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This research paper on industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology presents a broad overview of the multiple topics studied under its rubric. Some of the topics are quite broad, such as motivation taxonomies, while some are rather specific, such as system safety. The goals of the research paper are to provide the reader with an introduction to the many areas of concern to I/O psychologists with respect to the areas in which they conduct research and practice. The purpose of this research paper is to (1) define and describe industrial and organizational psychology as a field, (2) provide a brief history of the field, (3) summarize the phases of organizations’ life, (4) provide brief summaries of other topics in I/O psychology, and (5) present one view of the trends in research and practice.
- Three Phases of Organization
- Development Phase
- Selection Phase
- Maintenance Phase
- Future Trends
Broadly speaking, psychology is the study of behavior. With this general definition as the basis, industrial/ organizational (I/O) psychology can be defined as the study of behavior that takes place within the context of an organization (e.g., a work setting). Adopting such a broad definition provides the opportunity for I/O psychologists to address research and practice questions that most other psychologists study most often in isolation of a context. For example, cognitive psychologists study information processing. An I/O psychologist may also study information processing, but in the context of decision making. Or, a personality psychologist may study the basic dimensions of personality. An I/O psychologist may study personality psychology to determine the traits and characteristics of individuals that will lead to effectiveness as leaders or success in organizations. Yet another example can be drawn from social psychologists, who study small group behavior and attitudes. I/O psychologists could study similar topics, such as team behavior and job satisfaction, respectively. One additional example can be taken from biological psychology, which can focus on stress and circadian rhythms. Here, I/O psychologists might be interested in stress due to conflict between work and family, and in the attitudinal and behavioral outcomes that result from shift work in organizations. These examples demonstrate the broad range of topics that I/O psychologists are concerned with and the issues that they address. They also illustrate the approach taken by I/O psychologists, which is to conduct research that derives principles of individual, group, and organizational behavior and to apply that research base to the solution of problems in organizational settings.
One cautionary note about the preceding illustrations: they are not intended to suggest that I/O psychologists predominantly or exclusively address practical, field, or applied issues. Though many I/O psychologists conduct their research in viable organizations, and may do so to address particular problems inherent to those environments, their research is both basic and applied. That is, much of the research that is conducted by I/O psychologists contributes to the understanding of behavior as well as serves to remedy or prevent problems in organizations.
For a more complete overview of the profession of I/O psychology, see the Web site of the professional association for I/O psychologists, the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (www.siop.org). This site provides complete information about the profession, which has over 6,000 members from 50 U.S. states and approximately 40 countries. I/O psychologists conduct research and consult with organizations on the following topics:
- Selection and placement
- Training and development
- Employee attitudes
- Employee motivation
- Change management
- Organizational climate
- Organizational culture
- Job design
- Job evaluation
- Organizational structure
- Team building
- Decision making
- Workplace planning
Before proceeding with the history of I/O psychology, another term, organization, must be defined. An organization exists when two or more people get together for the purpose of accomplishing a common goal. This is a very broad and general definition of an organization, adopted to highlight the flexibility available to I/O psychologists for their context of study. The organization can be one that is global, national, or local; it can be an organization that is intended to last for a long period of time, or it can be one that is assembled for a short-term mission, such as a political campaign. The members of the organization may be paid for their services or may be volunteers; thus, the organization can be either for profit or non-profit. The members of the organization may be selected or elected to be part of the organization. The organization can be in business for the purposes of being in private industry, the public sector (government agency), or an educational institution.
One final topic of this research paper pertains to who is an I/O psychologist. Generally, I/O psychologists receive their training from doctoral level psychology departments that have special programs in I/O psychology. Thus, these individuals generally have a broad background in the research and methodology of psychology as well as in data analysis. Another route for education is to obtain a doctorate in organizational behavior (OB) from schools of business administration. Such programs often interact closely with psychology departments to provide the basic background in psychology needed to conduct research and practice in the domain of behavior. In addition, these programs provide a greater emphasis on business-related topics such as strategic planning, finance, and marketing. Often, however, the perspectives of the I/O psychologist and OB student may vary. For example, the former may be interested in individual differences and micro-level issues regarding how the individual behaves within the context, whereas the latter may prefer to focus on more macro-level issues such as the organization’s impact on the individual. Note that this distinction is fuzzy and not rigid—the ideal prototype I/O psychologist is one who understands both micro- and macro-level issues.
This section identifies the primary individuals and events that have defined and distinguished the field of I/O psychology. This history is presented in a chronological order to show how the field has developed over the last 100 years and how the field has been influenced by historical and social events.
The formal history of the field begins in the early 1900s. One of the earliest psychologists recognized for his application of psychological principles to problems of the work setting is Hugo Munsterberg. Munsterberg studied in the laboratory of Wilhelm Wundt, an experimental psychologist who studied perception in Germany. When Munsterberg arrived in the United States, he established a psychological laboratory at Harvard University, where he studied issues concerned with industrial accidents and the relationship between abilities and performance and industrial efficiency. He wrote one of the earliest books on I/O psychology in 1913, Psychology and Industrial Efficiency. Perhaps one of his earliest contributions was his applied work, his studies on the characteristics of successful motormen for the Boston streetcar system.
Another early pioneer, who also studied with Wundt, was James McKeen Cattell. Cattell studied individual differences in people; the critical notion for him was that differences between people should not be considered as ‘‘errors,’’ which was the way experimental psychologists viewed them, but rather as reliable characteristics that differentiated people and that explained why people differed from each other. Cattell was one of the first to use the term ‘‘mental test,’’ and, in many ways, is the founder of the field of selection and personnel.
Two other psychologists who were active in the early 1900s are Walter Dill Scott and Walter Van Dyke Bingham. Scott was active in two areas: he explored the field of advertising as well as the issue of selecting sales personnel. Regarding the latter, he was one of the earliest to demonstrate that the typical interview lacked reliability and validity. He was also interested in training and learning curves, performance rating systems, trade tests, occupational families, and job specifications. Another distinction for Scott is that he was a professor of applied psychology at Carnegie Institute of Technology in the mid-1910s.
Another landmark in the 1910s was the work of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. They applied the ‘‘scientific management’’ principles of Frederick W. Taylor (1911) to educational institutions. Scientific management basically promoted the simplification of work processes. Work methods were designed to be efficient, and workers were selected who could be trained to perform the tasks. The Gilbreths applied time and motion studies to the ways in which workers performed tasks, both to understand how those tasks were performed and to design a more efficient way in which to perform those tasks in order to reduce fatigue and to increase productivity. These events were the forerunners for work on job analysis as well as human factors engineering—both topics of relevance today for I/O psychologists.
A significant historical event impacted the role of psychologists in the early 1900s—the entry of the United States into World War I in 1917. Scott, along with Bingham, adapted an intelligence test that was designed for individual testing to a format that could be used with groups of test takers; such a test was needed for use with large numbers of candidates to determine who was fit to serve in the armed forces. The result was the Army Alpha test, which was used to select recruits into the armed forces. This was an instance of applying principles of individual differences to selection problems; it was also the forerunner of major efforts to develop selection tests and systems for organizations, a trend that continues today.
The 1930s introduced another trend in I/O psychology: the study of human relations and attitudes. Elton Mayo was interested in studying the relationship between work—particularly boring work—and attitudes and performance. Mayo, Roethlisberger, and Dickson are the main researchers identified with a classic set of studies—the Hawthorne studies—that took place in the Hawthorne plant of the Western Electric Corporation. The study began in 1926 and lasted for more than 10 years. The initial goal of the study was to explore the relationship between productivity and plant conditions, such as lighting, heating, work hours, rest breaks, and other manipulations that were under the control of the organization. The results were contrary to what was expected: even when the conditions were made worse, productivity increased. This finding led the researchers to interview the workers, who indicated that they were ‘‘pleased’’ that the organization was paying attention to them, as represented by the efforts to study the problems; as a result, they increased their performance. This finding—that performance can be increased when workers are attended to—is now known as the Hawthorne Effect. This research led to a trend toward greater concern for the individual workers and an emphasis on social relations, known as the human relations movement. Topics that resulted from this movement include motivation, job satisfaction, and morale.
World War II (early 1940s) was also instrumental in inspiring psychologists to begin new explorations for the purpose of helping the war effort. Of particular significance is the role psychologists played in the design of cockpits for the new fighter planes that were being used in the war. The different types of planes and their cockpit controls required pilots who could function in environments with all sorts of new airplane controls, gauges, and displays. Consequently, the psychologists helped in the design of the cockpit, to facilitate quicker recognition of the dials and controls and with less error in their use. This is another example of human factors engineering as well as work design.
In addition to human factors engineering, World War II was the catalyst for research on selection and assessment. New selection tests were developed to help match recruits to jobs that fit their abilities. In addition, attempts to identify personnel who could serve as spies for the United States resulted in the development of the ‘‘assessment center’’ procedure. The assessment center is a mixture of multiple types of assessment, e.g., individual tests, personality assessment, interviews, role-plays, and group exercises, many of which are simulations of actual job behavior. The set of exercises is designed to provide a picture of the individual and how he or she is likely to behave in a work setting. Today, assessment centers are a major industry used to select people for all levels within an organization.
After WWII, I/O psychology became more recognized, and as a result, degree programs were established at major universities and colleges in the United States. Many of the early pioneers in the field brought their training in experimental or social psychology to the programs, producing new Ph.D.s with interests in applied psychological problems. Some of the issues studied were leadership, participative decision making, and job satisfaction.
The role of the I/O psychologist was again challenged in the 1960s, with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This act made it illegal to discriminate in selection, hiring, and promotion of employees based on race, ethnicity, national origin, and gender. As a result of this act, the hiring and promotion practices of many organizations were challenged, which led to the organizations’ attempts to demonstrate the validity and usefulness of their selection procedures. For I/O psychologists, this meant increased efforts and research in understanding issues of selection and validation as well as better understanding of how tests can be used in the workplace environment. This law spurred research on validation models, the development of job analysis procedures, concerns about the measurement of performance, and the concept of validity generalization.
In the latter part of the 20th century (1970s to 2000), even though there was still a major focus on personnel psychology, a considerable amount of research and practice focused on the individual within the organization. Topics such as goal setting, satisfaction, organizational commitment, motivation, organizational climate, person–organization fit, organizational citizenship behavior, and justice received increasing research attention. From an economic perspective, some issues of interest were mergers, acquisitions, and downsizing.
The late 1990s and the early part of the 21st century have continued to see the interest in the social aspects of behavior. But this also has been influenced by the changing nature of work and the reliance on technology for that work. This trend will be revisited at the end of this overview. For now, and as a summary, the presentation of this brief history was intended to show that practical problems, within a context, often influenced by politics, economics, conflicts (war), and legislation, have been instrumental in defining what I/O psychologists studied.
Three Phases of Organization
One way of structuring how I/O psychologists study their topics is to view the study of organizations in three levels or phases along with their associated issues: (1) the need to develop the organization, (2) the need to obtain members for the organization, and (3) the need to maintain (and retain) the organization as a viable entity with members who contribute to its mission. Developing the organization refers to the issues that must be considered when starting an organization. These topics include organizational philosophy, organizational theory, organizational structure, leadership, communications, decision-making strategies, and other issues that relate to how the organization and its jobs will be designed, established, and conducted.
The topics of organizational structure, power, authority, and leadership, organizational culture and climate, decision making, and organization development are critical for the establishment of an organization, since they impact the type of recruits attracted to the organization and the types of systems that will be developed to maintain the organization. Note, however, that as stated earlier, these are not isolated topics that are restricted to the development phase of setting up the organization. Here, as in the other two phases, the individual topics are appropriate for discussion and consideration for all phases. For example, although it is critical to identify the organizational structure at the outset, concerns about performance and satisfaction could lead to the need for organizational development activities that would take place several years after the establishment of the organization. After studying an organization that has been in operation for several years, it may be necessary to make changes in the structure to accommodate changes in the nature of the workforce, the demands of the public regarding the product produced by the organization, and new laws that govern how products should be produced and what materials they contain. The critical points to appreciate are that all of the topics are interrelated and all are important at any and all phases in the life of an organization.
Once an organization is designed and there are plans for its operations, the next issue is the second phase: obtaining members to participate in that organization. When considering how to select employees at all levels within the organization, the I/O psychologist is concerned with the bridge between design of jobs and how recruits are selected to perform those jobs; that bridge is based on job design and analysis. In addition, there is the related issue of how employees will be compensated for the work they perform in their roles.
Once jobs are designed, it is necessary to understand how employees will be evaluated in their positions or jobs—the topic of performance appraisal. Here, I/O psychologists need to understand what contributes to success and effectiveness in the job and organization, and how to measure employees on the relevant criteria. High individual performance and high organizational productivity are the criteria that the organization selects employees to achieve. Another criterion used to measure the organization’s success is turnover. The selection system is designed to identify those who can meet these goals.
Once the organization is ready to implement a selection system, it needs to consider the issues of employment discrimination and employment interviewing. The former deals with laws that exist, particularly in the United States, that influence what selection devices can be used and under what conditions, as well as the litigation surrounding the use and validation of the tests.
A link between obtaining members for and maintaining the organization is the topic of training and development. Organizations can select employees who have the aptitude to be trained, or employees who are already trained and capable of producing and performing rather quickly after entry into the job. Training is a critical issue of concern for I/O psychologists. A special topic related to training is that of executive coaching and executive development which is concerned with working with employees to enhance and develop their skills for management positions. This not only is an issue when deciding who to select and whether training is needed, but also can serve as a motivational tool for employees.
Once the organization has determined how it will obtain its employees and implements the systems needed to obtain those members, it turns its attention to the maintenance phase: how to retain the members in the organization and to further maintain and develop the organization to sustain itself in the marketplace. This phase is concerned with issues such as reward systems, motivation, job satisfaction, organizational climate and culture, work and family, conflict, and stress.
Note that the above trichotimization into development, selection, and maintenance phases is not exhaustive or mutually exclusive; rather, the topics are integrated. That is, it would be difficult to consider issues of selection without considering issues of training and motivation. This means that if an organization determines that it needs to place employees into position ‘‘X,’’ it could do so by selecting those who already have the ‘‘X’’ abilities and skills; it also means their compensation would be affected by the fact that the hired are skilled. In contrast, the organization could decide to hire those individuals who demonstrate the aptitude or ability to learn and gain the abilities and skills needed to perform the tasks. This would mean that there would be greater emphasis on training those hired, which in turn might mean that their compensation could initially be lower because they are relatively less skilled. For both types of hires, however, motivation is critical. How do organizations motivate workers to be fully productive? Does the fact that the organization provides the training to relatively less skilled employees mean that those employees will be more committed to the organization, and consequently the organization will have a lower turnover rate? These issues and questions need to be considered jointly.
An obvious point of interest for readers of this research paper is what the future holds for the field of I/O psychology. Our crystal ball suggests that the major topics covered in this paper will remain the same, but that the nature of work—how it is performed, what it is composed of, and where it is performed—will change. That is, I/O psychologists will always be interested in how organizations should be developed, how to obtain people for those organizations, and how to maintain and promote the survival and growth of the organization. But what people do in the form of work, and how and where they perform that work is likely to change.
To elaborate, let us return to the history of the field. Reviewing the ‘‘older’’ textbooks, such as one by Viteles. Among the 27 chapters of the Viteles text are chapters on individual differences, the social foundations of industrial psychology, vocational selection, job analysis, the interview, tests for different skills and industries, safety, training methods, industrial fatigue, motives, monotony, and supervision. The topics have remained the system—the way that I/O psychologists have approached the research problems and analyzed the data have become more sophisticated and elegant.
So, what has changed and what will continue to change? The answer is that (1) work, (2) the worker, and (3) the context will change. First, the nature of work will change. It is obvious that more and more work will be driven by computer technology and that employees will be producing less manually. More and more employee work will focus on providing information and services. Thus, I/O psychologists need to be concerned with systems that can describe the tasks to be performed (job analysis and job design), identify the KSAs needed to perform those tasks (personnel psychology), and figure out how to measure effectiveness on those tasks (competence at work). Work will become more fluid; jobs will not be well-defined. Much of this work is likely to be done in groups and teams, which means emphasis on how to select and motivate team members. Also, it is likely that much of the work will be done in virtual teams. An obvious implication of all of this change is that the relationship between the worker and the client will change. There will be less direct contact and more reliance on the worker fulfilling the client’s expectations without being on site to push for services.
Second, workers may interact differently with their peers and supervisors. More and more meetings may take place via teleconferencing instead of face-to-face. Accordingly, I/O psychologists will need to pay more attention to cross-cultural psychology, to topics of personality and interpersonal relations, and to work and non-work balance.
The third issue that will impact I/O psychology, context, is concerned with the globalization of doing business and multiculturalism of the workforce. I/O psychologists will need to address the performance of work in the context of the globalization of the economy with a workforce that is more culturally diverse than it was in the past. This means that workers will need to be more adaptable to where they work and with whom they work. Not only will workers be asked to interact with others from different cultures and backgrounds, but they also may be asked to work in locations foreign to them (e.g., other countries).
The challenge for the I/O psychologist will be to develop systems (selection, training, compensation, motivation, etc.) that recognize the changes in the work that is being performed, how it is being performed, who is performing it, and in what context. Workers will need to be more flexible and agile, and work at faster paces and speeds. Workers may need to be more selfdriven and work in contexts in which they are empowered and in which there will be self-learning. Workers will need to adjust to uncertainty and the temporary nature of their work. They will need to adapt to flexible work patterns. And, they may need to assume that they will have multiple careers over their life.
This research paper focuses on the study of behavior for those who operate within an organizational context. It presents the issues and interests of I/O psychologists as they attempt to study how work is performed, who performs it, and where it should be performed. Hopefully, the research paper conveys the message that the study of work and workers is complex and that many variables need to be considered when attempting to provide solutions to work problems. The literature shows that less than 50% of the variability in individual and group performance can be explained by the variables I/O psychologists study as they attempt to explain and predict that behavior. The goal for the future is to explain more of this variability.
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