5 psychological theories that workplace strategists should know

Tracy Brown
5 min readJun 22, 2021

Experience strategy and design are intrinsically connected to a rich history of psychological theories, often originating over 100 years ago and adapted by multiple experts to inform the HCD practices we use today. However, unless UX, CX, EX or LX practitioners studied some form of psychology as a part of their training, it can be difficult to articulate to stakeholders why something is simply best practice, often being forced to run expensive research to prove that which has already been proven multiple times.

For example, UXers are still leveraging cognitive load theory (developed in the 1980s by John Sweller) when determining how to present information to users, which has its foundations in the cognitive psychology developed in the 1960s, which can be traced all the way back to Plato. Interfaces and lifestyles have changed, prompting contemporary usability experts to adapt cognitive load best practice and guidance, but the underlying principles still mostly apply. Likewise, CX and EX strategists leverage many social psychology and differential psychology theories, both of which have their foundations in the 19th century and many eras before. LX is informed by a range of learning theories, with gamified learning in particular based on behaviourism, which goes back to the research of both Darwin and Pavlov in the 19th century.

Although it wouldn’t be helpful to tell your stakeholders to relax because your approach can be traced back to 387 BCE, it can be helpful to stay close to theories that can help you understand the mechanics of the decisions you are making or to look to established ideas based on peer-reviewed research. I’m not a certified organisational psychologist, but as my work is exclusively human-centered design — and a lot of what I do involves designing experiences for teams — I keep an eye out for psychological theories that can inform my approach.

Here are 5 theories that have delivered aha moments for me when developing workplace experiences for either my teams or for my clients.

1. The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias whereby people with limited knowledge or competence greatly overestimate their own knowledge or competence. It was first introduced by David Dunning and Justin Kruger in a paper entitled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” (1999). In essence, incompetent people aren’t competent enough to know that they aren’t competent. It also provokes some people who are experts in one field to assume they are experts in all fields.

This is useful because it verifies that organisations need to develop really clear scorecards when assessing performance instead of relying on self-evaluation or self-awareness, and that both leaders and people from privileged demographics can genuinely believe that they have the right to take credit for others’ ideas because they lack the self-awareness that they are not actually the experts. Both have helped me develop an approach to task matrices when seeking to enable diverse teams.

2. The Ringelmann Effect

The Ringelmann effect is the tendency for individual members of a group to become increasingly less productive as the size of their group increases. It was developed in 1913 by a French agricultural engineer called Maximilien Ringelmann, while studying productivity and process. Many of you will know this to be true, particularly if you have worked on large scale projects where there are so many people involved that everyone feels unimportant and unmotivated, and it takes way too long to do something that should’ve taken half the time. The medieval adage ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’ has told us the same thing for centuries.

This is useful because it verifies the need for small autonomous teams, or what I refer to as ‘wolf pack consulting’, if you want practitioners to be highly engaged and produce better work, as well as actively supporting and learning from each other.

3. Andragogy

Malcolm Knowles developed the adult education theory of Andragogy, originally coined by Alexander Kapp (1833) and first positioned as an adult education theory by Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (1925). Andragogy highlights that an adult learner’s prior experiences, identity and desire should shape their learning experience, whereas children are typically more dependent upon the teacher for how knowledge is imparted. From 1980 onwards, Knowles developed a number of assumptions about what to consider when teaching adults; their need to know, their self-concept, their readiness, their orientation to learn and their motivation.

This is useful because it allows learning experience designers to determine which courses are likely to succeed in the workplace and also explains why, when employees are told to learn new mindsets or behaviours without being intrinsically motivated to do so, it won’t provoke a long-lasting change in behaviour.

4. The Idiosyncratic Rater Effect

This term was coined by The Marcus Buckingham Company in 2015, stating that “61% of a performance rating is a reflection of the rater, not the ratee.” Their study shows that peer reviews are flawed in that they typically don’t or can’t offer an authentic and bias-free assessment of performance.

This is useful because it questions the ability of peer reviews to deliver merit-based evaluation and directs EX practitioners to be mindful of bias when determining how people progress within organisations.

5. The Glass Cliff

In 2004, Michelle K. Ryan and Alexander Haslam of University of Exeter developed a phenomenon known as the glass cliff; it states that women in leadership are likelier than men to be awarded leadership roles during periods of crisis or downturn, when the chance of failure is highest. Either they are given jobs that are doomed to failure from the outset or they are not given the resources and support needed for success, being used as a scapegoat while still allowing companies to look progressive and gender inclusive.

This is useful because it awakens organisations to the double standards they may use when promoting women into senior positions, potentially putting women in the position of a scapegoat or someone who is simply responsible for cleaning up messes, instead of providing them with an equal opportunity to thrive like their male counterparts.

These 5 theories sit in a library of ideas and approaches that I have collected over time. Some don’t retain their relevance for longer than a few years and others are still relevant a century later, but all inspire new ways of thinking about the people I am designing for. As I complete my MicroMasters in Instructional Design and Technology — and I have to read continually — I am both delighted at having access to so many new ideas, while longing for the days when a quick scan was good enough!

I hope this short article has introduced you to some trusted theories that can provide you with the kind of insight you may need right now.



Tracy Brown

Experience strategist and author, using insights about human behaviour to fix broken experiences for customers and employees.