Jenny Baker
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The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice

Tara Myers, American Nurses Credentialing Center

 “The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice” is a TIP column that seeks to help facilitate additional learning and knowledge transfer to encourage sound, evidence-based practice. It can provide academics with an opportunity to discuss the potential and/or realized practical implications of their research as well as learn about cutting-edge practice issues or questions that could inform new research programs or studies. For practitioners, it provides opportunities to learn about the latest research findings that could prompt new techniques, solutions, or services that would benefit the external client community. It also provides practitioners with an opportunity to highlight key practice issues, challenges, trends, and so forth that may benefit from additional research. In this issue, SIOP member Joseph A. Jones delves into the recent perceived threats to I-O psychology and the sense of languish many in the field currently feel, recommending a focus on our impact as an effective path forward.

 

It’s Time to Focus on Impact, Not on Existence

Joseph Andrew Jones

Joseph Andrew Jones, PhD is a senior advisor for Planning and Performance Analysis in the Community, State, and National Affairs department at AARP. In this role, he helps AARP leaders develop strategy, measure group performance, and build and test consumer innovations. Prior to AARP, he was director of Research Insights and Applications for the Society for Human Resource Management, and he has held positions in talent management, consulting, and research for a number of small and large companies over the past 20 years, including American Institutes for Research, PDRI, Booz Allen Hamilton, DDI, and SRI International. In addition to presenting professionally on multiple topics, he has published work in the Talent Management Handbook, the Cambridge Handbook on Community Engagement and Outreach, and Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice. As a consultant, he served clients such as the DoD, GM, BP Solar, Merck, the PGA, and the Washington Area Metropolitan Authority. He has a PhD in I-O psychology and lives in Alexandria, Virginia. The opinions shared by Dr. Jones in this article are his own and may not reflect those of AARP.

The Existentialist Dilemma

I-O psychology seems to be having a profession mid-life crisis of sorts.

In 2017, Ones et al. (2017) wrote a thought-provoking article asking us to consider whether I-O psychology was “losing its way.” Things were happening within the field that made us wonder: What is happening to I-O and what does the future hold? These included an overemphasis on theory, fixation on “trivial” micromethodological issues, lack of innovation, ignoring practical issues while obsessing on publication, and distraction by fads and the loss of “real-world influence” to others. We appeared at serious risk as a profession, with threats from both inside and outside the ranks. 

Not too long after, Rotolo et al. (2018) implored our profession and other practitioners to “clean up our act” around talent management. They coined the term anti-industrial-organizational psychology (AIO) to reflect the use of talent management that possibly contradicted our theory and research in ways that have “significant potential to damage the field of I-O psychology and potentially undo all of the positive efforts and outcomes associated with our work over the last 60 odd years.” Although they recognized the value of some scientifically and theoretically sound (i.e., derived from I-O psychology) talent management, they took issue with the use of simplistic, trendy, and “quick hit” approaches, which appeared more about scoring points with organizational leaders than with driving real change. Although the article may have fallen short in balancing our response to threats with our response to the needs of employers and employees (see Jones et al., 2018), it effectively called out the impact poor practice can have on our field. 

Two years ago, Landers (2019) described some of the existential threats to I-O brought on by rapid changes in technology. He warned we were “poised to plunge headfirst into our own obsolescence” because of journal editors insisting on only publishing works on novel theories, I-Os treating technology as “stimuli and not complex phenomena,” I-O researchers viewing technology as a psychological construct, poor I-O education in technology, and the ease with which I-Os ignore these issues instead of working to correct them. He then provided a series of helpful tips on how we can manage these threats. 

There appears to be a theme here: We are threatened as a profession and are not adapting as a field quickly enough, while maintaining the fundamental principles that make us who we are. I-Os have been hinting at these existential threats for years through essays such as the several called to light by Landers, going as far back as Highhouse and Zickar in 1997. Much of this current sense of impending doom for the I-O profession (and professions in general) was foreshadowed in 2015 when Richard and Daniel Susskind (2015) published The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts. They suggested that most professions were heading toward their eventual obsolescence, to be replaced by technology or other professions. But even this bellwether book could not truly predict where our specific profession, or even the world in general, would be in 2020. So here we are again.

The existential dilemma is that we feel threatened as a profession, but this threat seems like a fuzzy, moving enemy on the horizon that changes form as soon as we build our defenses. So that makes us feel even more at risk. 

It’s time we stopped. Change is inevitable, but the foundation and impact of I-O psychology holds firm. Whether we are still called I-O psychology and whether it’s a clearly defined profession or field, with defined borders, is irrelevant. What is relevant is the impact of our work.

Change and the Everyday Life of an I-O

And the very texture, or colour, or taste of the collective awareness in which they were experienced—the worlds to which they have belonged—have faded, diluted by the changes that have ultimately given birth to the world that surrounds the present moment, with the light shining on the screen where this sentence is advancing towards its full stop. (Raymond Tallis, Of Time and Lamentation, 2017)

 

The world has changed so much in the past (insert time period here). There is always something new that we need to learn, that we need to master. Something that has happened in society, a new technology, some new way to look at data. Some new book, new “influencer,” new model. It’s as though the minute we think we are caught up, something new pops up on our LinkedIn feeds. 

If we embrace this change, though, and combine lessons learned from technology with our I-O basics, our impact will be immense. Recent TIP articles from Poeppelman and Sinar (2018) and Adams et al. (2021) provide helpful tips in this direction. No doubt, in the time since Bruce Moore took the reins of a small group of professionals banding together for support, sharing, and resources, I-O psychology has gone through many transitions. For example, 30 years ago, a wood block test of spatial visualization may have seemed cutting edge for the field. Still, we remained, because we found ways to adapt. 

For most I-O psychologists, all of this change, as overwhelming as it may seem, as much as it raises our anxiety, has primarily enriched our work. We have better tools to visualize data, more ways to capture the data, and more ways to connect quickly with each other to share our thoughts and our conclusions. Not least importantly, we have opened our borders in a way that allows us to connect with, learn from, collaborate with, and build a better workplace and world with a broader group of non-I-Os around the world than ever before. Thus, as with other fields, we stand on our foundation and use the new tools to evolve our approach to the work. 

Back to the Basics or Building New Basics?

To move beyond our existentialist dilemma, the first thing we need to do is decide to what extent we stick to our basic principles and whether we believe that changes nullify I-O psychology. That is, what kind and degree of change would make I-O obsolete?

Even with all of the change, there are basic principles in I-O psychology as a scientific discipline that remain:

  • knowing that the best way to measure behavior is to observe it, but that there are things we can’t observe directly and need to infer
  • validating the inferences we make
  • maintaining a deep passion for understanding, predicting, and helping influence individuals’ cognitive and behavioral traits as they relate to work
  • seeking reliability but recognizing there is always error in our ability to predict behavior
  • doing what we do because we want to make the world of work better

These basic principles are the same for anyone who studies and practices the work that we do. Whether you are a researcher working on a grant to study small team behavior or a practitioner running a strategy session with sales leaders in a Fortune 500 company, these principles apply. The key is what we do with the principles and how we continue to develop them. 

Typically, when work changes, I-O psychologists begin to study and refine what it means, work to better understand it, and take the lead in predicting the associated behavior. Businesses, though, want to predict the future of work (i.e., the changes) to reduce risk, save money, and get a competitive advantage. Perhaps it would be good for I-O psychologists to be more in front of this cycle. We know that prediction can be flawed, but we have a lot to offer in getting ahead of turbulent times. 

So, stick to the basics or create new basics? The answer, it seems, is a bit of both. I-O psychologists need to get out of our comfort zones and adapt, yet each of us needs to find that core that allows us to add value and enjoy our work, and the responsibility falls to both the science and practice of I-O. 

The Many Paths of the I-O Future

“When I pronounce the word Future the first syllable already belongs to the past.” Szymborska, The Three Oddest Words, 1996.

So, what does I-O psychology need to do to keep pace while keeping its roots?

Many of us fear that our careers as I-Os are faltering because we feel that we have not kept pace. Yet when we look around us, most other professionals seem just as lost. Adam Grant (2021) recently wrote about this space we are in right now as humans, somewhere between depression and happiness, that is best called “languishing.” Many I-Os might argue that we, as a profession, are languishing. We aren’t in a state of despair, but we are also not happy about where we stand.

Still, there is hope. It’s just not in the form you might think.

Let’s stop thinking of I-O psychology as one thing. I-O psychologists come in many different forms. Pinning I-O down to one “type” is problematic. Even pinning down to two, the “academic” and the “practitioner,” has its problems. “Profession” is a continuum, and it has very thin borders (Caza & Creary, 2016). That is okay, and in today’s business world, that may be true with many professions.

Despite our suffixes and prefixes and academic credentials splashed across resumes and bios, when others outside of I-O look at many of us (without any indicator of our having studied under the such-and-such renowned psychologist and produced dissertations on topics such as Differential Functioning of Items and Tests) they would probably tag us as marketers, strategists, data scientists, product launch specialist, researchers, HR experts, or a plethora of other “titles.” Not “I-O psychologist.” Any one of those titles could be and likely are true. We should be comfortable with that.

Success in any of these roles, and in I-O, requires an understanding of and training in a variety of areas and a view of the broader context and system that our work resides within and impacts. It’s a lot to follow, but it is fascinating.

Let’s continue to collaborate across fields instead of building barriers. We are not alone. We know that others are struggling as well, and that is the beauty of the “organizational” side of our field of study. We don’t need to know it all, and do it all, as it constantly changes around us. We have others who can help.

Let’s embrace the new world order. Innovation is a critical way for companies to compete (Lengnick-Hall, 1992). If nothing else, businesses must change to meet the changing needs of consumers. I-O psychologists need to understand how they, as individuals, play a key role. We need to have a firm grasp of innovation and change and the interaction between people, technology, and change, not only for our own work but to support those we serve.

This doesn’t mean understanding every technology that pops up. It means understanding what change and new technology means psychologically. A logical step is to learn about technology relevant to the field and to our specific work. Of course, we can’t know it all. But we need to be confident we can apply what we learn in concert with our basics to make a real difference. This will take intentional effort to meld science and practice.  

Let’s step back and focus on the good we do for the world. Rather than worrying about job titles and professional affiliations, take a step back and really focus on the impact of our work. There is much we can learn from mindfulness practices and reduced fixations on self-identity to help us during this state of professional anxiety. Let’s stay centered on “who are we helping?” and “how are we impacting the lives around us in positive ways?”, rather than “who are we?”

Then maybe we can concentrate on the work, quit languishing, and let all the other noise go.

References

Adams, K., Myers, T., & Zajac, S. (2021, March 25). The Bridge: Surviving and thriving in uncertain times: Transforming to meet future needs. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 58(4). https://www.siop.org/Research-Publications/Items-of-Interest/ArtMID/19366/ArticleID/5037/preview/true/The-Bridge-Surviving-and-Thriving-in-Uncertain-Times-Transforming-to-Meet-Future-Needs

Caza, B. B., & Creary, S. (2016). The construction of professional identity. In A. Wilkinson, D. Hislop, & C. Coupland (Eds.), Perspectives on contemporary professional work (pp. 259–285). Edward Elgar Publishing.

Grant, A. (2021, April 19). There’s a name for the blah you’re feeling: It’s called languishing. New York Timeshttps://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/well/mind/covid-mental-health-languishing.html

Highhouse, S., & Zickar, M. J. (1997). Where has all the psychology gone? The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist35(2), 82–88.

Jones, J. A., Miller, A. A., Sarette, M. J., Johnson-Murray, R. M., & Alonso, A. (2018). Critical reflection or existential trap: Are we making too much of scientific rigor in a dynamic business world? Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 11(2), 262–266.

Landers, R. (2019). The existential threats to I-O psychology highlighted by rapid technological change. In R. Landers (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of technology and employee behavior (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology, pp. 3–21). Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108649636.002

Lengnick-Hall, C. A. (1992). Innovation and competitive advantage: What we know and what we need to learn. Journal of Management, 18(2), 399–429.

Ones, D. S., Kaiser, R. B., Chamorro-Premuzic, T., & Svensson, C. (2017). Has industrial-organizational psychology lost its way? The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 7(2), 136. http://www.siop.org/Research-Publications/ Items-of-Interest/ArtMID/19366/ArticleID/1550/Has-Industrial-Organizational-Psychology-Lost-Its-Way

Poeppelman, T., & Sinar, E. (2018, September 28). Modern App: Digital megatrends 2018: What they are, how to act. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 56(2). https://www.siop.org/Research-Publications/TIP/TIP-Back-Issues/2018/October/ArtMID/20676/ArticleID/1348/Modern-App-Digital-Megatrends-2018-What-They-Are-How-to-Act

Rotolo, C. T., Church, A. H., Adler, S., Smither, J. W., Colquitt, A. L., Shull, A. C., Paul, K. B., & Foster, G. (2018). Putting an end to bad talent management: A call to action for the field of industrial and organizational psychology. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 11(2), 176–219. https://doi.org/10.1017/iop.2018.6

Susskind, R. E., & Susskind, D. (2015). The future of the professions: How technology will transform the work of human experts. Oxford University Press.

Szymborska, W. (1996). The three oddest words. New York Times Magazine, 1.

Tallis, R. (2017). Of time and lamentation: Reflections on transience. Agenda Publishing.

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