Psychologist logo
Martin Euwema
Crisis, disaster and trauma, Violence and trauma, Work and occupational

‘This war is a wake-up call for many of us’

Ingrid Covington hears from Martin Euwema ahead of his keynote at the European Association of Work and Organizational Psychology congress.

15 December 2022

Can you tell me a bit about your keynote, and what attracted you to that field?

I’ll be focusing on our role as psychologists in times of war, and what we can do to promote peace and security, not the least now we have the conflict in Ukraine. In particular, I aim to reflect on how we work with defense forces, and other first responders, to stand up for what is right. I believe we – as psychologists – have a professional and moral obligation to contribute to what I believe to be a just cause, standing up against international aggression and terror.

We are strongly present when it comes to dealing with human suffering, traumas, loss and grief, refugees, PTSD, and all other horrible consequences of war. This is of great importance to rebuilt lives, families, and societies. It’s a contribution that’s undisputed and at the core of our identity as psychologists: helping other people. Surely this also relates to soldiers, as human beings, no matter what side they are on?

However, there is more. Particularly when it comes to the field of Occupational (or Work and Organisational) psychology, we also are there to build up competences and capacities to defend our societies, together with our defense forces, and with other first responders. Here, our contributions as psychologists are sometimes questioned, and give rise to debate. A debate which is important; not to come to unified answers, but to define our personal, professional beliefs, values, and practices. This requires deeply personal answers. At the heart are questions on how you look at conflict and war, the military and related industries, and peacebuilding, and in a broader perspective about ethical principles and practices.

Many psychologists, myself included, feel a strong drive to contribute to peace and justice, to fairness, equality and decency. Certainly most occupational psychologists share these values, and want to stand up against exploitation, discrimination, unfair and unsafe work, and poor working conditions. But how do we work in empowering people to fight, to boost morale in troops, and to make sure combat teams are operationally excellent, fulfilling missions with a license to kill? In this last line of work we also play a vital role. And we get our hands dirty, so to speak.

Are you a pacifist?

When I was completing my studies psychology in the Netherlands, almost 40 years ago, it was the time of the Cold War. My generation was very aware of the risks of military escalation and polarisation, and the pervasive impact of the ‘military-industrial complex’. Being a psychologist those days was almost synonym with being pacifist, and working with or in the army certainly was not evident… for many it was a taboo.

Now, unfortunately, we are facing a very hot, bloody, destructive war. That is a different situation, asking for a different response. As the old wisdom says: there is a time for everything…

For me personally, I have always believed we need military defense, and that it is honourable to contribute to work in and with the military to improve many practices. We recruit young people, sometimes as a mandatory service, many coming from unprivileged families and relatively deprived societal groups, into a ‘total institution’. This implicates many risks of unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, repressive and toxic leadership, and a poor, cold psychological climate. Contributing to the development of servant leadership, inclusive teams, safe working conditions, and decent jobs, which can be even a stepping stone in one’s career, are important in my view. Promoting dialogue, fairness, and ethical practices – even under difficult circumstances – is essential. 

How do you think psychologists have responded to the war in Ukraine?

I have not seen any studies about the attitude among psychologists towards the war, and the military support for Ukraine. My impression is that this war is a wake-up call for many of us, including our new generation of psychologists. My niece studied psychology, and – quite surprising to me – now she joined the army. It would be interesting to learn more about changing attitudes in our field, and society in general.

For sure, there will be soon a time to rebuilt societies. And I hope we – as a community of practice – can play an active role in that, as well as in the process of reconciliation. To quote one of the most famous Russian authors, Lev Tolstoy; “The greater the state, the more wrong and cruel its patriotism, and the greater is the sum of suffering upon which its power is founded. Let us forgive each other – only then will we live in peace”.   

It sounds like you have a passion for conflict management and peacebuilding.

Conflict and conflict management at work have been a central topic throughout my career. Particularly when it comes to leadership in organisations, a core activity is signaling conflicts and managing these constructively – preventing escalation, and working with parties involved towards acceptable solutions or arrangements. Not imposing solutions in autocratic ways, or even worse, creating conflicts through poor or toxic leadership.

Conflict is a major source of distress at all levels; from intrapersonal conflict, over intra-personal and team conflict, to larger scale tensions and severe competition and fight. Conflict is omnipresent and recognising these and managing at an early stage can prevent great harm and build capacities. The attitudes and skills of constructive conflict management can be transferred from one context to another. What you learn at work, might be used at home or in church, or in society at large.

So, conflict management in general is important. What about peacekeeping?

An important role in conflict management is negotiation and mediation in crisis situations. These might be police officers negotiating in hostage situations, or other high-stake situations, such as international operations under UN or NATO mandate. Crisis negotiation and mediation are at the core of such peacekeeping and peace enforcing missions. Missions where military and police are doing the groundwork.

I had the privilege to work with these peacekeepers for quite some years, training officers to conduct negotiation and mediation tasks, often under highly challenging and also dangerous conditions. Setting up communication with local warlords, as well as many civil parties, from mayor to director of a local hospital, not to mention many NGO’s, such as the international Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Medecins Sans Frontieres, etc. Intercultural communication, stress management, working with interpreters, and with colleagues from all over the world in UN peacekeeping forces, is highly complicated work, and requires specialised expertise and competences. Work and organisational psychologists contribute in the setup of such training, coaching, and organising of these tasks.

To be able to conduct these tasks, the psychological wellbeing, mental resilience and competences of those ‘in the field’ are key. And many occupational psychologists work to analyse conditions for such, both at personal level (who is fit to the job?), as well as training (how to prepare properly), during the mission (how to monitor morale and wellbeing), and provide tools for leaders at different levels to intervene, to motivate, and coach their troops, take the lessons learned and facilitate care.

You’re talking about support for peacekeeping missions, and this seems less of a disputed area ethically. What about working for military in combat situations?

Internationally, there is a broad acceptance nowadays that peacekeeping operations are conducted by military. However, that was not evident, raising the question: how could the same organisations and persons trained for war, act as peacekeepers? And the motivation at that time, e.g. in the former Yugoslavia, was: “Military are deployed in situations where nobody else can do the job”. I am not going in detail on this, but from a psychological point of view, this is also an important question. Former Kolonel and psychologist Wendy Broesder wrote her PhD on this topic: ‘soldiers wielding swords and ploughshares’. She demonstrates that indeed soldiers are able to identify with both, and these role-identities have impact on attitudes and behaviours.

It's important to realise that the difference between peacekeeping and combat missions is more diffuse in most missions, as military often are armed, and licensed to use force in specific conditions. The UN generally states that use of force is allowed for self-defense and defense of the mandate, and every military operation is also accompanied by ‘Rules of Engagement’ that define precisely the conditions of use of force.

When it comes to combat situations, also many issues for psychologists, and in particular occupational psychologists, are prevalent. Our contributions are related to all aspects of the deployment cycle; whom to recruit and select? How to assess proper fit to different tasks and jobs? How to train and develop both individual and collective moral, team spirit, resilience? How to develop leadership at different levels, and how to develop ethical and moral standards, also under high stress, and in the face of atrocities? How to monitor psychological wellbeing, and how to respond to existential fears, anxiety and enduring stress, grief over losses. Also, after deployment, reintegration in the civil society is an essential part of the responsibility, both of the military organisation, as well as society in general.  

Is this occupational psychology or military psychology, or both?

The development of psychology as an academic discipline is in many ways closely related to the context of the military. Military psychology is an applied field of psychology, all its subdisciplines. Recruitment and selection in the military were among the first topics studied. Young soldiers facing all kinds of stress, traumas and PTSD have driven research and theory development for prevention, diagnosis and therapies in relation to shellshock and reintegration. Leadership and team effectiveness are at the heart of occupational psychology, as well as at the core of military psychology, and the same can be said about professional identity and personal development, the importance of purpose at work, and personal and contextual factors leading to ethical (mis)conduct. So, yes, these fields are closely intertwined, and cooperation between academia at universities and military academies is essential and is reality in many countries.

I think the past few years have brought into public consciousness the importance of security, in its many forms, including health security and both national and international security. The biases, the stereotypes we have around the role the military play in our society… we need to deconstruct them, challenge them, work much more closely with the military. Take NATO: they protect the wellbeing, safety and security of over a billion people. It’s a huge responsibility. The soldiers put their lives at risk, and they've often not been supported in the way that they need. Their careers come at a cost because of all the redeployments, and the biases that are associated with employability of spouses.

I remember a conversation I had with Adrian Furnham, and he said the military get criticised for their leadership when he believes they are the modern example of how to select and develop leaders.

I tend to agree with Adrian, looking at literature, and also based on my experiences with both the Dutch and Belgian military. In comparison to many other sectors, leadership development, including the importance of ethical behaviors, and serving team spirit, in the military are a good practice. Many sectors, including academia, do a poorer job when it comes to leadership; in the assessment and appointment of leaders, as well as in further development, personal challenge and feedback, and criteria for promotion. The military has a clear hierarchical structure, visible at ranks at the uniform. The stereotype related to that is authoritarian leadership. However, this by no means is necessarily so. Clarity in structure offers also a good climate for cooperation, sharing of information, and decision making based on contributions and insights of different sorts and ranks, when the leader sees her or his role as making the best possible decisions in light of the mission to be conducted. Most leaders in the military are socialised and aware of the importance of teamwork, and team-based decision making. Also, and particularly when in crisis, the stakes are high, and so are the responsibilities. Decisions impacting human lives are of a different order than stock market value.There’s a tradition of making values and social norms very explicit in the military. Those are more than a list of words on a corporate charter, but are explicitly used to discuss decisions and behaviours.

In many contexts we see that what we know about good leadership, about conditions for good teamwork, about characteristics of sustainable and healthy work, and safety in the workplace, physical, psychological, social, are hardly implemented, not to say, bluntly violated. 

We really know a lot on what works well in the workplace, and what characterises decent work. Take leadership; there is ample evidence on the value of transformational, and even more so, of servant leadership, however, implementing such leadership, and practicing it, is another story. So, yes, we have great challenges to implement good leadership practices, and certainly to implement good practices in managing conflict in the workplace. Particularly given deep-level diversity, and polarisation in society, which also is reflecting on the work floor.

Our rewards and remuneration policies are another topic, where we know really a lot about the often destructive impact of individual performance-related pay, and bonus schemes. Nevertheless, this is in some sectors common practice, unfortunately academia included. Many business schools give individual financial incentives for academic publications. That creates competition among colleagues, and a toxic climate, with conflictive relations and high levels of stress.

So it’s also about organisational practices, and conflicts?

Working with conflict as an organisational psychologist, for me indeed is relevant to all types of organisations. More and more, I see the importance of linking different levels of conflict, from intrapersonal to interpersonal, and from team dynamics to organisational and more complex contexts. This is of course not new, and particularly in social psychology, this nested character of conflict is well recognised.

In social and organisational psychology, there is a rich knowledge base, developed over decades, on how to recognise the conflicts of interest between different groups, and how to negotiate and implement changes in respectful, effective and sustainable ways. We have a great tradition of social dialogue at work; yet how to implement and foster good industrial relations in our 21st Century, individualised society, is not evident. We recently completed an international comparison of mediation and facilitation in collective labor disputes, and conclude there is still a lot to learn here.

However, we also have a lot to offer in the domain of institutionalised, collective conflicts. We can and should impact more on regulation and education. A great example of changing regulations when it comes to collective conflict is the change of legislation in Spain, where mediation was made mandatory in collective conflict. This was based on solid evidence by our Spanish colleagues.

I do feel that understanding is so dispersed around the world, and dominated by Western thinking, that it might not even be relevant in other settings. It would be interesting to actually reflect on what we really know, that we can communicate with key governments and institutions.

The awareness of bias is there, I think, when it comes to design of studies, and implementation of practices. But transferring this into policy making and regulations is not always evident. Here, teaming up with key stakeholders such as the ILO (International Labor Organization) is necessary. We have world class specialists on almost every topic, but making an impact does require that there is an integrated idea. There is still a large gap between regulations, organisational practices, and what we do in academia.

We always seem to be behind the curve, following the trends. The large companies set them, in terms of creative, innovative changes to work, practices and HR management, and we just follow behind them, tell them what a bad idea is, rather than being at the forefront where we say ‘if this is what you're wanting to achieve, these are ideas you might want to consider’.

Well, of course we want to be involved in the first line. Setting up field experiments and action research are ways to do that. However, many changes are driven by technological developments and societal changes. Organisational strategies are a response to that, and at strategic level psychologists are underrepresented, I am afraid. Typical technology driven changes we find in recruitment and selection. Artificial Intelligence is used extensively to search, and select. I was recently talking to someone who had been recruited by a company, using software that analysed his picture on LinkedIn; just the way he presented himself, not text or content. I think, wow, this is really going back to square one in personnel selection, phrenology… but it's modern practice, and with strong claims. So, we need to be on top of these developments.

Coming back to the military… In 2019 a large medical study revealed that PTSD has a strong genetic component. So, should we include a DNA risk profile to the selection of soldiers or police officers, and other high-risk occupations, as these people will be exposed to stressful events with risk of PTSD?  This raises important ethical questions. Can you refuse a candidate that might develop a disorder under specific circumstances?

There was a documentary recently that was quite damning of the selection and assessment field of our profession… connected with AI and discriminatory profiling. How can we build a public confidence in our profession?

I'm not so pessimistic. Yes, these practices are often poor. This is, however, despite all our academic work. It’s poor practice, and we – the professional communities including the academics – need to weight more heavily on regulations and helping those who monitor practices. These poor, and sometimes perverse, practices call for more impact of psychology. Don’t forget that also the field of HR and recruitment is not dominated by well-qualified psychologists. There are all kinds of entrepreneurs and irrelevant educational backgrounds prominent in these practices.

I think there is a call here for more outreach, though. Inform the general public as well as direct stakeholders about the state-of-art, and what we can do to improve practices. I’d like to see our PhDs and postdocs devote at least 25 per cent of their time to such outreach… different ways to promote what we know. Not writing one more article, but do something in reality that changes practices, and write a paper on that. That would be a game changer if PhDs were not only evaluated on how many papers they had written, but also what they did in practice.

I've spoken to colleagues in America, and they find a strong appeal to our chartership programme, because of that very idea that it’s about demonstration, how you've used those skills… integrating that with the academic rigour of the PhD programme could be the key.

Definitely. If we look at EAWOP, there’s maybe 10-20 per cent active practitioners at conferences and in membership… by far the most are academics. More balance helps to create more of a dialogue within the organisation.

An academic practitioner like you should be at the front of agenda setting. And with outside academia, meeting in the middle, or teaming up, to do PhDs together.

I would say, though, that the UK is quite unique in having a relatively strong education and identity for work and organisational psychologists. We did some investigation in Belgium, but also in the Netherlands, within the Psychological Associations. Occupational psychologists are – compared to clinical psychologists, less strong, less visible as a group, and have less of a lobby. This is not only related to a relative larger number of clinical psychologists, but also a stronger identity, and defined practice. Work and organisational psychologists are present in a wide range of jobs, the profile less clear, and the unique contributions thereby also less visible. Some identify more as coach, trainer, consultant, mediator, change manager…. Maintaining and further developing the professional identities of different branches of psychology therefore remains an important challenge if we want to make a larger impact.

The Congress theme is ‘the future is now’. You've come up with lots of great ideas, but what would you set as the top three priorities that we need to prioritise and focus on, collectively as a profession?

On the academia side, we have to start ASAP with redefining what are good requirements of young scholars. How do they relate to practice and make that bridge? And that’s going to involve cleaning out our own environment. Academia is too often a quite toxic environment. I don't think we have the impact that we could have, and should have, on creating that work environment for young people. The leadership needs further development, and we are too often to strongly output-driven.

Secondly, there are a few topics that are really urgent… we are facing massive transitions, our future is indeed now, and it’s urgent. We are contributing to massive destruction of nature, and our ways of working, producing and living need to change, at a very high speed. That implies we have to be that change, and act as change leaders. We educate the new generation of leaders. Particularly as work and organisational psychologists, we also have impact on management training and executive development, and how to lead the change. Here, we should walk the talk. KU Leuven strongly promotes reduction of travel, and if so, doing this sustainable. So, the time for academic tourism might be over if we want to be credible.

Having said that, I am really looking forward to the EAWOP conference in Katowice, Poland. It is great to meet old and new friends, and learn with and from each other, at a historical site with a rich history and bright future when it comes to work. Also, Poland plays such a key role in the Ukraine war, helping so much… it is great to learn also from that, and hopefully be able to reach out, as a community.

- Find out more about the 2023 Congress, and read our other interviews.