This much I know: Professor Sir Cary Cooper

04 November 2014 -


One of the UK’s leading business psychologists tells us about his former life as an LA social worker, the Leeds of 50 years ago and why it’s vital for staff to have manageable workloads

Colin Marrs

Sir Cary Lynn Cooper is an American-born British psychologist and professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School. He was knighted in the 2014 Birthday Honours list.

I was born and raised in Hollywood, Los Angeles. I was from a middle class area but worked as a social worker in Watts – one of the most deprived areas of the city – to pay my way through university. It made me realise I wanted to work in a job that helped people.

I originally meant to come to the UK for a year. I met a professor from Leeds who asked me to come over. Then I got funding for a PHD and I am still here 50 years later.

I lived in some dives in Leeds. In those days, Leeds was not the thriving city it is now – it was pretty run down. I didn’t know how to light a coal fire. I thought you could just use matches until someone told me you needed to use kindling.

People get ill if they are dissatisfied with their jobs. Most ways of providing people with job satisfaction are within the power of a line manager – enabling people to have autonomy over their job, giving clarity over job roles, ensuring staff have manageable workloads and not allowing a long hours culture to develop.

Ironically, the recession means that companies are more interested in these issues. Before the recession everyone thought this was the same bullshit you always hear from HR people. But now managers are worried about losing really good people because their firms are so lean. They want to retain and attract the best talent.

I am a manager too. I have a role at the university, and also employ around 15 people through a spin-off company. I hope I take into account what I have learnt through my job. A person naturally becomes more focused on the bottom line when there is pressure and stress. But my research learning helps me check myself sometimes.

I am a father of four kids. When I am involved with someone who is overly negative at work then I ask myself “what if this was one of my kids?” I try and remember that there is usually a reason for their attitude – whether it is fear, insecurity problems at home.

Being knighted is important to me. It is great for a country to say “Thank you for what you have contributed”. The only downside is my parents aren’t around any more to see it – they were Eastern European Jews who emigrated to the USA and never went to school.

LISTEN AND LEARN: Getting your work-life balance right

Check out a superb recent webinar from Professor Cooper, held in association with Citrix and moderated by Professional Manager editor Ben Walker.

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