What is Industrial/Organizational Psychology?

This was the topic of the May 3, 2013 First Friday Forum panel discussion with Harry Brull, M.S., Kraig King, Psy.D, MBA, and Jane Coffey, Psy.D., LP.   Industrial/Organizational Psychology (I/O) applies to individuals and organizational units and involves defining, measuring, and developing the components required to help employees and organizations achieve success.  Although I/O psychology may draw from traditional counseling and clinical practice, the majority of its tools come from other, less well known areas of psychology.   For example, I/O psychology draws heavily from testing and measurement, learning theory, and statistics. However, there are several close parallels between I/O psychology and clinical or counseling psychology.  For example, I/O psychologists occupy positions in academia, within organizations, or as external consultants. While they may be involved in research, or clinical-type activities, much of their focus is on assisting organizations with the human side of their operations – ensuring that personnel are well placed, trained, and motivated to perform capably.

Group Behavior:  It has long been recognized that individuals behave differently in groups than they do alone or in one-on-one situations.  Much of the work done by social psychologists revolve around this fact.  Additionally, being a member of an organization adds another level of complexity:  you now have individuals, groups, and the organization itself.  This aspect of I/O psychology is seen in tasks such as team building (which hopefully helps a group of individuals work more smoothly together), as well as consultation dealing with interpersonal communications.  Often, the skills I/O psychologists draw upon when working with groups closely align with the skills in family or marital counseling.

Coaching:  I/O psychologists often are called upon to help individuals within organizations make decisions and shift their behavior in order to become stronger contributors and leaders.  Career exploration is often a part of these discussions, as is an inventory of their likes/dislikes and strengths/weaknesses.  I/O psychologists owe much to their colleagues in the fields of social work, counseling psychology, and ministry for paving the way in this area.

Assessment:  Many I/O psychologists focus on the assessment of individuals as they seek to develop their skills, or the assessment of candidates to fill a role within a company, either as an external candidate or for promotion.  Assessments usually include a measurement of problem solving styles and capacity, leadership style, communication skills, and interpersonal skills, as well as personal factors such as motivation and self-management. This determination of candidate capabilities can then be compared to the needs of organization.  The science of defining organization needs and assessing the individual’s talents, style, and approach helps predict success in the position, as well as strengths and areas for development.

Psychopathology:  I/O psychologists are sometimes concerned with the potential of psychopathology in I/O psychology.  Perhaps the clearest example is working in critical occupations where reliability and emotional stability are of paramount importance.  I/O psychologists often assess individuals for occupations such as law enforcement, firefighting, and the nuclear industry to determine whether they meet the necessary standards of trustworthiness, reliability, and emotional stability.

Human Resource Systems: I/O psychologists are often called upon to design and implement processes designed to select, develop, and appraise performance within organizations. Since all organizations need a reliable supply of human talent to achieve their goals and remain viable, the efficacy of talent management systems is vital.

Legal Issues: I/O psychologists are called upon as expert witnesses and support in disputes between individuals and organizations. Areas of employment law requiring this assistance includes charges of discrimination, unfair labor practices, grounds for termination, and issues of sexual harassment.

Ethical Considerations:  One of the critical differences between I/O psychology and clinical or counseling psychology is that it is the organization who is requesting the service and paying the bill. Thus, it is the organization who is the client, rather than the individual. While assessment information  is often shared with person requesting the assessment, the final, written report belongs to the organization. Potential conflicts arise, for example, when an individual shares information and requests that it not be shared with the organization.

Perhaps the clearest picture of what an I/O psychologist does is represented by the following projects:

  • Design of selection procedures which may include testing, interviewing, and simulation of work to be performed.
  • Design and conduct of training programs in such areas as managerial coaching, communications, conflict resolution, and leadership.
  • The design and administration of attitude and other organizational surveys.
  • Analysis of organizational problems such as turnover, friction, and poor productivity or morale.
  • Design of organizational systems such as a hiring processes, performance appraisal, management succession, career development, etc.
  • Team building to help groups of individuals work more effectively together.
  • Outplacement to help individuals and their families deal with the after effects of termination as well as the development of job-finding skills.

In summary, I/O psychologists deal with individuals at every aspect of their organizational life including selection, training, advancement and, if necessary, termination.  I/O psychologists also look at organizations themselves and the factors which inhibit and enhance their effectiveness.

Harry Brull, M.S., Senior Vice-President, PDI Ninth House. 

Mr. Brull’s interests and responsibilities included providing service to units of local, state, and federal government, designing selection and appraisal systems, and assisting in employment law litigation.  After a full-time career of 35 years, he currently lives in the small mountain town of Salida, Colorado with his wife, Myra Barrett  Ph.D., former MPA President. He spends a great deal of time riding a bicycle.

Jane Coffey, Psy.D., LP,  Senior Consultant with PDI Ninth House for 17 years.

 Dr. Coffey works with PDI as an on-call consultant.   She has a small clinical practice and as part of her consulting practice, she provides coaching and developmental assessments to individuals within small businesses.

Kraig King, Psy.D., MBA, Executive Consultant, PDI Ninth House, a Korn/Ferry company.

Dr. King provides CEO and executive succession, assessment, coaching, leadership development and team effectiveness consulting services.

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