Take 10 with... Zitong Sheng

Dr Zitong Sheng from the Department of Psychology gives us 10 minutes of her time to discuss her research, including how a focus on 'showing improvement' in the workplace can lead to consistent performers being overlooked for promotion.

Dr Zitong Sheng, Lecturer in the School of Psychology
Dr Zitong Sheng, Lecturer in the School of Psychology

1.  Describe your research topic to us in 10 words or less.

I study organizational psychology, or human behaviour within organisations.

2.  Now explain it in everyday terms!

I want to know what makes people productive and good organisational members, and what can organisations can do to help with that. 

3.  Describe some of your day-to-day research activities.

Meeting and discussing with collaborators and students about research projects. Designing research studies, collecting and analysing data, studying relevant scientific literature, writing manuscripts, submitting manuscripts for conferences and journal publications. I also do a lot of service-related things like reviewing theses or manuscripts, serving as panelists for research methods training workshops, etc.

4.  What do you enjoy most about your research?

Everyone spends a significant amount of time at work, so I always find what I study fascinating because as an employee I can relate my research findings to my own work life (and learning some tips about how to manage it!). As an organizational researcher the best part is I can design studies to try to understand and solve the challenges or interesting things I experience from work.

5.  Tell us something that has surprised you in the course of your research.

In a recent study we found that managers place too much value on “showing improvement”. Of course it is important for an employee to improve, but the emphasis on showing improvement can reach a certain extent that results in good workers, who have been consistently performing well, getting underrated because there isn’t too much “improvement” happening.

Our field data showed that people who started off quite low in terms of performance but showed significant improvement along the course are the ones who get promoted. This is quite surprising but also important for managers to know, because heuristics and subconscious bias can get into performance evaluations that we may not even be aware of.

6.  How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

As an organisational researcher I often times need to work directly with organisations, and many challenges can happen during that process. One main challenge is that if there are not people in the organisation who understand scientific research, organisations may not always see the value in conducting a research project like what we planned.

For example, organisations may have identified a problem and push very hard on getting that problem solved, and there is nothing wrong with that. But from a researcher standpoint, the problem that the organisation thinks they are having may not be the key issue, or could be due to many things and requires scientific research to gather relevant evidence.

Relatedly, organisations may see some issues as irrelevant to the problem at hand but are key to facilitate our understanding of the problem itself.

7.  What questions have emerged as a result?

There usually are a lot of discussions in the front end between the research team and the organisation to align goals from different parties. We as researchers also need to take responsibility for communicating the significance of our research and help people see the value.

This is perhaps not only true for working with organisations, as communication and setting a common ground for understanding is also key for interdisciplinary research collaboration or working with people from a different background.

8.  What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

Organisational psychology is an applied science field. I hope organisations and managers are able to use my research findings as a basis to apply evidence-based management practices and improve effectiveness.

I also hope students who are trained in organisational psychology can use what they learned from classes and research projects to contribute to the company they work for.

9.  If you collaborate across the faculty or University, or even outside the University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

I usually work with colleagues who share similar research interests and goals and whose working style aligns with mine. I work a lot with people I know from graduate school, and I have had very good experiences working with them. As we work on one project we may get ideas for new project, so the collaboration just keeps on. Collaboration can happen as easy as having a conversation with colleagues about our research that sparks new and important questions that we both find interesting.

Collaborators are so important to my research. They help me see different perspectives, and when I run into a bottleneck in research, discussing this with collaborators makes it much more efficient to figure things out. Collaborators are also a very good source of new information and knowledge.

10.  What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research self?

A research project doesn’t need to be perfect. Of course we all want to design studies in a rigorous way, but the young me often aims for perfectionism and wants to anticipate every possible caveat and have all preparation done before launching a project.

The fact is, learned the hard way, sometimes things just don’t work out. It’s perhaps better to learn from practice and embrace unexpected findings. “Just do it” is a good motto in research!