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Janine Milne

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Talent Spot: Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology at University College London


For Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology at University College London, work is much more than a necessary evil to pay the bills.

“Noel Coward said ‘work is more fun than fun’ and he’s right,” he says.
A self-professed “well-adjusted workaholic”, Furnham is ready to start grafting by 5am. Alongside his role at the university, which he took up in 1981 and describes as “my first and probably my last job”, he is also a motivational speaker, HR, workplace and leadership commentator, consultant and prolific writer.
His latest book, ‘Bad Apples: Identify, prevent and manage negative behaviour at work’ which was jointly written with John Taylor, was shortlisted for the Chartered Management Institute’s 2012 eBook of the Year – although that accolade finally went to Shaun Smith and Andy Milligan for ‘Bold: How to be brave in business and win’ earlier this week.
The premise of Furnham’s book, however, is that, in just the same way bacteria in one bad apple can rot the whole barrel, disruptive behaviour such as lying, cheating and stealing by a few employees can spread and infect the whole company. The work looks at the causes of such behaviour and offers guidance on how to stop it happening.
But the formidable drive that has seen Furnham notch up three masters and three doctorates (“it’s a sad addiction,” he admits) shows no signs of abating any time soon. He has even set himself the impressive target of writing 100 books and 1,000 papers – and is well on track to achieving that goal.
His prodigious output of papers, books and research has earned him the reputation as the second most productive psychologist in the world and he also took the number eight slot last year on the’s list of the top 25 most influential UK thinkers.
But his preoccupation with workplace psychology, HR and leadership came about almost by accident. Following the savage cuts of the Thatcher era, many of his colleagues left academia and set up as consultants, before calling on Furnham’s services to help them out.
Objective outsider
An interest in occupational psychology led him to set up his own consultancy, Applied Behaviour Research Associates, in 1985. Nonetheless, his scope is far wider than just workplace and leadership matters and he has written about all sorts of behavioural areas, including physical attraction and body language.
Although Furnham accepts that having direct business experience would have given him a different perspective on HR issues, he defends the right to have a valid opinion about workplace politics. ”Can you comment on leadership if you’ve never been a leader? Well, do you have to be poor to be an economist or ill to be a doctor?” he questions.
And as an objective outsider, Furnham does have the advantage of seeing the bigger picture. Sometimes this means that he can be scathing about HR, however.
“The best of HR are excellent, the worst are appalling. It’s the part of the organisation despised the most,” he says. “To some extent, it’s deserved. It can be just form-processing, with people who have very little idea what it’s like on the shop floor.”
But Furnham’s aim is always to “be critical, not vicious”, pointing out where improvements can be made and giving credit where it’s due. And HR, he believes, is now growing and developing in professionalism terms and starting to become more aligned with the business.
But to achieve such business alignment, he believes that gaining direct experience of what it is like on the shop-floor is essential.
“Everyone in HR should do some line of business work,” he says. “The question is can you not only do a performance appraisal, but can you understand its effect on business performance? Are they focused on what business is: business sustainability and profitability rather than investing in some new process stuff?”
As a cost rather than profit centre, HR people must justify their roles and the value that they bring to the business, Furnham says. But proving this value will not be achieved by getting involved in “wacky training courses”. Instead it is about becoming a true business partner, he concludes.
And finally…
Who do you admire most and why?
Boris Johnson for being so clever, witty, a thorn in the establishment AND introducing ‘Boris bikes’ and getting rid of bendy buses. And in position through the will of the people. And naughty.
What’s your most hated buzzword?
It’s the use of the words “kind of” in any sentence.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Carpe diem. Seize the day. Don’t procrastinate.
How do you relax?
I don’t feel that I have to relax. My preferred activity is work. I’m intrinsically motivated. But I do also like the theatre and holidays.

4 Responses

  1. I agree with you, I am a
    I agree with you, I am a student and I really want to attend a lecture given by this teacher.

  2. Yes, this is a very
    Yes, this is a very intelligent and talented person, despite working in the university, he is also a talented speaker, he motivates thousands of students with his words. I also help students and recommend you a service where you can have a bunch of examples of essays on all relevant topics. One of them, this is an essay about gun control at, I think this topic is very important these days, so many have weapons now.

  3. Pre-occupation with Work Psychology

    I loved Prof Furnham’s interview!

    I feel somewhat sad that, as for almost all academics, the internal yardstick of success is typically the number of publications authored, not the outcomes.  But I fully share his focus and compelling enthusiasm for understanding and researching how people – you, me and the rest – tend to behave at work.  What could possibly be more interesting and engaging!

    It isn’t an original thought I know, but having run some quite large organisations myself, I have always felt that business processes are relatively straight forward.  There is always room for improvement, of course.  But I find it is almost always ‘people’, not the process, who really manage to mess things up so spectacularly…

    Although Prof Furnham may not have had the benefit of running an organisation himself in the full heat of battle, I am sure he is very conscious of being part of one even so! – and possibly more than one?  Moreover, with the right tools and frameworks of analysis (just like a doctor or economist, as he cites), you don’t have to be on the receiving end to observe critical challenges insightfully and identify positive ways forward – however much that might generally help. 

    I personally think some ‘dirty-fingernailed’ experience can most certainly help contextualise and even prioritise key challenges, and surely add important ‘street-cred’ and client-empathy.  But if you are smart enough and wise enough to do without this, as Prof Furnham certainly seems to be, more power to his elbow!

  4. Hard work is not hard at all if you love what you do

    Having visited the ‘cave’ of Adrian Furnham, I can confirm his feelings on the subject of work.  Work’s not difficult at all if you love what you do.  I’d hazard a guess that all 100 of Adrian’s books are assembled in part in the veritable cornucopia of neatly arranged papers and indexed articles that surround him in his office.

    As George Michael once put it, the lesson to achive work / life balance is to ‘enjoy what you do’ (Wham Rap, 1982) 

    Peter Cook


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