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SIOP–UN Short-Term Projects: Sounding Boards and Literature Reviews

Julie B. Olson-Buchanan, Mark Poteet, Irina Kuzmich, and Lauren Moran

In its capacity as an NGO with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), SIOP seeks to leverage employment-related theory, research, and practice to help advance the goals of the United Nations (UN) and increase I-O psychologists’ potential for global impact. One way in which SIOP advances this mission is by working directly with UN organizations on improving their talent management systems. The overarching mission of the SIOP UN Committee is to support the UN through this type of work so the UN can better attain its goals for maintaining international peace and security; developing friendly relations among nations; along with promoting social progress, better living standards, and human rights. In particular, SIOP UN Committee is working to assist various stakeholders to make progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) laid out in 2015 for completion by 2030. Some of the projects involving the UN Committee and SIOP members include helping UNICEF revise its competency and job-classification framework, assisting the PCUN with team building and goal setting, and reviewing the performance management system and practices of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

Most recently, we had the opportunity to work with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on its efforts to revise its recognition and rewards programs. SIOP Member Anton Botha, who worked in assessment at the UN Secretariat for several years and was a liaison with the UN Committee previously, reached out to us with this opportunity when he began working with UNDP as a consultant while he was sheltering in place in South Africa.

Background of UNDP and the Rewards and Recognition Project: UNDP is at the frontline of addressing some of the world’s most pressing problems, including eradicating poverty in all its forms; accelerating structural transformations for sustainable development; and building resilience to crises and shocks within, and among, nations. To that end, UNDP needs not only a highly qualified global workforce but an engaged and motivated one as well. However, data from their global staffing survey of about 19,000 personnel show they feel “under or unrecognized” for their efforts and that good performance is not sufficiently acknowledged. In response, UNDP has since launched an initiative to recognize and reward employee performance. However, as research in I-O psychology and the field of work-motivation theory shows, there are many pitfalls to avoid when building and executing a successful rewards and recognition program. 

In our discussions with Anton about how we can support this initiative, we decided SIOP would be most helpful in serving as a sounding board to both generate evidence-based ideas for such an initiative and to later critique and give feedback about the UNDP proposal. The steps we followed are enumerated below.

  1. Invitations. We wanted to have a mix of practitioners and academics with expertise in the areas of work motivation, rewards/compensation, and cross-cultural/international. We used the SIOP Corporate Social Responsibility Registry and SIOP member directory (filtered by content area) to select a cross section of Fellows and Members who identify as primarily academics or practitioners. We sent this group an email that described the project and asked if they would be willing and available to attend the first 2-hour Zoom session (in September 2020).
  2. Brainstorming session. At the first 2-hour session, Anton Botha and his colleague Philippa Mathewson provided an overview of the UNDP context and the planned project, including its goals, constraints, and a description of other related processes and programs currently in operation. Anton and Philippa proposed several questions to serve as prompts to brainstorm in the two breakout groups facilitated by Mark Poteet and Julie Olson-Buchanan that included SIOP members Thomas Becker, Thomas Carnahan, Stuart Carr, Jennifer Deal, Marylene Gagne, Sharon Glazer, Ishbel McWha, and George Yancey. Each group had the opportunity to engage in a brainstorming session, with an eye toward generating suggestions that had evidence-based foundations and/or suggestions of relevant literature that could inform the project. Then, the groups reunited to share their discussions as a whole. The breakout sessions and group sessions yielded a very intriguing discussion, in large part due to the diversity of perspectives represented by the participants, as well as the unique UNDP context.  Anton described the content generated from this session as an “enormously useful body of information.”
  3. Program development. Next, Anton and Philippa drew from the ideas, comments, and questions from the brainstorming session to develop a proposal for the UNDP Rewards and Recognition program. They presented this program in various iterations to several groups within the UNDP, continuing to modify and revise it.
  4. Feedback session. The same sounding-board group was reassembled for the second 2-hour session in October, where Anton and Philippa presented their proposal. The SIOP members then had the opportunity to critique the proposal and identify potential areas of concern, such as the unintended consequences of implementing such a program or ways in which it could be revised in light of varying cultural norms and/or individual differences. In describing this component of the project, Anton notes “Once again, the conversation helped point out potential pitfalls and allow UNDP to refine its program in a way that was attuned to the needs of the organization while remaining true to what the latest science says.”

Outcomes. From the SIOP UN Committee’s perspective, we were very pleased with the opportunities presented by this short-term project. Several of our SIOP members outside of the committee were exposed to the work of the UNDP, and they shared they found this experience to be intriguing and rewarding. The project was a 4–5 hour time commitment for each member, yet it provided a meaningful way to be engaged.

Background of Engagement Survey Project.  In addition to helping the UNDP with its reward and recognition program, Anton requested assistance from the SIOP UN Committee on understanding the latest research and best practices related to employee-engagement and organizational-staffing surveys. This work was requested to assist with efforts to redesign the UNDP’s current global staffing survey to better align with best practices and latest research. Specific areas of inquiry focused on theoretical frameworks for measuring employee engagement, cross-cultural differences in engagement and its measurement, and contemporary best practices around engagement surveys.

In discussing the scope of this project, we decided it was particularly well-suited for two of our latest SIOP UN interns. We had recently begun a pilot program in which graduate students work with the SIOP UN Committee for 6-month internships to enhance student exposure to the work in this area. Lauren Moran and Irina Kuzmich were the first two students in this pilot program and were very interested in working on this project, so the timing was perfect. Lauren and Irina worked in conjunction with Sophia Morin, a former intern at the UN, to conduct literature reviews, analyze I-O insights, and present the results of their findings.

First, Lauren and Irina, along with Sophia and Mark, met with Anton to learn more about the background and structure of the UNDP and the state of the global staffing survey. Anton shared that the survey is currently administered every other year and has been described as cumbersome due to the large number of questions and dimensions that are measured, producing reports that are difficult for managers to act upon. To assist Anton in compiling a report to the UNDP’s senior management on recommendations for future directions for the global staffing survey, Lauren, Irina and Sophia researched several areas including the theoretical framework for engagement, which included the differing definitions of engagement and the most commonly used scales and correlations with important organizational outcomes. Given that the UNDP has personnel around the world, cross-cultural differences in engagement were also explored to assist in understanding the commonalities and differences in definitions and experiences of engagement across different countries. Finally, literature was reviewed on the best practices for engagement survey design and administration, such as frequency, length, question type, and results reporting. Due to the unique circumstances resulting from the global pandemic, attention was also paid to surveying during times of disruption.

Once Irina, Lauren, and Sophia had finalized their literature reviews, they met with Anton to present their key findings via a slideshow presentation. Much of the conversation was devoted to the differing perspectives on employee engagement in the literature, how engagement is viewed across cultures, and measurement approaches. In particular, discussion of the various definitions of employee engagement and how engagement compares to other related constructs helped to piece apart the measures included in the UNDP’s current global staffing survey. This allowed Anton to determine whether the UNDP’s survey items matched both (a) the way each desired construct was defined and measured in the literature, and (b) the information the UNDP hoped to gain from the survey. The SIOP UN interns were also able to advise Anton on the best administration practices for engagement surveys, providing suggestions for potential ways to address existing concerns over frequency and length of the survey. Ultimately, the discussion and slide deck will be used to guide the creation of a new annual global staffing survey. The SIOP UN interns also gained valuable experience as “consultants” to the UNDP, allowing them to get a glimpse of how I-O expertise can be used to meet the needs of organizations as wide reaching and influential as the UN. 

Anton Botha reported the project was very helpful to the UNDP: “This not only allowed these outstanding students of I-O to gain real-world experience, UNDP benefited immensely from the valuable information they uncovered which helped inform the future direction of UNDP’s annual global staffing survey.” 

Summary and Future Work

We are very pleased with how these projects turned out.  Anton Botha commented:

All-in-all, SIOP should be proud of its efforts to support the United Nations and its funds, agencies, and programs, like UNDP, as they work to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges. It is my firm belief that SIOP/UN is one of only a handful of professional bodies actively working to actualize its commitment to making not only its field, but the world, a better place.

With the initial success of the SIOP–UN sounding board session and engagement survey literature review, we are now exploring other ways to engage in similar kinds of work with other initiatives. If you are interested in participating in a sounding board, be sure to use the SIOP Corporate Social Responsibility Registry to signal your interest.

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