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SIOP 2008 Keynote Address:
I-O Psychology’s “Core Purpose”:  Where Science and Practice Meet

Anthony J. Rucci
Fisher College of Business, Ohio State University

Editor’s note: This article is based on the closing keynote address delivered at the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology 23rd Annual Conference in San Francisco, CA, April 12, 2008.
“Why did you choose to become an I-O psychologist?”  That’s not intended to be a rhetorical question. Think back to that point in your life when you decided to pursue a career in I-O psychology, and jot down your answer. We’ll come back to your answer later, but be assured that the words you have written down are central to this discussion. Yes, we may each have chosen slightly different career paths—some of us into academia as educators and researchers, some of us as consultants, others as organizational practitioners—but despite our “career track” differences, I suspect that as a community of I-O psychologists we share powerful philosophical and personal motives.

My personal decision to become an I-O psychologist is deeply rooted in my family background growing up in Youngstown, Ohio.  Nearly all of my extended family worked in the steel mills in that area of the country.  I saw first hand how my uncles’ and my dad’s quality of life was affected by what happened in the workplace everyday.  I also saw what happened when the steel industry collapsed in the U.S., and one-by-one each of my uncles and my dad were laid off and eventually lost their jobs as the plants shut down. I witnessed the effect that had on their spirit and their pride.

The Dignity of Human Beings in the Workplace

My decision to become an I-O psychologist was motivated by a fundamental belief that people and organizations both “win” when civility and dignity are hallmarks of an enterprise. That there is a “virtuous cycle” about people and organization:  The more respect people are accorded by their company and their boss, the more successful those organizations seem to be.  In short, I-O psychology for me has always been about the dignity of human beings in organizations.

What does all this have to do with the core purpose of I-O psychology?  I believe that organizational performance and individual performance intersect at precisely the point of the dignity of people in organizations.  Where people enjoy dignity that in turn unleashes human energy (Gunn and Sherman, 2008), which ultimately causes organizations to be successful.  In fact, in my head I have a rather simple model of organizational effectiveness: Treat your employees right…they’ll treat the customers right…and you’ll get better organizational performance.  I realize the model is not rocket science…and it certainly wouldn’t pass anyone’s test of a scientific paradigm. But, that simple model has guided my entire career’s work. Later in my career I was able to frame the model more mathematically in a causative path (Rucci, Kirn & Quinn, 1998) with the hypothesis being that “treating your employees right” was actually at the front end of the value creation chain and triggered successful organizational outcomes further downstream.

I should point out, however, that I was completely wrong about what I thought was the operational definition of “treat your employees right.”  I thought it was about people being happy or satisfied in their jobs. Turns out that those aren’t the employee factors that predict better customer and performance outcomes in the organizations I’ve looked at empirically. The critical factor that triggers the value creation chain is employee commitment.  Things like an employee’s sense of involvement, the intrinsic value of the work they do, the degree to which they feel they understand the organization’s strategy and the extent to which they see a clear line of sight between their job and the organization’s goals.  And, a rather compelling finding that brought back my family experience, the extent to which people feel that they are treated with dignity by those who lead them.  In short, intangible factors linked to employee commitment are leading indicators of customer, profit, and revenue outcomes later on.

By the way, would you be willing to make this “intangible” leap of faith with me?  If you are willing, that makes you different than many people sitting in board rooms around the world right now. Most boards and senior executives, in my judgment, still…don’t…get it.  They still don’t seem to understand or they are unwilling to accept that successful organizations are not about profits—they’re about people.  Unfortunately, and being candid, those of us in I-O psychology and other organizational disciplines have done a conspicuously poor job of demonstrating the power of that simple idea to organizational leaders and boards.

I-O Psychology’s Core Purpose

It seems to me that the core purpose of I-O psychology today might be stated as follows:  To enhance the dignity and performance of human beings, and the organizations they work in, by advancing the science and knowledge of human behavior.

Let me focus on the three critical concepts in that core purpose statement:  First, the dignity and performance of human beings. The dignity of people is maximized, in my view, when the following conditions are met: when people are given meaningful work, when personal accountability exists, and lastly, when people are treated respectfully by those who supervise and lead them.

What is meaningful work?  Work at any level is meaningful when people can see a direct connection between their efforts and the organization’s overall goal. And, when they are then given a sufficient level of decision-making authority and autonomy that also permits them to make meaningful mistakes. That’s the algorithm that allows people to build their self-confidence and self-esteem.  Said more colloquially, there are few things in life more honorable than an honorable day’s work…a project, a job, a career that allows for that very powerful psychological effect we’ve come to label as the “completion phenomenon.”

The second pre-condition necessary to ensure the dignity and performance of human beings is when personal accountability exists. It’s not sufficient to merely create a “nice” environment for people to work in.  High-performance environments are those that paradoxically combine respect for the individual with a profound sense of personal accountability. People have a right to be treated with respect, but they also have an obligation to contribute.  With accountability comes the sense that what a person does in their job matters.  What better way to help people build their self-respect than to hold them accountable.

And finally, supervisors and leaders need to treat people with respect in order to achieve a positive climate of dignity in organizations. And it’s really not that hard to do.  Leaders need to be committed to the civil treatment of the people around them…saying good morning when they come in each day, saying thank you, not reprimanding people in the presence of others, looking at people when they are talking to you to convey respect for their opinion. It’s stunning to me how frequently this remarkably easy concept of civility is violated in large organizations.

Let’s turn to the second key concept in my core purpose statement: enhancing organizational performance.  You might be thinking that I am using that phrase to be synonymous with an organization’s “economic profits” or earnings; well, I’m not.  I have a much broader definition in mind for organizational performance that I prefer to call “value creation.”  High-performance organizations define value creation in terms of at least three or four important constituencies: their employees, their customers, their shareholder owners, and their communities (Ulrich and Smallwood, 2003). As I-O psychologists, we need to concern ourselves with how our work, our research, and our teaching addresses value creation outcomes for all of those constituents, not just employees.

Having said that, I-O psychology does need to acknowledge that profit and financial performance are legitimate outcome measures of organizational success, even in not-for-profit enterprises.  Business and trade are uniquely social acts, comprised of human transactions that clearly fit within the domain of inquiry of a social science like I-O psychology. In fact, it is only when organizations earn a fair economic profit that jobs are created and people can ultimately support themselves and their families and have access to better educational opportunities.  And we know from the work of Nobel economists that societies that create jobs and raise the educational level of their citizens enjoy greater overall quality of life and lower domestic violence.  The science and practice of I-O psychology needs to acknowledge and include profit and financial performance in its models but then also transcend the concept of economic profit to a broader definition of “value creation” outcomes.

The third and final concept in my earlier statement of I-O psychology’s core purpose is the notion of advancing the science and knowledge of human behavior.  It is the inclusion of this phrase that I hope makes the core purpose statement rather unique to I-O psychologists. Lots of other disciplines concern themselves with the performance of people and organizations…economists, lawyers, career counselors, search executives, even those “financial” types.  But I-O psychologists are uniquely equipped to bring the science of human behavior to bear on individual and organizational performance.  Leading scholars in our field like Campbell (1978), Dunnette (1990), Guion (1988), Smith and Cranny (1968), and Tiffin and McCormick (1965) have argued eloquently over the past 65 years that the very hallmark of I-O psychology needs to be its grounding in the epistemology of scientific discovery. I strongly agree but add that in the study of human behavior insight can be just as valuable as intellect.

Science and Practice in I-O Psychology

Despite the era of scientific management in the early 20th century, I believe that the real heritage and legacy of I-O psychology as we know it today was born out of practical crisis in World War I and World War II.  It was only when countries and survival on a global scale were threatened that we really began to ask and demand that behavioral researchers help identify ways to improve selection and placement decisions, improve motivation and morale, determine vocational interests, or help in the design of plane cockpit displays.

Based on that heritage, how might we define I-O psychology? 

[Industrial] Psychology is a study of human behavior and, in general, can be considered as embracing two major facets.  In the first place, [industrial] psychology is concerned with the discovery of information relating to human behavior.  This involves research and can be considered as the scientific aspects of the field of [industrial] psychology.  The other phase is concerned with the application of information about human behavior to the various practical problems of human life. This facet can be thought of as the professional aspect of [industrial] psychology….[brackets added] 

Will you buy that definition of I-O psychology?  Two facets,…scientific research into human behavior and then the application of that research. Does that sound reasonable and relevant for what we do as industrial psychologists?  If not, don’t blame me.  That’s the introductory paragraph of Tiffin and McCormick’s text on Industrial Psychology (1965), first published in 1942, and pretty widely acknowledged as the first true I-O textbook.  Did they get it right?  I think they nailed it! 

It’s probably also worth pointing out that even 65 years ago Tiffin and McCormick were smart enough to resist the temptation to get drawn into the superficial debate about “what or who is more valuable”: science or practice, scientist or practitioner ?  There is no intelligent debate to be joined about science versus practice in I-O psychology. In fact, there is actually a crude tyranny to asking the “either…or” question. No, if there is a debate here, it should focus instead on the more constructive “both…and” question, as in, how can we as a collective profession realize the exponential effect of combining the efforts of both world class scientists and world class practitioners.  It is only where science and practice converge that I-O psychology really makes its full contribution to organizations and society. And as the global stakes of decisions become more and more magnified, the need for science and practice to complement one another in I-O psychology becomes even greater.

Leading Contributions of I-O Psychology 

Based on my core purpose statement, I’ve done a 65-year performance review of the profession of I-O psychology.  I‘ve identified my list of the six most influential contributions by I-O psychologists.  An important criterion was whether these contributions have withstood the test of time.

Let’s start with my list of the three most important contributions by I-O psychologists operating principally in research and academic careers.  On my scorecard, these three are as follows:  First, job satisfaction research and measurement; second, the literature on motivation and goal setting; and third, the psychometrics of human capability. And, the original work in these three areas was the result of thoughtful theoreticians and researchers, not because organizations were clamoring for the results of applied research.

There is little question in my mind that the early work of scientist/academicians on defining and measuring job satisfaction and job interests has been a milestone accomplishment unique to the field of I-O psychology. If one accepts that human performance and vocational choice are cognitively mediated processes, then the understanding of human affect and intention is crucial to organizational performance.

The second compelling contribution driven principally by scientist/academicians, I believe, has been in the area of human motivation and goal setting in the workplace. This body of work has had a seminal role in I-O psychology.  The basic premise is that human beings pursue goals that are cognitively mediated and that people perform best when they are allowed to participate in the establishment of those goals.

The third profound contribution most advanced by the work of I-O scientist/academicians, I believe, has been in the area of the psychometrics of human capability at work. Whether it be the measurement of intellectual capacity and skill sets, ergonomic design or job performance and criterion development, the ability to validly and reliably assess human potential has been a huge contribution.

Let me turn to the three major contributions that I believe have been principally driven by organization-based I-O practitioners.  First is the area of leadership development and leadership effectiveness.  Practitioners have been confronted and prodded by their organizations to help select, promote, and develop better leaders.  Practitioners’ work in leadership measurement and assessment centers has had a profound influence on the practices of large organizations.  In addition, it has been organizational practitioners who introduced human resource planning efforts to identify future leaders and who established corporate universities to help develop those leaders.

The second area in which I-O practitioners have led the way is in understanding the importance of team effectiveness.  While academic I-O psychologists have historically conceded research in this area to social psychologists, I-O practitioners have understood that successful organizations are comprised of successful small teams, not the monolithic movement of 50,000 people all at once. When those teams begin to break down, the organization begins to break down.

The third area where I believe I-O practitioners have led the charge is in the design of incentive and compensation systems.  Practitioners are constantly being asked to be involved in the very delicate work of building compensation systems, doing job evaluations, and designing incentive programs, sales incentives and gainsharing and profit sharing plans. As important as the earlier mentioned work on motivation and goal setting by I-O researchers has been, translating that work into how big a pay raise or how big an annual bonus a worker should receive has fallen overwhelmingly to practitioners.

Two Important “Opportunities”

No respectable assessment of our profession’s performance could be complete without identifying at least one or two areas of “opportunity.”  The first opportunity has been an obstacle not so much within the profession of I-O psychology, but within I-O psychologists themselves.  And that obstacle has been our lack of business literacy.  You might think I’m directing that concern primarily to the scientist/academician segment of our profession.  Well, I’m not.  I’m directing that criticism to all I-O psychologists—practitioners and scientists alike. At the risk of offending, I would say that the inability or unwillingness of I-O psychologists to embrace or understand business and enterprise, and perhaps a little intellectual arrogance about it, has been a severe limiter in our profession’s ability to be more influential at the leadership and board level of major organizations.

And I’m not referring to business literacy as financial literacy…being able to read a P&L or being able to calculate ratios off of a balance sheet.  Rather, as an I-O psychologist could you converse intelligently for 20 minutes with a business executive, a board member, a customer, a university president, or a state senator about your organization’s customers, your competitors, and your strategy?  And, about how you as an I-O psychologist can make your organization better?  As a profession, we simply must do a better job of influencing organizational leaders as to why they should be interested in what we know about people in organizations.  We must show them how our work influences value creation outcomes that are important to them, not just to our profession.

The second opportunity for I-O psychology as a profession lies in the area of leadership effectiveness.  As complimentary as I am about our profession’s work in the leadership area, this is the area that still represents the biggest opportunity open to I-O psychologists.  We have watched in organizations and in society the profound success that good leaders can promote, or the devastating impact that ill-intentioned leaders can have, even on a global scale. In addition, the “military model” of leadership so prevalent throughout much of the 20th century is giving way to a more participative, values-based model of leadership.  What makes a good leader?  Is the paradigm changing?  Research into intangible leadership factors like “character,” “authenticity,” and “managerial courage” would be invaluable in identifying future leaders.

In closing, go back and read what you wrote down in response to my opening question about why you chose to become an I-O psychologist. If  I’m right, you didn’t have any of the following things written down:  To publish 75 articles in scholarly journals, to get tenured, to win a Nobel prize…or, to earn a million dollars. No, if you are similar to the I-O psychologists I’ve worked with over the years, something in what you wrote included a reference to people, organizational effectiveness, or the science of human behavior. Personally, my answer to that question is grounded in those early observations about the importance of the dignity of my uncles and my dad in the steel mills.

Early in my career my boss, the CEO of our company, said in a moment of frustration and candor: “You know, Tony, running a big company would be a piece of cake if it weren’t for people. People will take the most brilliant strategy in the world and completely screw it up.”  He was being only half facetious, I think. People will either ruin the best strategy in the world, or people will breathe human energy into it.  I believe the core purpose of I-O psychology is to help people breathe human energy into organizations.  And at the heart of that core purpose is the critical, but rather simple notion of the dignity of human beings in the workplace.     

We are, by our very DNA, a profession that exists to enable people and organizations to be more productive members of society. Remember, few things in life are more honorable than an honorable day’s work. For those of us in the profession of I-O psychology, when we tap into the nature of people at work, we are tapping into something very primal, and something very intrinsic to the dignity of the human spirit. If you ask me, that’s pretty noble work.


     Campbell, J. (1978).  What are we about: An inquiry into the self-concept of industrial and organizational psychology. Presidential address presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, Division of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Toronto.
     Dunnette, M. (1990). Blending the science and practice of industrial and organizational psychology: Where are we and where are we going ?  In M.D. Dunnette & L.Hough (Eds.), Handbook of industrial and organizational psychology (2nd ed; vol.1). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.
     Guion, R. M. (1988).  Pratfalls in the march of science.  Invited address (upon award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions) presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, Atlanta, GA.
     Gunn, R. and Sherman, S. (2008). Personal communication.
     Rucci, A. J., Kirn, S. P. and Quinn, R. T. (1998). The employee-customer-profit chain at Sears.  Harvard Business Review, 76(1), 82–97.
     Smith, P. C. and Cranny, J. (1968).  Psychology of men at work.  Annual Review of Psychology, (19), 467–96.
     Tiffin, J. and McCormick, E. J. (1965).  Industrial psychology. (5th ed.) Englewood Cliffs,  NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
     Ulrich, D. and Smallwood, N. (2003). Why the bottom line ISN’T!: How to build value through people and organization.  Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.