Making Billions

It is a good time to clean out the DVR and take a look at one of the winter's hottest new shows -- Billions on Showtime. Billions follows the story of Axe Capital hedge funder Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and his ongoing game of cat and mouse with United States Attorney, Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti).

While the show depicts an interesting vantage point of the inner workings of the financial world and those who police it, one interesting piece is the inclusion of Axe's in-house psychologist Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff), who also happens to be Chuck's wife. This led us to think about the question of how psychologists are actually being used in the workplace.

Let's play a little game of fact or fiction on psychology at work.

Fact: Psychology Belongs in the Workplace
Psychologists who focus on the scientific application of psychological principles in the workplace are called industrial-organizational (I-O) psychologists (see for more). The show accurately demonstrates benefits of placing hundreds of years of research into the business world. I-O focuses on the strategic parts of what most companies call Human Resources. The field focuses on using data to help companies make better decisions on things like selection, succession planning and retention. The same ideas that sabermetrics brought to baseball, I-O brings to the office. Making decisions and managing business using data and research is the focus instead of esoteric methodologies that somehow became the standard.

Fiction: We Get Freudian
In the show, Wendy is what seems like a classically trained psychiatrist who speaks with Axe's traders during "sessions" about their family history, feelings and childhood. While some organizations make use of counseling or therapy-based approaches, having this person on staff not exactly the norm. I-O psychologists tend to take a more measurement-focused approach, using personality and cognitive ability assessments to raise self-awareness with clients. I-O psychologists are not that kind of psychologist; they do not have a couch for people to lie down on. The closest you will see to something like this is what many practices call Executive Coaching, where an employee is assessed against an established competency model or job description and individually coached to enhance their performance. Even then, however, the conversations are quickly redirected back to the work if they start to drift.

Fact: We Impact Performance
Concepts like goal setting, employee engagement and performance management have been studied in psychology. The point of engaging with an I-O psychologist is to maximize the productivity and happiness of the person. The goal I-O professionals are consistently working towards with clients is enhancing employee performance, and even reducing burnout, which leads to turnover. This is where the show is very accurate; the focal point of our interaction is how to enhance human performance. I-O psychologist works with organizations to help them select, motivate and retain employees -- all of which can have a substantial impact on bottom-line business results. As the country continues to grow jobs in the service sector, the amount of productivity related to whom the person is, rather than the tools they work with, will continue to grow.

Fiction: We Are Moles
In the show, Wendy uses the information she learns speaking with employees to report back to management. Psychologists of any kind in this country are bound by the ethics of the American Psychological Association, which go in depth on privacy and confidentiality. Ethics are something taken very seriously. Clients should never be advised to do anything not supported within research. Often employees think I-O psychologists are brought into their organization to help decide who gets laid off, that is not a good practice. We are not one of the Bob's from Office Space. Psychologists are used to improve the individual as much as the organization.

BONUS FACT: We get Executive
The relationship between Bobby and Wendy was critical to the successes and failures of the firm. While their conversations were more aligned to a patient and councilor, the underlying theme was making sound decisions. Whether in an Executive Coaching situation where there is a focus on one-on-one enhancement or strategic initiatives, I-O looks to bring predictive analytics to decision-making. There is a direct value-add to the business practices of I-O bring to the table and forward thinking executives are smart to include these principles to their ever-growing list of advisors.

While artistic license is taken within the show, Billions puts psychology in the workplace front and center. One thing is clear, management sciences are here and based on the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the I-O psychology will see a 20 percent growth in the next decade.