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What is I/O Psychology?

To understand what Industrial Organizational Psychology is, one needs to better understand what psychology is.  According to the American Psychological Association, pychocology is defined as "the scientific study of the behavior of individuals and their mental processes.  In the study of psychology there are multiple and competing explanations when we try to understand behavior.  In fact, back in the day the symbol as shown above was thought to the be the pitchfork symbol that the devil is best known to carry because the science was so that people were basically afraid of the unknown.  When I talk about the unknown I mean that people misinterpreted psychological disturbances as the work of the devil.  As a way to poke fun at that interpretation, old school psychologists chose the pitchfork.  As a result of all those classical studies from the psychologists that came before us, the study of human mentality and behavior has grown tremendously. 
Today we realize that it is a disparate term with a mind boggling amount of topics that fall under categories such as social psychology, forensic psychology, abnormal psychology, positive psychology and so on.  With the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and all the now debunct managerial and organizational practices, Industrial and Organizational psychology was born (well for the most part anyway!).     
As such, Industrial and Organizational Psychology (often referred to as I/O Psychology) became a branch of psychology that applies psychological theories and principles to the organization.  This science examines performance and productivity in the workplace and focuses on overall employee well-being and behavior.  We do a variety of tasks from evaluating companies and employee testing to coaching leaders as shown in the chart below.  On a side note, I had this on the back of my business card for a long time in order to help my constituents to better understand where I was coming from!

As you can see, I/O Psychology really has two branches: Industrial Psychology and Organizational Psychology.  Industrial Psychology examines the specific areas within the workplace using psychologcal theory, whereas Organizational psychology is more focused on broader concepts.  Both work in unisom when we examine a specific area of particular interest. In other words, you can't examine compensation without really understanding motivation and so on.
Although I/O Psychology is an applied science, research is important to us and can range anywhere from studying employee motivation to examining work-family conflict.  My dissertation examined the relationship between the human value system and age and gender.  More specifically, I studied the four generations and their genders all across the U.S. 
Most psychologists spend a lifetime doing research.  I've began the scientific process during my undergraduate days studying locus of control as well as corporate ethics and morality.  As I moved into my graduate level courses, these projects became more intense.  I continued my research on corporate ethics and social responsibility (this was when the unethical behavior of Enron and WorldCom was in the limelight) and began studying work-family conflict as well.     
When we study psychology we always base our ideas on a theory and begin asking questions from there.  The theoretical background of the science of psychology is also diverse. As already mentioned, most of our roots come from a variety of sources such as cognitive psychology, social psychology, human factors psychology and even abnormal psychology and so you can bet that the theory(ies) we use in I/O has a base in some or several other areas of psychology.  This is perhaps a sort of constructivist beginning where we examine behavior, then examine cognitions (the human thought process) and put it all together to construct a more elaborate explanation.    

Some of our most famous theorists in I/O psychology include Frederick Taylor, James Cattell, Elton Mayo, Kurt Lewin,  and so on.  

So what?

I/O Psychology is an important contribution to the workplace because it provides a foundation from which many of your employee programming was built.  For example, the next time you are up for a raise and have to undergo an employee review, think about the original foundations of the actual review process itself. Why do we ask you to set goals and why is it important that you understand areas that need improvement?  Originally, employees didn't even get the review or any type of official feedback back in the day.  In fact, supervisors didn't care much about goal setting or the ethical implications behind performance-based pay increases.  
Granted that when an individual goes after an MBA they also have to study team development as part of their core curriculum in addition to a heavy dose of business courses.  Conversely, I/O psychologists aren't looking to run the business side of the business.  Our job is to help the leadership better understand their circumstances by better understanding their human capital.  As such, we also had business courses along with a heavy dose of human factors.  I've always been set back by the ideology that the "soft stuff" isn't as important as the "hard stuff" when both are logically important simply because human capital is foundational to organizational growth and revenue.    
In other words, I/O Psychology has evolved and is more promising than ever.  Some areas we hold specialty include:
  • attitude theory, measurement and change
  • criterion theory and development
  • consumer behavior
  • career development
  • health and stress in organizations
  • human performance and human factors
  • individual assessment
  • job evaluation and compensation
  • job/task analysis and classification
  • judgment and decision making
  • leadership and management
  • organizational development
  • organizational theory
  • performance appraisal and feedback
  • personnel recruitment, selection and placement
  • small group theory and team processes
  • training theory, program design and evaluation
  • work motivation
For an even better description of I/O Psychology go to this APA link.