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Bringing Education
to Life:
Creatively
Applying and
Transferring I-O

TIPTopics for Students

Thomas Sasso, 
Jessica Sorenson, 
and Grace Ewles
University of Guelph

 

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Last month a few I-O graduate students from the University of Guelph went to a local escape room. For those unfamiliar with these locations, groups pay to be locked in a room and must solve a series of riddles, clues, and tasks, usually based around a story or theme, in order to free themselves. Groups are challenged to achieve a series of difficult tasks in set timelines, engage in innovative and critical thinking about conventional items, and in turn establish informal group dynamics (for an entertaining demonstration of this type of activity please have a look at this clip from the Ellen DeGeneres show). As our group struggled through the series of required tasks, one of the authors of this column turned to another author and said, “How many I-O psychology students does it take to get out of a locked room?”

This seemingly innocuous joke sparked an epiphanous moment. Here were a group of graduate students with a range of expertise within I-O psychology, and we had failed to frame our actions in this activity with any reference to our areas of expertise or best practices in our field of study. Why hadn’t we delegated tasks based on different competencies? Where was our goal setting before we started? How come we didn’t establish a communication strategy for information sharing or a leadership system? Where was our people management and task organization?

For individuals inundated in the applied focus of our field, we didn’t recognize the opportunity to use our discipline to help us succeed in our everyday life. As professionals and students of I-O psychology, we should be excited to leverage our expertise in our lives outside of research, academia, or practical work. There should be enthusiasm around integrating our expertise into our lives to enhance our experiences and demonstrate to ourselves, and the world around us, that I-O psychology has a place in contemporary society and everyday topics. I-O psychology isn’t just an academic discipline and doesn’t only have relevance to traditional work domains. As graduate students, we should be able to pull examples from our lives to help communicate our value to those who don’t know about our field.

In this article we attempt to demonstrate that what we learn in the classroom and produce in our research has a place in our daily experiences. We turned a critical eye on our lives and have found ways that if we think about our expertise we can see I-O psychology everywhere. Rather than creating a long list of ways we have seen our field of study in the world, we use two examples to demonstrate the value of a critical I-O perspective to make the value of our degrees more apparent to those around us. Through the rest of this column we hope to demonstrate that graduate students can find ways to make I-O psychology real to our families, friends, coworkers, peers, and strangers who might otherwise struggle to understand or fully appreciate the wonderful field that is I-O psychology.

Seeing I-O in Unlikely Places

We all have our vices in life, for many of us studying psychology a particular vice or guilty pleasure is reality television. Masterchef, The Bachelorette, RuPaul’s Drag Race… we all have some program that interests us or helps us escape from our work at the end of the day. It is easy to rationalize these programs as an activity completely separate from our research or practice. What we often fail to grasp is the relevance of I-O concepts and principles within these seemingly unrelated domains. In particular, the universal nature of our discipline becomes apparent when exploring the interpersonal or team dynamics that occur when valued rewards are at stake, including money, fame, and power.

To explore the unique application of I-O psychology to reality television we can take a closer look at Survivor, one of the longest running reality shows to date. Survivor premiered in 1997 and has had 32 (mostly) successful seasons. It is a cultural phenomenon that has persisted over time, with an avid fan base and huge cultural impact. For those who are unfamiliar, individuals are placed on separate teams and compete for prizes and immunity. Teams that are unsuccessful must eliminate one member of their group from the show through an anonymous vote. As the weeks progress, numbers dwindle, power dynamics change, teams swap and merge members, and in the end there are three final contestants. The winner of Survivor, and $1,000,000.00, is determined by a final vote by the eliminated cast members for one of the final three.

Throughout the seasons of Survivor, gameplay has evolved as individuals use strategy and power to support their progression to the final three. As students and practitioners of I-O psychology there are some fundamental concepts that have become evident as successful tactics (we recognize after 32 seasons there are anecdotal exceptions to each of our points).

First, interpersonal trust is a key component to success in the game. Although all players require a healthy dose of scepticism towards their tribe members and fellow contestants (lest they be blindsided in a vote), alliances can only advance in the game when there is some trust and commitment built between contestants. Individuals who have not built at least a few trusting relationships seldom make it far in the game. Similarly, unlikeable and untrustworthy contestants are quick to be eliminated as they create divisive team dynamics.

Survivor is a ripe example to observe the outcomes of different leadership types among different interpersonal groups. The authoritative leader is often voted out of the game early when they have abused their power. There are also a number of examples of the glass cliff in which women and racial minorities on the show have taken more leadership roles during precarious moments in a season, or to spearhead a major shift, only to experience the backlash of the tribe when failure occurs. We could write a whole article on the gender roles and gender norms that Survivor perpetuates and how these parallel complexities of gender diversity in the workforce.

As tribes are split apart, merged, and members are removed from the game we are able to witness examples of group cohesion, interpersonal conflict, communication styles, and influence strategies/impression management. There is perhaps no better example of impression management than observing a tribal council and seeing contestants reframe experiences to convince others to keep them in the game.

Finally, as we watch Survivor, we can use our I-O perspectives to examine and critically think about performance. Survivor demonstrates much of what we know about performance. Physical and mental exhaustion are a detriment to performance. Psychological burnout can make you do foolish things. There are ranges of competencies that support individual success and not all skills and abilities can be trained or learned quickly (e.g., verbally guiding blindfolded team members through an obstacle course).

We can examine both industrial and organizational principles in each aspect of Survivor, from how performance is measured and assessed to the interpersonal dynamics that occur within teams. Within this domain, it is not necessarily the best performer; rather, it is the performer who knows how to best use their skills and expertise to support long-term success. Until an I-O expert competes on Survivor, we can only speculate on how our skills and expertise would translate into practice... and potentially a million dollars.

Using popular culture references or ongoing social topics (similar to the column in the last edition of TIP about I-O and elections) can be a great way to teach a lay audience about what we do in I-O. A general audience might not be able to readily understand the complexities of minority stress, resources and demands, impression management, or functional job analysis. But if we can parallel our learnings as graduate students in this field to contemporary topics we just might be able to showcase why what we do is relevant.

The Value of Word of Mouth

Recently, one of our TIP columnists was talking to someone about I-O. For the purposes of this column, we will refer to this person as Sam. Thanks to previous conversations, Sam understood what I-O psychology is and was aware of the specific areas where the columnist has expertise, including training development.

In Sam’s current job the company’s engagement survey revealed an issue with their training structure, and Sam had been asked to engage in part of the discussion on what to do about this issue. Through this discussion Sam noted a few things and thought the columnist might be able to provide some insight into the approach to organizational training design. Specifically, Sam wondered where the best place to start would be and what information the organization would need to gather. The organization had already discussed gathering information on all current training efforts, but Sam noted that collecting job descriptions might help guide them in establishing where there are gaps in current training efforts. The columnist was able to provide Sam comfort, reassuring them that both ideas were good first steps. Additionally, the columnist provided further guidance on what other information could be gathered, including performance measures, a job analysis to more accurately determine the requirements for each job, and a needs assessment to determine the current effectiveness of current training efforts. Sam was also intrigued to hear that someone could take on this type of endeavour internally, such as creating a position in charge of training and development, or contracted out to a consulting firm.

Although Sam lacks the organizational power to initiate a hiring process or contract out work, the columnist was able to provide further insight and reassure Sam’s hunch about gathering job description information. By engaging in this conversation the columnist was able to provide an outside individual with a greater understanding of I-O, which may give them the confidence they need to further inform and educate others about their organizational issue. Often, such informal conversations are taken for granted, but these connections provide an opportunity to engage others in I-O concepts, help disseminate findings and expertise, and promote a positive reputation for our field. This is a good reminder that there are many opportunities for us to engage with fellow experts, businesses, and the general public in a positive way through informal channels.

Conclusion

As a field, we tend to isolate the application of I-O concepts to traditionally defined academic and practical settings. However, by doing so we limit the applicability of our field and minimize public awareness of our areas of expertise. By bringing our education to life in these unlikely places, we broaden our perspective and highlight the universal nature of our field. Through informal conversations we can transfer our knowledge and understanding to others and increase the public awareness of our field. By applying I-O concepts in common examples we broaden our understanding, deepen our own knowledge, and gather impactful cases for teaching others (and potentially win a million dollars).

For our next TIP column, we hope to inspire readers further by examining the development of soft, transferable skills through various service activities, such as sitting on a board of directors, volunteering with interest groups and professional associations, unions, or in other governance bodies on and off campus. As service often gets overlooked within graduate education, we hope to provide recognition to those engaging in service, show how service is beneficial to the development of graduate students, and encourage others to serve.

As always, feel free to send any questions, comments/suggestions to jsorenso@uoguelph.ca and/or engage with any of the columnists over Twitter (@JessPSYC; @grace_ewles; @t_sasso).