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5 Things You Didn’t Know About Industrial/Organizational Psychology

June 2, 2015

Industrial/Organizational (I/O) psychology is a broad field that covers all sorts of topics encompassing issues in the workplace. It is based on a scientist-practitioner model such that scientific research should inform practice. Additionally, application of procedures and systems should inform directions for future research. This collaboration between the academic and applied communities is the critical to ensure that we are advancing the field and meeting/anticipating needs of the business environment. 

In our blogs, we try to provide useful tips and strategies that can be used for talent management.  However, even outside of talent management, there are a lot of little known facts about I/O psychology that you may not be aware of and find interesting. Here are 5 things you didn’t know about I/O psychology:

  1. The concepts of I/O psychology have been around for a long time, but was adopted more officially as a science around the turn of the 20th century. 

During the early 20th century, much focus was directed towards understanding motivation and productivity in the workplace. Interest in issues related to selection and hiring quickly developed when there was a need to better screen and assign recruits for army jobs during WWI. Assessments of cognitive ability, psychomotor skills, and personality were developed to differentiate between individuals. These programs are the root of all personnel testing. The development of these tests rapidly advanced the science of hiring.

  1. The majority of I/O activities—recruitment, selection, training, performance management, etc.—are centered around a job analysis. 

A job analysis is a systematic method for understanding the roles and requirements associated with a particular job. It allows us to gain an understanding of the tasks being performed on the job as well as the skill sets required for success. A job analysis is critical to be able to identify job-relevant competencies, identify the importance of each competency to the job, and provide a source of legal defensibility for use in I/O practices. We mostly focus on a job analysis in reference to selection.  However, a job analysis is the backbone of most I/O activities. This is important when building a training program, developing a performance appraisal, crafting job descriptions, doing strategic human resource planning, and so forth. While a job analysis may be angled differently depending on the purpose, it is a needed element to build a successful program and system.

  1. I/O psychology will not help you diagnose and provide therapy for clinical issues. 

The closest that we will ever come to dealing with clinical issues is by studying work-life balance, workplace stress, and aggression/discrimination at work. I/O psychologists do not conduct therapy sessions or pick your brain on your emotional state. We are not analyzing your thought patterns.  We leave that to clinical and counseling psychologists.

  1. We don’t just do research and application in traditional work environments. 

For a field to grow and develop, it’s important to think broadly, not in isolation. The best way to do this is to collaborate with other fields and do work in other areas. For example, one of my research projects while in graduate school was to examine how leadership derailment could apply to counterterrorism measures. In particular, we were interested in finding ways to apply our knowledge of why leaders fail to ways that could potentially facilitate the “failure” of terrorist leaders. Other areas in which I/O has had an influence include training teams for the Mars exploration mission, working with engineering teams to spur innovation and creativity, preparing leaders and individuals for high-stakes scenarios in the Olympics, and so forth.   

  1. We do a lot of research but, sometimes, our answers are not black-white.

As mentioned, I/O psychology is built on a framework of evidence-based practice. We do a lot research across settings. Straightforward answers and results are easy…but may not always be the most interesting. One of the phrases that I became all too familiar with while doing research was, “It depends.” For example, one of the best predictors of job performance across job positions and levels is cognitive ability. However, we also know that cognitive ability becomes a better predictor of job performance when the complexity of the job increases. Another example is that we know stress can facilitate performance (by way of increasing arousal), but only to a point. Low and high levels of stress can be detrimental to performance. Finding that sweet spot—just enough stress and arousal—will enhance performance. As good researchers and practitioners, we continue to better understand and refine the theories and ideas we put forward so we can understand these complex relationships.

Hopefully that helps provide a little more detail about I/O Psychology. It is a relatively young field, compared to some of the other social sciences, but it is growing quickly. Even though we focus mainly on the talent managment aspect of I/O here at Select, the field is already much bigger than many realize.


ROI of Employee Assessments

Alissa Parr, Ph.D. Alissa Parr, Ph.D. is a Senior Consultant at PSI. Her areas of expertise include the development, implementation, and evaluation of assessment processes. Alissa has experience managing entry-level through executive level assessment and selection efforts across a number of different industries including government, financial, military, education, healthcare, and manufacturing.