Meeting the Challenges of a Person-Centric Work Psychology


Teresa M. Amabile. E-mail:
Address: Entrepreneurial Management Unit, Harvard Business School, Soldiers Field, Boston, MA 02163

Over a decade ago, we undertook a program of research designed to begin developing a psychology of everyday work life—what we have come to call inner work life. In the parlance of Weiss and Rupp (2011), we have been engaged in building a “person-centric work psychology.” Our endeavors reveal some of the promise and the peril of the new paradigm proposed by Weiss and Rupp. In this commentary, after describing some fruits of our research on subjective experience at work, we present three challenges of the person-centric paradigm: (1) ensuring the quality of data sources; (2) collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data; and (3) building a psychological science using individual introspection.

The Promise

Inner work life is a person's constant stream of emotions, perceptions, and motivations as the person reacts to and makes sense of the events of the workday (Amabile & Kramer, 2007). We believe that this construct captures much of what Weiss and Rupp envision in their new approach to work psychology. To study inner work life, we built on experience-sampling and diary methods developed by pioneering researchers of affect, motivation, and personality (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1987; David, Green, Martin, & Suls, 1997; Neale, Hooley, Jandorf, & Stone, 1987). We recruited 238 professionals from 26 project teams in 7 companies within 3 industries to participate in the study through the entire course of the project. The projects ranged from 9 to 38 weeks, averaging 19 weeks. At the end of each workday, participants privately completed an electronic Daily Questionnaire that contained scale-rated items on their perceptions of various aspects of the work environment and the work, their emotions, and their motivation that day. The most important question was open-ended, asking participants to report one salient event from their workday. This procedure yielded nearly 12,000 daily diaries.

Although the open-ended question on the Daily Questionnaire did not require anything beyond an event description, people often described their perceptions of and emotional reactions to the event. In fact, it seemed that many participants viewed their psychological states as an integral part of the day's main event. Thus, by analyzing the qualitative event descriptions in concert with the quantitative self-ratings, we were able to open a window into what Weiss and Rupp call “the subjective experience of working.”

A few diary entries from one of our participants illustrate some of the richness of this subjective experience and some of the promise of a person-centric work psychology. Marsha was a software engineer working in the IT support group of a massive hotel company, DreamSuite.1 The following excerpt from Marsha's diary illustrates several aspects of subjective experience highlighted by Weiss and Rupp: the segmentation of experience into discrete “events,”2. the subjective “lived-through experience” of working (which might differ from “objective” accounts of events), and the triggering of specific psychological states by events at work.

Today when I started work, I checked my mail and there was a note from a DreamSuite user regarding some work I had done for him. It was very complimentary and it made me feel pretty good. Also in the note was a request to go ahead with an enhancement to the Database Analysis package. I was able to code and load this request today in less than the estimated time, which makes me feel good, and I know it will please our DreamSuite user when he comes in tomorrow.3.

In addition to describing a number of events such as checking her e-mail, Marsha also describes her reactions to some of those events. She felt good as a result of a compliment and again as a result of her speedy completion of the requested database enhancement. Careful objective observations of Marsha's workday might have picked up the events but probably would not have picked up her pleasurable subjective experiences. Indeed, a central finding of our research—the power of progress—became evident only through analysis of reactions like Marsha's on this day. Progress and its opposite, setbacks in the work, were the primary differentiators between our participants' best inner work life days and their worst. The sense of accomplishment arising from progress, mentioned by Weiss and Rupp as an illustration of meaningful subjective experiences at work, looms large in our participants' diaries.

Weiss and Rupp argue that events in a person's work history can be vividly “brought to life” in the present; autobiographical memory colors the experience of current events. This contention, too, is borne out by our research. Marsha had been working for DreamSuite for over 30 years, a period during which the company had reorganized several times. While she and her team were participating in our study, DreamSuite underwent its second reorganization in less than 2 years. Although Marsha and her team were highly effective in their work, and had little “objective” cause for worry, this event evoked strong reactions. Witness these two consecutive days in Marsha's work life:

Today we heard that the layoffs have begun (again). We have heard some names, but of course no one is saying anything. […] People are walking around scared and afraid for their jobs. […] What kills me is, after this, [DreamSuite managers] will turn around and wonder why everyone doesn't just throw themselves in front of a train for the company. What dopes.

It is very hard to work and get anything done around here today. 39 people lost their jobs […] and it seems like this is just the beginning. […] I feel like an abused spouse that will not leave the abuser.

Weiss and Rupp admit that, given that there is little prior research on the personal experience of working, “specific topics and methods must develop organically from the efforts of researchers who share” their point of view. The diaries of Marsha and our 237 other participants suggest that a person-centric work psychology might focus on the fundamental elements of inner work life: perceptions (“What dopes”), emotions (“I feel like an abused spouse”), and motivation (“What kills me is, after this, they will turn around and wonder why everyone doesn't just throw themselves in front of a train for the company”). Not only is it possible to see each of these elements in our participants' diary entries, but it is also possible to track changes in a person's inner work life across time. For example, we discovered many examples of “affect spin” (Kuppens, Van Mechelen, Nezlek, Dossche, & Timmermans, 2007).

Affirming Weiss and Rupp's basic argument, our participants' diaries illustrate the inadequacy of a “between-entities” approach to work psychology. Far from remaining “objects with stable properties,” these people became very real individuals through their accounts of their workdays. We saw repeatedly how the experiences of each entity—each person—vary considerably as a function of events at work. Although much more research is needed to fully describe these experiences, our research suggests that exploring the nature, antecedents, and consequences of this variability holds great promise for the field.

The Challenges

Weiss and Rupp make a strong case for developing a person-centric work psychology, but—by their own admission—they don't say how it should be done. We believe that our daily diary methodology is one promising approach, but we also believe that many perils lie in wait for researchers answering the call of Weiss and Rupp. We encountered a number of challenges in our research program, challenges that are inherent in any attempt to study the human experience at work.

The Quality of Data Sources

Because a person-centric work psychology is so, well, personal, it can be difficult to get clear, honest data. Employees are often reluctant to divulge negative emotions and opinions to anyone within their organizations for fear of reprisal, and they are reluctant to divulge this information to company-approved researchers for the same reason (see Detert & Edmondson, in press). Standard assurances of data confidentiality, such as those used in quantitative survey research, are unlikely to suffice. For these reasons, researchers must develop a high degree of trust in their relationships with their subjects. They have to stop regarding subjects as simply participants and start thinking of them as partners. In our research, we relied on practitioner collaborators to help us learn this lesson (see Amabile et al., 2001). On the advice of these practitioners, one of our nonnegotiable criteria for selecting organizations was management's commitment to forego access to raw data and avoid pressuring employees to participate. We had extensive meetings with prospective teams, detailing our processes for protecting confidentiality and ensuring that their participation was, in fact, voluntary; they knew that, even after starting in the study, they could confidentially withdraw at any time (which about 5% of participants did). The payoff was, we believe, twofold: honest reports on daily events and inner work life plus engaged discussion about results interpretation with the participants themselves. Both increased our confidence in our conclusions.

A related issue is sample size. How can researchers ensure that data represent either the experiences of a broad range of individuals, an individual's experiences across a substantial time span, or both? We attempted both, but found it necessary to develop a number of techniques before and during data collection. To yield our desired range of organizations and teams, we made recruiting pitches to about twice as many as ended up participating. During many months of data collection, we made great efforts to keep participants engaged by including jokes and riddles on the Daily Questionnaires and by maintaining regular contact through e-mail, phone, and a mid-study team meeting. We also promised to give each individual a private hard copy of his or her diary at the end and to discuss our findings in a closed workshop with the team. Our poststudy feedback from participants suggested that expected insight into the self (and the team) was a highly motivating force behind frequent, detailed reporting.4.

A data quality problem we proved unable to solve concerned the richness of the actual subjective experience reports. The limits of unguided self-observation became clear when we realized that—despite our efforts to extract concrete, detailed event reports—between 10 and 20 percent of our participants rarely wrote deeply informative entries in their daily diaries. Indeed, few of our participants consistently wrote daily reports as clear, detailed, and descriptive as Marsha did.

Collecting, Analyzing, and Interpreting Data

The demands of handling the sort of data required to build a person-centric work psychology may be disconcerting to psychologists trained, as we were, in experimental and quantitative methodologies. The various quantitative measures we collected in the diary study enabled us to statistically analyze the relationship between types of workday events and inner work life, as well as the relationship between inner work life and performance. But it was only through deep qualitative analyses of our participants' daily self-reports that we could begin to describe the nature of inner work life and its connections to both workday events and performance. For instance, both approaches were necessary to enable our discovery of the power of progress. Indeed, we believe that it will be impossible—at least in the short run—to avoid qualitative, self-report data in developing a truly person-centric work psychology. What sort of numerical-scale survey or checklist could capture the vividness of feeling “like an abused spouse”? Quantitative data of various kinds can be used as a complement, and experiments will always be necessary to confirm causality. But there is no escaping the messiness of data coming from the person, in the person's own words.

Should researchers aim for depth, or breadth, or both? Either way, how can researchers avoid what Pettigrew (1990) called “data asphyxiation”? In our research, we went for breadth—frequent brief reports from many individuals across time. In retrospect, we see clear benefits and costs. We believe that we did capture a wide range of subjective experiences at work as well as their correlates. But brief daily reports submitted electronically lack the rich elaboration that might be yielded by, say, deep autobiographical accounts elicited in interviews. And often, we and our collaborators narrowly escaped data asphyxiation. We experimented with several data-reduction techniques to save us, but in the end there is no easy way to deal with nearly 12,000 narratives, even relatively short ones.

Weiss and Rupp eschew the “between-entities assumption.” Within-person analyses will likely predominate in a person-centric work psychology, but is there any reason to avoid between-person analyses? The latter will be necessary for truly understanding the subjective experience at work, its antecedents, and its consequences. For instance, Marsha and her teammates sometimes experienced the same events quite differently. Failure to acknowledge and understand these differences would be a loss to the field.

Building the Science

Weiss and Rupp say that their paradigm can be used “rigorously,” but they don't say how. This is a significant problem to be solved if a person-centric work psychology is to be accepted by psychology more broadly. Although the pioneers of psychology relied on introspection to a considerable degree (e.g., William James, Sigmund Freud, and Wilhelm Wundt), introspection has been treated with skepticism by decades of psychological scientists (e.g., B. F. Skinner and the behaviorists) and with good reason. People are vulnerable to considerable bias in self-reports and can be unaware of their own psychological processes (Wilson & Gilbert, 2005). Weiss and Rupp caution that their position “not be taken as simply an argument for qualitative research or the abandonment of ‘objective’ science.” Yet, we assert that the person-centric paradigm requires subjectivity and introspection; researchers will have to ask workers to reflect on their experiences at work.

We don't know the answers, but we ask the questions: How can researchers in this new paradigm not only develop a rigorous science but also sell it to their colleagues? What approaches might researchers take to ensure that their work meets standards of rigor while fulfilling the aim of taking subjective experience seriously? How can they best present their work? Which journal editors will take the leap of faith to publish psychological research that is radically person-centric? Although we have published some of our findings in scholarly journals (Amabile, Barsade, Mueller, & Staw, 2005; Amabile, Schatzel, Moneta, & Kramer, 2004), it has not been easy, and we haven't taken a radically person-centric approach in writing these papers.

Questions about who will appreciate a person-centric work psychology extend beyond academic audiences. Counterintuitive findings based on psychological research often generate the most excitement among scholars, practitioners, and the public. This phenomenon can be seen in the popularity of books such as Dan Ariely's (2009)Predictably Irrational. There is a risk that findings based on subjective experience may feel so “intuitive” that they seem obvious and trivial. Researchers will have to work hard to make sure these findings are compelling and meaningful to their multiple audiences. Happily, we have actually found advantages in the intuitive nature of some of our diary-study results. Many managers can easily identify with our study participants, from their own pre-management days and current experience. Thus, they find the research accessible and the conclusions credible. Rank-and-file employees generally find our research both enlightening and validating.

We realize that we have raised as many questions as we answered. But we hope that our experience may serve as a guide to those excited about answering Weiss and Rupp's call. We firmly believe that a deep understanding of “the human experience of working” is worth the effort and the risk.


  • 1

    To ensure confidentiality, we have disguised the names of participants, their teams, and their companies, as well as any other identifying characteristics.

  • 2

    Across all 12,000 diary submissions, we found an average of about five discrete “event segments” per daily event description. Following data collection, we invited a few participants to segment and code some of their own submitted event descriptions. Their event segmentation matched that of our coders fairly well.

  • 3

    This and other diary quotes are verbatim excerpts from the diary narratives, except that (a) we corrected grammatical, spelling, and typographical errors in order to improve readability; (b) we inserted [in brackets] relevant background information or missing words in order to facilitate comprehension; and (c) we changed all names, dates, and other identifying information to protect confidentiality. Dots in brackets […] indicate that we removed irrelevant material.

  • 4

    Our overall response rate was 75%.