do more harm than good? Does management training create better managers?

All very good questions, but how often are they asked in the typical HR work environment? Not often enough, if recent data from the CIPD Learning and Development Survey 2015 is anything to go by! Their survey illustrated that only a tiny minority of UK organisations undertake thorough evaluation of their training and development initiatives.

Read more in our article published in Executive Grapevine.

Why making work better for everyone is a two-way street

Welcome to our new website.

It’s home to what we know about work and how to make it better for everyone. But it’s a two-way street. To achieve our mission – of making work better for everyone, now and in the future – we need your help.

That’s why, for this website, we asked some of you on the street what work means to you. It’s also why we’ll be inviting you to get involved in our own research, and asking the occupational psychologists among you to comment and collaborate with us.

In return for your help, we’ll share the results of our research openly, together with the tools you’ll need to take action. And we’ll do it through interactive, engaging events, as well as articles, blogs and films.

We’ll also help organisations to make better decisions about people and work, and develop the next generation of occupational psychologists in the UK.

So bookmark this website and keep checking back for updates – it’s going to be a busy few months!

The secret of making successful decisions

We live in the age of information. Technological and scientific advancements mean that we’re increasingly bombarded with suggestions about how to make improvements to our lives. Yet these suggestions often seem to differ or conflict. With an abundance of information, how do we know which suggestions to give credence to, and which to act upon?

Organisations face the same challenges. Their decision-makers understand the need to make sound and effective choices about how to allocate limited resources. And the decisions they make have profound implications for employees and society. But those decisions are undoubtedly complex, and often, the people making them don’t have a clear view of all the factors in play.

This is understandable. Decision-makers often have to navigate challenging and pressurised organisational contexts, and act quickly to deliver results. While no one sets out to make a bad decision, a large amount of research has shown that even the best decision-makers often make hasty and inaccurate ones – because they haven’t taken the time to consider and evaluate a wide-range of evidence. What’s more, the factors and outcomes of organisational decisions – such as leadership, engagement and culture – may be intangible and difficult to measure. As a result, decisions and actions are often guided by what’s been done in the past, or what others in the industry are doing, rather than by evidence that’s grounded in the immediate organisational context.

At the Future Work Centre, we want to help organisations to make better, more effective decisions about their people by taking an evidence-based approach. This means asking the right questions, and balancing different types of evidence (such as existing organisational data, people’s experiences, published research and insights into the psychology of people at work) before reaching conclusions.

To do this, we apply our skill and expertise as occupational psychologists and researchers in organisations to design robust programmes of research. We go beyond measurement, helping organisations to understand the meaning of the evidence and how it speaks to them as an organisation and as individuals.

In other words, we find out what works, in what way, and for whom. And that results in decisions that work, too.

To find out more, visit ‘What is an evidence-based approach?