Female Leadership

Assistant Professor Pisitta Vongswasdi on business psychology

The function of emotional intelligence and intrinsic motivation

With WHU’s first Bachelor in Business Psychology launching this September, we talk to the minds behind the academics. Assistant Professor Pisitta Vongswasdi has a background in economics and sociology and joined WHU in 2020. We speak to Pisitta to learn more about her role in the new program and why an understanding of psychology is vital for leadership success. 

What brought you to WHU?

When I was doing my Ph.D. at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, I collaborated on a research project with a few professors here at WHU. So, I already knew about the world-class scholars working at WHU and some of the unique programs running at that time (for example, the Future Leaders Fundraising Challenge for the MBA program). When I heard of an opening for an assistant professor position and received the offer, it was a no-brainer that I would join WHU. WHU is a top business school in Germany and a rising star in Europe and on the world stage. I am very excited to be part of WHU and contribute to further its stellar reputation.

Why is psychology important in the field of business?

We now live in a time where the previous model of influence and employee motivation – primarily through authority or extrinsic rewards, would probably not be so effective. People now see work as a domain to self-actualize and enrich their identity. Of course, we could debate whether that is a good thing. But the reality remains that now more than ever, workers are driven by intrinsic motivation. And how can we drive that intrinsic motivation and help managers and employees thrive in the workplace? That’s a more complex question that the field of business psychology deals with.

What skills will be essential for future leaders?

One piece of research illustrates the skills that future leaders should have. Researchers assessed the level of emotional intelligence (EI) of a group of managers. Surprisingly, they found that the least skilled (as objectively evaluated by the researchers) were the ones that had the most positive perception of their own EI. Therefore, they were less interested in improving their EI than those with higher EI. These findings suggest that managers often have self-serving biases that prevent them from improving, especially the less emotionally intelligent ones. It also points to how important it is for managers and leaders to have a degree of self-awareness about skills, expertise, and performance. Only then can they continue to develop through their career and adapt their skills to the continually changing trends that we see in the business world.

What can students expect from your classes?

In my course, I always try to incorporate three fundamental principles in my teaching:

  1. Leaders are made, not born. This means that the course content and how I teach are oriented toward a “developmental” approach. For example, in the Bachelor in Business Psychology, the emphasis is on how you can “develop” people in organizations instead of how you would “select” people (the latter assumes that abilities are fixed).
  2. In line with sharing the latest insights from research, I encourage the students to adopt an “evidence-based mindset.” Which is to make a habit of making managerial decisions informed by the best available scientific evidence. I share the framework and tips on how students can do this in class.
  3. As one scholar used to say, “there’s nothing more theoretical than good practice.” My course tends to be very hands-on and experiential through in-class exercises and practical assignments to encourage students to learn by doing.

Why is a global perspective beneficial?

I have been quite lucky to travel the world and work in many different countries. Although looking back, I feel like there’s also a high degree of intentionality to seek out new experiences, including a tendency to move to a new country every couple of years. So far, I’ve lived in Thailand, the UK, the USA, Singapore, France, the Netherlands, and now Germany. In each country that I’ve been in, I’ve come to appreciate the local traditions and norms, which never failed to surprise me. The biggest lesson I learned from these international experiences is that one should not assume that there’s a universally best way of doing things. To be effective across cultures is to be respectful and learn how things are done in different contexts. This is how having a global perspective can be very beneficial. It pushes you to be more adaptable and willing to change your behaviors, which might be significantly different from the culture you find yourself in.

What drew you to teaching and research? 

I find research highly stimulating – there is freedom in choosing to work on a particular project/problem that I find personally interesting and important. There is a high degree of autonomy and creativity in managing a research project and with whom, when, and how you want to work on it. The act of writing a paper for me is very absorbing. In scientific literature, we have this term to describe this phenomenon called “being in a flow state.” And researchers found that the experience of being in a flow state can bring many benefits to the person.

Another primary responsibility of being a professor is to teach. I also find this gratifying, especially when I interact with a group of motivated and diligent students (which is often the case at WHU!). Teaching is another avenue to share state-of-the-art insights from research. To disseminate this knowledge so that the students find it practically relevant to them. Perhaps it makes them aware of certain assumptions that they might have about themselves and the world. I push them to challenge those assumptions. It feels impactful when I see that after a course ends that these students come away with a new mental model and a set of tools that they can use to become better leaders.