Jenny Baker
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On Not Identifying (Too Much) With Management

George M. Alliger, Consulting Work Psychologist

“SIOP” is a rather awkward acronym for our professional organization, and although now and then we discuss how it might be updated, we’ve stuck with it so far. And one of the good things about the name is that none of the letters stand for “Management.” It thus correctly conveys, or at least allows for, the idea that as psychologists we act with some independence, whether from within or without the organizations that we help.

The tension between being hired and tasked by management, on the one hand, and trying to pursue science and secure good outcomes for all employees, on the other, is perennial. It has existed in its complete form since the beginnings of our field. There are clear evidences that the earliest influencers in I-O were fully aware of it.

On the industrial side, there is Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856–1915). He began his career as a machine shop laborer and ever after averred that he could identify with the workers whose jobs he made more efficient. Nonetheless he could be defensive when questioned about the degree of his support for labor. A. J. Portenar, printer and typesetter unionist, after meeting Taylor and reading his Principles of Scientific Management, corresponded with him in 1914. He maintained to Taylor that “You desire the greatest possible production at the lowest possible cost with the greatest possible dividend, and the benefits that may flow to the working people are merely incidental” (Copley, 1923, p. 237). Taylor wrote back:

I realize (as you do not seem to realize) that it is utterly impossible to get the maximum prosperity for workmen unless their employers and the owners of the establishments in which they work, cooperate in the most hearty way to bring about this end… Therefore in all of my writings and in everything I say I must emphasize the gain which comes to the manufacturers quite as much as the gain which comes to the workmen, otherwise it would be impossible to get the manufacturers to cooperate. (Copley, 1923, p. 238)

Or consider Hugo Münsterberg (1863–1916), who was trained in the German school of scientific psychology and recruited to Harvard by William James. In his laboratory, he tackled such tasks as designing and running a simulation to select the best trolley car operators (as described in his book Psychology and Industrial Efficiency). But he too felt it necessary to make clear his independence from those contracting with him for his work. The psychologist studying work-related questions is “partisan neither of the salesman nor of the customer, neither of the capitalist nor of the laborer, he is neither Socialist nor anti-Socialist, neither high-tariff man nor free-trader” (Münsterberg, 1913, p. 30).

Without doubt most of us endorse and work toward gaining and maintaining this balance. It is easy when we are asked, say, to develop a system that appears clearly beneficial to all workers (say job rotation or safety training). It is harder when there is some pressure to arrive at certain results or to participate in an initiative that is not obviously for the good of all.

One example of the latter would be if we are asked to develop a job metrics and rewards system that seems actually inimical to the job (cf., Petre, 2021). Or, as a kind of archetypal example of when this latent tension for a psychologist may become acutely manifest, consider being employed by a company actively attempting to avoid unionization. We study the nature and value of teams, identity, resilience, and autonomy. It is possible that union membership may provide an employee some of the benefits of each of these, allowing a kind of healthy, lean emotional relationship with her employer, in addition of course to concrete working-condition protections. So then the question may arise of the degree to which we would permit ourselves to be aligned with our company’s anti-union position, especially in the light of SIOP’s endorsement of such ethical principles as “Beneficence and Nonmaleficence” (APA General Principle A).

SIOP’s Committee for the Advancement of Professional Ethics (CAPE) provides useful training in the kinds of potential conflicts illustrated in the paragraph above. My point here is only to remind us of one of the roots of these conflicts—an ur-tension, there from the birth of the field.

Few if any I-O psychologists will be truly “anti-work”—that is, seeing work as bad in and of itself and all management as essentially exploitative (Alliger, 2022). But, although management will usually be the ones hiring us, and although some of us will even become managers ourselves, we still need to retain what might be called “professional distance” from management. Our levers are few and mostly based in expert power. But expertise carefully and confidently employed can sometimes make a difference in how and to what degree organizations can maximize the well-being of their employees. We don’t want, I think, to have as our lodestar the bottom line of the organizations we support, with whatever benefits come to its employees from our work being “merely incidental,” as A. J. Portenar charged.

References

Alliger, G. (2022). Anti-work: Psychological investigations into its truths, problems, and solutions. Routledge.

Copley, F. B. (1923). Frederick W. Taylor: Father of scientific management.  Taylor Society.

Münsterberg, H. (1913). Psychology and industrial efficiency. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Petre, C. (2021). All the news that’s fit to click: How metrics are transforming the work of journalists. Princeton University Press.

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