HR should measure against the pacebo effect – you will be surprised…

I believe HR can learn a lot from psychology – not just in terms of how to develop and manage people but also how to think about its own existence, which activities to do and approach to take. For example, I have recently argued that the concept of cognitive dissonance could make us understand why we (HR) make poor decisions even face with good data and what implications this may have on HR analytics.

Another psychological concept – the placebo effect – is useful to consider. I believe it should be the benchmark for all HR activities, and that HR should measure some of its activities against the placebo effect once in a while.

Measure HCM against placebo effect

The placebo effect can be defined as “the physiological or psychological response to an inert substance or procedure”. This means that you can give somebody an inactive stimuli or treatment and it can have an effect. For instance, if you give a sugar pill (which has no effect) to a person with a headache and tell him that it is a pill which relieves pain for headache (such as aspirin), he is likely to experience no or a lower level of headache despite the fact that the pill has no physical impact.

The placebo effect has been proven in many experiments and not just medicine. One experiment measured the response of humans when under the influence of alcohol. Some subjects were given successive doses of alcohol and their responses were measured after each dose. Other subjects were instead given a placebo meant which mimicked the taste of alcohol and they were told that they were drinking alcohol. As expected, the group that was given actual alcohol exhibited signs of drunkenness and lack of coordination. What was surprising was that the placebo group exhibited the same signs, with some even seeming drunk. It seemed that the mere suggestion of drinking alcohol produced inebriated behavior.

Why does the inactive pill, the fake alcohol and other placebos work? First of all, for the placebo effect to occur, the subject must believe that he/she is given effective treatment and that it must be suggested that the treatment is effective. It works probably as a result of classical conditioning – people are conditioned to associate a particular stimulus with a particular response. Another reason may be that they are more motivated to feel better and which to cooperate with an experimenter.

Placebos are highly used in medical research. In fact the FDA will not approve any new drug unless it can show a significant effect over and above the placebo effect – something many consider to be the biggest barrier for the approval of new medicine. Why not set the same criteria for HR? Why not test HR activities against the placebo effect before they are approved internally?

Let me propose a few examples

  • Recruitment – an expensive recruitment process with multiple tests and many rounds of interviews must produce a better job/person fit, higher performance and lower new employee turnover than a placebo recruitment process
  • Coaching – an expensive coach using the right techniques must be able to deliver a better result than a placebo coach
  • Teambuilding – a teambuilding program promise to create better performance, fewer conflicts and lower employee turnover. But such an event is expensive. It should be evaluated against a (very cheap) placebo event

The problem with experiments like these are of course the ethical aspect – you just cannot do experiments on people without their consent. However you can do experiments and tests which are ethical, easy and valuable.

HR activities should be effective, they must be measured and their performance/effectiveness must be better than the placebo effect. Lets measure smarter.

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