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Industrial Organizational Psychologist

Learn about the Industrial Organizational Psychologist career

industrial organizational psychologist

The many fields of Psychology touch on every aspect of what it means to be human, and what it means to live and function in today’s world. However, one field specializes in the activity where most of us spend most of our waking hours: work.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, individuals aged 25 to 54 average 8.7 hours a day working. (see chart Time use on an average work day). Industrial-organizational psychologists (I/O) focus their attention on those 8.7 hours.

More specifically, I/O psychologists scientifically study the workplace, applying psychological concepts and principles to issues relevant to both businesses, and the workers who power those businesses.

There are many aspects of workers’ lives and the world of business where I/O psychologists apply their expertise. According to Society For Industrial & Organizational Psychology, Inc. (SIOP), the field is split between two main areas: “industrial” and “organizational.” Distinct differences exist between these two specialties, but some positions do overlap, requiring the knowledge and an understanding of both areas.

Industrial Organizational Psychology

Industrial-type psychologists

Psychologists who focus on the 'I' or industrial side prefer working with data, enjoy analyzing test results, working with quantitative models, and enjoy using statistics. Here are some of the job activities of psychologists working on the industrial side of I/O psychology:

  • Test design and development of skills, knowledge, reasoning, physical abilities, and personality, test interpretation, and analysis.
  • Designing and developing tools and assessments for recruiting, interviewing, hiring, evaluating, managing, and promoting people.
  • Designing, developing, and scoring surveys for measuring organizational climate and culture.
  • Designing jobs, evaluation procedures, and compensation and benefit plans.

Industrial-focused psychologists have job titles such as behavioral analyst, employment testing professional, testing specialist, human resource research assistant, assessment and selection specialist, and compensation analyst or specialist.

Organizational-type psychologists

Those specializing on the ‘O’ or organizational side desire to maximize employee and employer potential. These psychologists focus on employer-employee communication skills, leadership skills, work relationships, group and team dynamics, and organizational development and change.

Here are some of the job activities of psychologists working on the organizational side of I/O psychology:

  • Understand employee attitudes and what motivates employees. Learn how to empower employees. Work on issues of employee engagement, diversity, retention, and job satisfaction. Develop ways to reduce employee burnout, conflict, and stress.
  • Specialize in change management, specifically in reference to mergers and acquisitions.
  • Provide expertise on strategic planning, or advising companies on how to use human capital to achieve corporate goals.
  • Focus on workforce planning issues with companies, such as growth management.
  • Help companies understand cross-cultural and diversity issues, such as when companies have overseas divisions and must send employees to work in different countries and cultures.
  • Coach executives (http://www.allpsychologycareers.com/topics/industrial-organizational-career-profile.html) and top management on best leadership practices.

Organizational-focused psychologists have job titles such as Organizational Development Specialist, Career Coach, Leadership Coach, and Human Resources Manager. They are also often president, vice president, director or manager of a number of human resource-related positions, such as organizational development, employee relations, and professional development, among others.

I/O research

Because of the rapid changes taking place in business, I/O psychologists must stay current with I/O research. Technology, the main driver of change over the past few decades, has altered the topics investigated by I/O researchers, topics critical to helping businesses and employees stay competitive.

For example, the growth of virtual businesses and more employees working from home has established a whole new type of I/O research – and expertise.

Helping employers understand the advantages and potential problems with setting up virtual work environments is now one area that I/O psychologists study in order to guide companies. (see The Positives and Pitfalls of Telecommuting.)

At the same time, the availability of technology in the home, and the ability to work at all hours of the day, has presented another critical area of I/O research: job burnout and work-life balance.

In 2001, Work and Organizational Psychologist Evangelia Emerouti, and colleagues, published an article detailing a new model for understanding the connection between working conditions and employee well-being.

They called their model the Job Demands-Resources (JD-R) model, and explained its framework and assumptions in the article “The Job Demands-Resources Model of Burnout” in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

They stated that their main purpose was to challenge the existing views up until that point in time that burnout was found almost exclusively in human services occupations, such as social work, health care, and teaching. Their purpose was to provide a more realistic study of burnout that researchers recognized occurred across all occupations.

“Nevertheless, working with people has come to be seen as intrinsic to burnout simply because most authors have only looked at those situations where the occupation requires working with people. The central aims of the present research are to address problems in the conceptualization and measurement of burnout that have encouraged this selective focus and to provide evidence of burnout outside of human services,” Demerouti and colleagues wrote.

This model subsequently led to numerous studies and voluminous research on burnout over the last decade. This research has greatly helped those working in human resources across all industries better understand the components of burnout and stress, and the factors that help alleviate burnout’s pernicious effects on both the individual and the bottom line.

Human resource managers across the world now apply the JD-R model in their practices.

The Jobs Demands-Resource (JD-R) Model*

The JD-R model of job burnout states the following:

Every occupation has factors associated with it that potentially lead to stress and burnout. The model categorizes these factors into: job demands and job resources.

Job demands. Job demands are physical, psychological, social, or organizational aspects of the job requiring sustained physical or psychological (cognitive and emotional) effort or skills, or both. These factors are associated with certain physiological and/or psychological costs. These factors include high work pressure, unfavorable working conditions and environment, and emotionally demanding interpersonal interactions.

Job resources. Job resources are the physical, psychological, social, or organizational aspects of the job that are either/or:

  • Functional in achieving work goals.
  • Reduce job demands and their physiological and psychological costs.
  • Stimulate personal growth, learning, and development.

Examples of job resources include career opportunities, supervisor coaching, role-clarity, autonomy, and positive social support.

The JD-R model proposes that the interaction between job demands and job resources determines whether job resources might provide a buffer against the demands that contribute to job strain, including burnout.

In addition, the model proposes that poorly designed jobs or chronic job demands exhaust employees’ mental and physical resources. In turn, this might lead to the depletion of energy and to health problems.

In contrast, the right balance of job resources will motivate employees and lead to high work engagement, low cynicism, and excellent performance. Job resources play either an intrinsic or an extrinsic motivational role. Examples of job resources that have the potential for buffering against burnout and motivate include performance feedback and social support.

* Information cited from the Journal of Managerial Psychology, “The Job Demands-Resources model: state of the art,” by Arnold Bakker, PhD, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Institute of Psychology, and Evangelia Demerouti, PhD, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands.

Wide range of career options

For psychologists focusing either on the “I” or “O” side, the job field is broad, and the occupations are numerous. I/O psychologists work for corporations and organizations across all industries. With experience, they are often executives or work in upper management.

In addition, the military and many government agencies hire I/O psychologists, as well state and local governments.

Consulting firms specializing in everything from leadership consulting to benefits and compensation practices also hire I/O psychologists.

Many I/O psychologists work in positions on both “I” and “O” sides of the profession. For instance, a graduate might start out working for a corporation in its benefits and compensation department as an analyst, and eventually move within the same company, or to another company, into an upper-level position working with management on strategic planning or workforce planning. (see Industrial and Organizational Psychology for more information).

Positions are available for those with both a bachelor’s and master’s degrees, but those with master’s degrees in I/O psychology will get better paying positions that require a more thorough knowledge of the research taking place today in I/O psychology.

I/O psychologists also work in academia teaching and conducting empirical research on the psychological science of the workplace. These positions require a PhD in I/O psychology.

If you are interested in entering a field that offers a wide range of career options and opportunities, and want to help businesses and employees succeed, you should consider master’s degree or PhD in I/O psychology.

Those individuals with bachelor's degrees will find entry level positions in human resource departments.

Is I-O Psychology for Me?

Answer the following yes or no:

  1. I am interested in understanding how people behave at work.
  2. I want to counsel people who are having relationship troubles.
  3. I’d like to understand how tests are created.
  4. I want to really understand how the brain works.
  5. I wish I had a better understanding of how to motivate people.
  6. I’d like to learn what makes a marriage work.
  7. I believe it’s important to understand what makes a team successful.
  8. I want to really understand how memories are formed.
  9. I’d like to know how to interpret the statistics that I see in the media.
  10. I’m really interested in understanding how children change and develop.

Give yourself 1 point for every odd-numbered yes. The higher your score the more likely you are to enjoy I-O psychology. If you answered yes to several of the even- numbered statements, then you might also enjoy some other area of psychology. If you thought this quiz was not very accurate and have some ideas for how to make it better, then you should definitely consider being an I-O psychologist!

This survey can be found on the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychologists website.

The Positives and Pitfalls of Telecommuting

Office workers of the early 1970s and 1980s who were told that personal computers (PCs) would eventually send some home to work, perhaps in less than 20 years, thought they were listening to a science fiction fantasy.

In fact, in the early 1980s, many offices only had one PC, and no one knew how to use it, or what to use it for.

As technology exploded over the next 30 thirty years, advancements in networking, mobile computing, and digital communications took working at home out of the realm of science fiction.

A 2011 report commissioned by World at Work and prepared by The Dieringer Research Group Inc., stated that the total number of people who worked from home or remotely for an entire day at least once a month in 2010 was 26.2 million or about 20% of the U.S. working adult population (as of the fourth quarter 2010).

The report defined telecommuting (telework), or working at home, as one of three possibilities:

  • Ad hoc or occasional telework
  • Telework once a month
  • Telework once a week
  • Fulltime telework

Estimates on the total number of workers who work fulltime at home or at another offsite location vary, but many place the number at 3 million in the United States. Many workers say they would prefer to work at home, but recognize the potential drawbacks. Employers as well note the advantages and disadvantages of these work situations.

Employers realize savings in real estate costs, and the costs associated with maintaining office infrastructures. They also see an advantage in the ability to recruit talent from anywhere, increasing their talent pools.

Additionally, the World at Work report stated that telework has value as it relates to employee engagement, satisfaction, and retention because employees view it as a privilege that is earned through good performance.

And employees enjoy the flexibility allowed by these work arrangements – specifically the ability to work anytime and anywhere. They also appreciate less hierarchy and less bureaucracy in virtual situations.

Yet technology companies have been predicting that performing work from home or another remote location would become the predominant mode of work for most workers - and it hasn’t. Possible reasons for this are that “barriers remain for both employers and employees that have more to do with psychology than technology,” the report stated.

Researchers attempt to identify the barriers of telecommuting. They have identified monotony and isolation as two major barriers. Others have noted the breakdown of communication between employees and management in virtual environments. This breakdown concerns both interpersonal communications, as well as a lack of training provided to virtual employees.

Researchers Ali D. Akkirman of Maersk Logistics in New Jersey, and Drew L. Harris, PhD, of Longwood University, Farmville, Virginia, found communication to be the main stumbling block for companies wanting to become more virtual.

Virtual offices must do more than provide effective technology for employees, the authors stated in “Organizational Communication Satisfaction in the Virtual Workplace,” published in the Journal of Management Development.

“Organizations must build trust among workers. Building trust requires frequent and high-quality communications,” the authors wrote.

In fact, the authors found communication to be more important among virtual workers than in traditional work environments.

When coworkers and managers experience poor communications and poor relationships, then companies experience lower commitment, reduced productivity, increased absenteeism, and higher turnover.

However, in a study conducted by the authors, they reported that a German company of 100 that moved 65 employees to virtual environments reported an overall increase in their job satisfaction. This occurred because the company took extra steps to ensure the employees still felt connected to the company and each other, provided ongoing training, and technological support.

For example, the company set up regular intervals of chat time between management and employees, set up e-bulletin boards, and other forms of virtual communications.

In addition, the company ensured that social isolation didn’t occur, and they kept a significant amount of variety to the employees’ work lives. They occasionally brought the employees to the main office for meetings and social events.

And the company provided computers and technical support to its employees working at home, and provided extensive and ongoing training. Regular and honest communication about the company’s processes, goals, and financial projections kept virtual employees engaged, productive, and satisfied in their careers.

The authors credited this German company with taking the advice of researchers and consultants: “upper level support, appropriate technology and technological support, culture training and technical training, restructuring work to support a virtual workplace, and providing extra social support systems to reduce alienation.”

And what was the result of this migration to a mainly virtual company? Less pitfalls and more positives – directly measured at the bottom line.

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