Q&A: Dr Sean Boyle
23 April 2021
Dr Sean Boyle switched from running a hire business to studying for a PhD in Psychology and now runs The Test Company in Naas, near Dublin, helping people discover, develop and manage their most appropriate occupational path. He also researches into how people respond under pressure. In advance of World Day for Safety and Health at Work on 28 April, I asked Sean how his findings might apply to professionals working in hire and other industries.
What was your hire industry background?
I was training as an accountant but in the late 1980s there were no good jobs in Dublin. I was 22 and thought about moving to London. However, my Mum and Dad (Moya and John) were in the plant business and they had started John Boyle Hire – I joked about it initially being just a wheelbarrow full of tools! I joined, we re-branded it HirEquip Ltd and I stayed there 17 years, becoming MD and eventually having two depots in Naas and Blessington. Then the 2008 credit crunch hit and ultimately wiped us out. I think we lost 87% of our customers in six months.
What made you study psychology?
I’d been interested in it for some time and while I was still in hire I did evening classes on it. It was an incredibly difficult subject but I loved it. When the business had to close I picked up my schoolbag and went to the local Maynooth University at the ripe old age of 39. I did a BA in Psychology, then an MSc and in 2015 won a scholarship to do a PhD.
What did you study exactly?
I’m now an expert in a very specialised area of psychology and human behaviour. My doctorate examined safety behaviours in people when subjected to high stress environments and my research interests include fear and the interaction between personality and behaviour.
How did that interest come about?
One day in class we experimented with a polygraph, or lie detector test, and I was fascinated. Psychology is theoretical and abstract, but here was a machine like the tools and equipment I’d hired out! It measures arousal and anxiety levels. I eventually became an expert in the generalisation of fear and how scared people get. I discovered a new behaviour in relation to how people reacted to fear and did my PhD researching that.
Can you explain something of it in lay terms for me?
Everyone is an individual and has different routines and behaviours that they are most comfortable with. But when put under pressure, 67% of people behave in exactly the same way, focusing on short-term survival. All their plans to cope and high-level cognitive processing disappear. And if you put them under enough pressure they go into genetically inherited flight-or-freeze behaviour. However, when they understand their escape path in advance, they rarely use it. It’s as if, by removing the unknown, they can focus on the problem better.
Can that be applied to business?
People must have strategies in place to deal with that kind of situation. As Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Once you understand how you will behave when things go horribly wrong, you can deal with it better.
Might this have management implications?
It’s about managing anxiety levels and you do that through establishing what people’s base behaviour will be and constructing contingencies to suit. If you put them under too much pressure they default to that safety-seeking behaviour, which might come across as being confused or distracted. So they’re less productive. This often means that good people leave the organisation. They might think that they don’t like their job any more, when it’s really that style of work environment they dislike.
So is this about performing under pressure?
Well, some managers might think that putting people under more pressure will make them work harder, but I can show you hundreds of cases from the laboratory where people default to the same basic safety behaviour of avoiding the stressor (i.e. not engaging fully with the task or problem) or they simply just freeze. Every person is different: managers need to understand that, while some colleagues thrive on stress, if it’s too much almost everyone shuts down. Good managers, I believe, really understand their people and manage accordingly.
Is there a psychology related book that you’d recommend me to read? Not too difficult, please!
One might be ‘50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology’ by Scott O. Lilienfeld [et al]. But I’d advise people to read any book on the topic. It won’t be a Bible with all the answers, but you’ll always learn something from it and gain a perspective beyond yourself.
You now describe yourself as a Life Adventurer. What’s that?
[Laughing] Someone who’s not quite sure what’s going to happen next! I remember saying in a seminar how Indiana Jones is always surprised when things go wrong, even in the fourth movie in the series. I love that naïve optimism. I left school as quickly as I could to become an accountant, next I was a self-employed hireman, then I went to university and became a psychologist. And I’ve loved all of them. I’ve been successful but I’ve always drawn on all my past experiences. Academics tend to be solo and individualistic, whereas I have always tried to be collaborative.
Is that why you started your consultancy?
I use psychology to identify careers and working environments that people will be most comfortable in. I can identify the best place for you to be. I’ve always mentored students and I think that came from working in hire: I’d identify which roles would suit people best in the business. And this approach works whether you’re a 15-year-old thinking about what to do after leaving school, or a 55-year old business executive who wonders if their career could be better.
What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever been given or that you would pass on to others?
My Dad has a great saying: “Just start, you never know.” To remind me of this I have a sign in my office which says: “You are a Psychologist, not a Psychic.” You can’t predict the future but that shouldn’t influence your dreams and ambitions.
Do you follow a particular sport or team?
I live in the Irish horse-racing triangle of Naas, Punchestown and the Curragh racecourses so its hard not to have a flutter on the ponies.
What new skill would you like to learn?
I’m researching creativity in visual artists at the moment. I’m fascinated by their passion and the lengths they will go to satisfy their urge. And they keep inviting me to come and be creative with them. So this summer I’m planning to experience painting, sculpting and printmaking. Hopefully, I’ll discover some hidden talent.
Is there anything else you would like to add about your business, activities or future plans?
[Laughing] If you want to see passion, ask an entrepreneur about their future; if you want to see fear, ask a PhD student what they are going to do when they’re finished. I love what I do, so, like Indiana Jones, I’m ridiculously optimistic about the future of The Test Company.