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Trumped up Teaching!
Lessons From the 2016
US Presidential Election for
the I-O Psychology Classroom

Max Classroom Capacity

Loren Naidoo
Baruch College & The
Graduate Center, CUNY

home

Greetings readers! Like most people in this country (and many other countries), I have been absorbed, fascinated and at times horrified with the recent US presidential election. OK, OK, maybe you’re sick of reading about it—sorry, but I can’t help it. It’s so interesting! I promise to try not to take sides (I’m a Canadian so my political views are easy to guess and mostly irrelevant!). What I’d like to talk about are the MANY lessons and examples this election has provided for teachers of industrial-organizational psychology. I hardly know where to start.

But before I begin, it’s important to note that students are likely to have very strong (and differing, depending on where you live) feelings and opinions about this election. Some instructors may consider discussing politics in class to be a minefield that is best avoided. I understand that. My own view is that these are exactly the kinds of issues that have the greatest potential to engage students by encouraging them to think critically about their own and others’ beliefs, values, and behaviors. It also helps them to recognize and reflect on how workplace issues, rather than existing in a vacuum, are tied to broader societal forces. Whenever I’ve talked about anything so obviously controversial, I first acknowledge my own biases: “Keep in mind, I’m a Canadian progressive who didn’t like either candidate…” (I guess I already did this for you, the reader, in the previous paragraph!). This works best when you have built up some good will, trust, idiosyncracy credits (Hollander, 1958), and so on with your class. The goal always must be to further students’ learning, not to try to impose your beliefs on them, no matter how tempting that may be!

1. Selection Decisions

Many organizations spend a lot of resources developing selection and talent management systems with the goal of hiring, developing, and promoting the candidates who are the most likely to succeed in their future roles. The general approach is to first identify the KSAOs or competencies that are needed, then develop assessments of these qualities, and finally choose candidates based on their scores on these assessments. Clearly this approach is markedly different from the process used to select the POTUS! An interesting exercise might be to have students develop a new or alternative selection system for the POTUS via I-O psychology principles and compare and contrast the resultant criteria and decisions with the candidates’ qualities that seem to have been selected for in recent elections. Of course democratic elections are VERY different from selection in organizations in many ways—that’s not a problem. I would expect one outcome of this exercise to be that students gain greater clarity around how and why selection in these two contexts differs.

 2.  Attitude Measurement and Behavior Prediction

The result of the election was a surprise to most people, perhaps in large part due to polls that tended to indicate greater support for Clinton than Trump. This may provide a nice context in which to discuss a variety of theoretical and methodological issues to do with attitude and intention measurement. For example, what latent constructs (if any) are being assessed with polls, and how valid are they? Was poll data potentially contaminated with response biases such as social desirability? Did nonrepresentative sampling of the electorate result in poor external validity? Were there notable researcher biases that resulted in misinterpretation of poll data? For example, Tetlock’s (2005) work on the challenges associated with expert political judgment may be a worthwhile reading assignment. To what extent do intentions (e.g., to vote, to vote for a particular candidate) lead to corresponding future behavior, for example, via models of motivation such as Ajzen’s (1985) theory of planned behavior? The election provides a lot of fuel for conversation around all of these issues.

3.  Issue Framing and Decision Making

Some of my own research concerns how leaders frame issues in ways that produce in their followers different motivational states that impact the qualities of their subsequent task performance. In particular, one aspect of leader communication I study is the use of threat framing. So I paid a lot of attention to how the candidates framed issues, particularly in the debates. The language used (e.g., “Other nations are taking our jobs and wealth,” “13 trillion in family wealth was wiped out,” “Obamacare is a disaster,” “Now we have come back from that abyss”) may provide a nice introduction to some of the framing principles that influence decisions identified in Tversky and Kahneman’s (1981) Nobel prize winning research. Instructors may initiate a debate about whether one candidate focused more on gains versus losses than the other, what effects one would predict for such a difference based on Tversky and Kahneman’s research, and to what extent this may have impacted the election results. But there’s much more to discuss on the issue of why people decided to vote for Trump. My favorite explanation so far might be I-O psychologist Michelle Gelfand and Joshua Jackson’s (2016) argument in their recent Huffington Post article that inducing threat and cultural tightness was the key to Trump’s victory. I encourage you to read it for more depth on the topic!

4.  Gender

Although the failure of Clinton’s election bid can be attributed to a number of factors, it is hard to ignore the fact that there has never been a female POTUS, and her gender may have been a barrier for some voters. This argument would be consistent with research that shows that (a) although the gender gap has diminished considerably, a “glass ceiling” remains very much in place for high level positions. For example, only 5% of Fortune 500 company CEOS are female (Catalyst, 2014). On the other hand Clinton’s loss may be considered somewhat inconsistent with recent research on the “class cliff” effect in which it is argued that women are more likely to be selected as CEOs of organizations that are failing (Ryan & Haslam, 2005), that is, assuming people view the US as a failing country. On the other hand, if conditions of threat (e.g., a failing organization) make unconventional choices more palatable (cf. Tversky & Kahneman, 1981), then perhaps Trump, as a political novice, was considered an even more unconventional choice than Clinton. Interestingly, Trump’s history of misogynistic comments and (alleged and self-reported) behavior did not appear to help Clinton in her efforts to break the glass ceiling. All of this may form a strong basis for a class discussion of gender stereotypes, implicit theories of leadership, and gender discrimination.

5.  Leadership

As a leadership researcher, I find this to be a fascinating case study of the dynamics of trust. Clinton was roundly criticized in the popular press for a lack of trustworthiness, partly stemming from the controversy involving her use of a private e-mail server for official state department communications. She initially denied any wrongdoing but eventually apologized, despite an FBI investigation that had concluded she had been reckless but hadn’t broken the law. Then came the unexpected announcements days before the election that (a) the FBI was reopening its investigation and, a few days later, that (b) the FBI had completed its investigation and again concluded that Clinton had not engaged in any criminal activity. In addition to the e-mail controversy, Clinton was criticized by Trump and many others for her ties to Wall Street and large corporate lobbyists as a “career politician.” Trump’s nickname for her, “crooked Hillary,” seemed to stick. Despite relatively more, ah, fluidity in his rhetoric surrounding positions, beliefs, and, um, facts, Trump remained slightly less untrustworthy compared to Clinton in most polls in the few weeks preceding the election (though perhaps there is cause to doubt the validity of the poll data). In addition, Trump seems to be in favor of financial deregulation (e.g., dismantling Dodd-Frank), making Trump openly in favor of the kind of pro-Wall Street policy position that he seems to have criticized Clinton (perhaps legitimately) for being covertly in favor of. Perhaps Trump’s seemingly more unfiltered, unpolished and sincere communication style (irrespective of content), particularly in comparison to the norms of political discourse, may have been especially appealing to the many individuals frustrated with a political system from which they feel disenfranchised. Or maybe something more primal is going on (e.g., Gelfand & Jackson, 2016). It’s really fascinating, and beyond great teaching fodder, there’s probably a program of research lurking in there too.

In addition, Trump versus Clinton provides a lot of data for a discussion of leadership styles. One might start with the argument that Trump was more charismatic than Clinton and debate what it means to be charismatic, perhaps addressing the so called “dark side” of charisma, socialized versus personalized power orientation, and authoritarianism. Both Trump and Hilary are interesting cases for a discussion of authentic leadership theory as well. Finally, the fact that citizens of the same country could have such radically different perceptions of and attitudes towards two leaders speaks to the importance of followers in leadership processes, so the election is relevant to the discussion of the burgeoning research around followership.

6.  More…

There are many more topics for which the election can be a great introduction or provide a basis for discussion or debate. I’ll note a few here in rapid-fire style:

  • ·Bullying: Is Trump a workplace bully? Is Hillary a workplace bully? What potential outcomes might we expect to arise from workplace bullying?
  • Leadership and organizational culture: What kind of organizational culture will Trump create among his staff? How do you think it would differ from the culture that Clinton would have created?
  • Cross-cultural effects: To what extent are leaders like Trump common in different countries? What cross-cultural differences (e.g., in power-distance, implicit leadership theories, etc.) might explain these preferences?
  • Social norms at work and organizational climate: Will Trump’s derision of “political correctness” encourage behaviors that create problems in diverse workplaces (e.g., hostile work environments)? What is the right balance between being able to express controversial or potentially offensive viewpoints versus respecting each other and protecting vulnerable populations?

I’m sure there are more ideas that I haven’t thought of or couldn’t fit in here.  In fact, if you have any more ideas, or if you try out any of this in your classroom, please e-mail me at Loren.Naidoo@Baruch.cuny.edu. I’d love to hear about it! Thanks for reading.

References

Ajzen, I. (1985). From intentions to actions: A theory of planned behavior. In J. Kuhl & J. Beckmann (Eds.), Action control: From cognition to behavior (pp. 11-39). New York, NY: Springer-Verlag.

Catalyst (2014). Fortune 500 CEO positions held by women. Retrieved from http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/fortune-500-ceo-positions-held-women.

Gelfand, M. & Jackson, J. C. (2016). Trump won following this psychological formula. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/trump-psychology_us_582362ade4b0e80b02ce6eb9.

Hollander, E. (1958). Conformity, status, and idiosyncracy credit. Psychological Review, 65, 117-127.

Ryan, M. K., & Haslam, S. A. (2005). The glass cliff: Evidence that women are over-represented in precarious leadership positions. British Journal of Management, 16, 81−90.

Tetlock, P. E. (2005). Expert political judgment: How good is it? How can we know? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1981). The framing of decisions and the psychology of choice. Science, 211, 453-458.