Jenny Baker
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Approaches to Prosocial I-O Psychology Work: Joshua Caraballo

Nicole Alonso, University of Houston

As part of the SIOP Prosocial Subcommittee’s ongoing efforts to spread awareness of prosocial I-O psychology, we interviewed Joshua Caraballo, an I-O psychologist doing prosocial work. Joshua earned his doctorate in psychology with an emphasis on business and consultative psychological methods at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. He has worked with nonprofits for over a decade and as a Research and Evaluation professional for more than 5 years. He currently works with MindSpark as a senior director of Impact. Joshua has a particular interest in the use of social-psychological, mass media research designs and their subsequent models for human change. These models drive betterment at the individual, group, and societal levels both in and out of the workplace.

Joshua’s career provides one example of how I-O psychologists can pursue prosocial work, and as such, his story offers several pieces of advice on how to become involved in prosocial work as an I-O psychologist. The following narrative outlines his career journey.

When Joshua was earning his doctorate, he expected to become a data scientist at a major consulting firm. His career had already seemingly pivoted from his initial degrees in the performance arts: an undergraduate degree in performance acting and a master’s in motion picture producing. At the outset, it appeared as though he would need to sacrifice one passion for another.

To Joshua’s dismay, once he graduated with his doctorate, he found himself doing work that felt nothing like the traditional I-O psychology roles he had learned about in graduate school. He found himself even further from the expectations he had for his life. He worried that he was not making the best use of his training because he was not working in the capacity he initially expected to be: “I thought, well, maybe it’s not really I-O, right? I started to question, like, why did I go through this entire process of gaining an I-O doctorate if I’m not truly ‘putting it into work?’” As a member on a board of directors, or a manager, or director, he did not find himself doing much in terms of data science. He was not using big data and quantitative science to solve business issues.

However, Joshua realized that he was using I-O psychology regularly, just not in the way he expected. “I think that sort of thing is what a lot of us as professionals go through,” he said, “where we feel like we have the imposter syndrome. And in reality…we are using I-O. We’re using it every single day…I’m still using all the things I learned in my doctorate.”

For example, in Joshua’s work with the Children’s Services Council of Broward County, his I-O psychology training allowed him to understand the context of and to evaluate the validity of protective factors to defend against child abuse and neglect. Joshua realized that it is his skills and approaches to problems that make him an I-O psychologist, not the number of quantitative journal publications he does per year. “Not that there’s anything wrong with an I-O psychologist doing primary research and big data as their career focus,” he explained, “as this is sorely needed. However, I started to realize that my career trajectory would be different and acknowledging this was a big step in finding my path.”

More importantly, Joshua knew that the work he did in the nonprofit sector improved lives. In Joshua’s own words, he feels he was “put on this earth to assist others.” This alignment between Joshua’s purpose and work became indispensable to his career.

For Joshua, the knowledge that his unique expertise as a psychologist is being used in the service of others is the connecting theme that motivates him, especially during tough times. Over Joshua’s decade-long tenure in the nonprofit sector, tough times came in many different forms, from the international pandemic to within-organization resistance.

Resistance from organizational leaders was a frequent challenge he faced. In many of his past roles, Joshua would need to help organizations internalize the value of data-based initiatives and of supporting difficult-to-quantify assets, such as soft skills. Although organizational leaders would easily align with efforts regarding monetary or other tangible outcomes, convincing executives of the value of abstract outcomes, such as psychological safety, was more difficult.

Because of Joshua’s commitment to helping others, he was able to persevere through obstacles and build an effective approach to helping organizations through their hesitancy. Joshua’s approach to resistant companies can be characterized by the phrase “listen and learn.” In his experience, the best method for aiding hesitant clients is by listening to their perception of the issue and helping them figure out the best approach for their situation. He did not find that any one particular model or technique from the literature sufficed in all situations.

He said, “Learning and development, as we know for adults, anyway, is about allowing them to figure out what they want, what’s most important to them.” After all, said Joshua, there may be factors the consultant is not aware of but the client is. For this reason, approaches that are generally effective may not be the most appropriate in a particular organization. For this reason, ongoing professional growth, openness to change, malleability, and authentic conversations are some of the most valuable skills Joshua has accumulated over the years.

Joshua said that the experiences he had working through organizational resistance were valuable opportunities to learn how to approach issues from a compassionate standpoint. They were also opportunities for Joshua to use what he had learned from his earlier performance arts degrees. Joshua said that although some people do not see them this way, the performance arts are about psychology as well because they are about the human condition and understanding people’s stories.

Joshua found that he could use his passion for the performing arts in his work as an I-O psychologist; he did not need to sacrifice one passion for another. “The reality is that all humans learn and grow through stories.” He said, “Those that are most profound in our lifetimes become the impetus for mirroring decisions and behaviors that help make the human condition better.” Joshua continued: “This, in my opinion, is the essence of what all business interactions and services should begin with. With that in mind, storytelling becomes more than just an art form or something nice to have; it becomes a vital aspect and core competency of what it means to be successful in your chosen industry.” Joshua’s focus on transformative human stories helped center him throughout his career, and his goal of helping others acted as his purpose.

Joshua believes that finding one’s purpose, as he did, and then continually aligning one’s life with that purpose are the keys to thriving. Regarding his life’s purpose, he remarked, “I’ve answered that question for myself, and so now the challenge becomes integrating that into everything I do.” According to Joshua, everyone should understand what makes them happy and engaged at work and beyond. He learned that he could use his skills to aid in the betterment of others. Joshua also learned how to implement his other talents in his work. His work with his current organization, MindSpark, is a great example of this.

MindSpark is a nonprofit provider of professional learning and development programs. Their programs focus on equity building, real-world problem solving, workforce literacy, innovation, and social emotional intelligence, among other goals (mindspark.org/programs). Although not their only area of interest, MindSpark focuses on programs for K through 12 professionals.

A unique aspect of the programs provided by MindSpark, according to Joshua, is that they focus on the human condition; they implement transformative and disruptive practices that utilize concepts like hope to strengthen empathy, resilience, and problem solving. These disruptive practices work through using models of change that are tailored to each engagement and through telling compelling stories.

According to Joshua, stories provide a common framework by which people structure information. Content creators can capitalize on these familiar story structures to create moving narratives with likable characters that model positive change. He said, “We must begin with the conventions that are already in place to set the tone for consistency and perceived stability.” This common ground with the audience allows a rapport to be built that engages them in the narrative. Joshua said that such a narrative “has the potential to change their worldview and inspire change.”

Stories are powerful. Joshua said, “The things that motivate us, move us, and inform us day to day are really human stories.” MindSpark’s emphasis on storytelling aligns closely with Joshua’s interests—in particular, his passion for the performing arts. So, MindSpark allows him to apply both his skills in psychology and his skills in storytelling to his life’s aim of improving the human condition. A key part of aligning one’s life with one’s purpose, as shown by Joshua’s work with MindSpark, is finding an organization with which one shares values. Joshua spent his early career years discovering his own interests and values through various positions. He realized that in addition to his passions for storytelling and improving the human condition, he had a passion for excellence and beauty—the elements that foster a sense of awe and wonderment in him for the world.

According to Joshua, excellence and beauty also involve storytelling. He said, “These values relate to some of the key elements of storytelling, such as the journeys of historical figures who have come from humble beginnings and go on to do some amazing, awe-inspiring things that benefit society.” With such journeys as inspiration, he said that people can “turn those stories into our own reality, since each of us has the capacity to do great things in life.”

In his current work at MindSpark, Joshua can implement these strengths daily because MindSpark also believes in high society-level goals, such as increasing equity and harnessing the power of personal and collective well-being. MindSpark, according to Joshua, truly believes in the power of education to transform human beings. MindSpark provides him with an avenue to use his strengths to realize his ideals.

Joshua also learned through his experiences that his preference was for nonprofit organizations. Although Joshua emphasized that prosocial work was still possible in for-profit companies, he said nonprofit work provides a greater opportunity to focus on prosocial outcomes because monetary gain is not a competing motivator. “The for-profit choice doesn’t really negate you being able to help people, but obviously when you’re working for a nonprofit it’s a given,” Joshua said. “The mission and the vision you decide to align yourself with puts you, in my opinion, in a much greater position to see the fulfillment of your work.”

Joshua said another characteristic generally unique to nonprofit work is the opportunity to observe the positive impact the application of I-O psychology can have on people’s lives. This is possible because the nature of nonprofit work directly involves psychologists in efforts to better society. For instance, he said that MindSpark cultivates a culture of disruption and growth that permeates all they do. This culture results in high satisfaction in their services; an overwhelming majority of survey respondents count MindSpark’s programs among the best learning experiences in their lifetimes. Joshua said, “That alone is inspiring and motivational, but not enough for us to ever rest or become complacent. We want to continue this pattern well into the future, remaining relevant and truly transformative in all we do.”

Today, Joshua thoroughly vets companies for alignment with his values before he considers working with them. To him, there may be no more important standard by which to evaluate organizations. Aligning one’s daily life with one’s values is to Joshua “how you validate who you are. When you don’t get to see parts of yourself in your everyday life, that’s when you feel lost.” People who cannot see their purpose reflected in their actions and environment lose touch with that purpose. Joshua said the opportunity to work in a company that allows him to pursue his dearest values is the “opportunity to live and thrive every single day.”

One specific behavior that Joshua values in the organizations he has chosen is the ability to make real efforts toward social change. Rather than just “checking a box,” initiatives are incorporated into the day-to-day activities of the organization. For instance, rather than simply providing equity training, a good prosocial organization will make equity “embedded in everyday interactions with people. It has to be interwoven into the work that we do.” Joshua said, “That’s what the best nonprofits understand and do every day.”

Another example of how this is done comes from an organization for which Joshua serves as a member on the board of directors: National Voices for Equality Education and Enlightenment. For over 12 years, NVEEE (https://www.nveee.org) has elucidated the need for assisting school-aged youth in preventative measures to ensure the reduction of bullying behaviors, suicidal ideation, and other youth crises. Similar to how MindSpark works, these organizations take the time to put actions behind their words, leaning into the difficulties and gritty details inherent with doing this sort of work.

Joshua also adopts the values of his organizations. Alignment goes both ways. In regard to MindSpark, he said, “They truly believe that education is a conduit for social change, for pretty much any of the major issues that we’re going through as a society, as human beings.” Joshua recognized the truth in MindSpark’s beliefs from his own experiences. He had an influential teacher that impacted his own development, named Mrs. Ayers, and recognized that his education had been transformational in his own life. “Mrs. Ayers was pivotal in helping me solidify my understanding of being a lifelong learner and visual artist.” Joshua said, “Mrs. Ayers had a strategic understanding of how to mold and structure a young, high-school-aged man at a time when I was not thinking much about my future. She constantly challenged me but did it in a loving way. I’ll never forget how she inspired me to always become better, and that is something I hope to do for others as well.”

“By utilizing such a powerful force, like education, the sky’s the limit,” Joshua said, “because you can do anything with education. It has changed my life, made me a better person, and I will do anything I can to give back to this industry, because we cannot allow education to fail our children. Yet, this is exactly what is currently happening.”

Although Joshua began his career by exploring and pursuing various positions, he eventually determined what his personal aims were and aligned his work and life to those aims. Joshua has spent his career developing his passion for helping others and learning how to apply his unique skills to make changes happen. This is what defines him as a prosocial I-O psychologist. He applies what he learned in his I-O psychology training to make positive social change.

Joshua’s journey toward being an effective prosocial I-O psychologist is informative for others interested in getting involved in prosocial I-O. The first lesson Joshua learned that he recommends to I-O professionals early on in their careers is to take jobs that do not appear immediately relevant to their chosen career path. Instead of trying to specialize early on, professionals can allow themselves to explore different areas of work and different interests. “I think it’s really important to take the time that’s needed instead of jumping into a relationship, so to speak, and making sure that this is something you want to do long term.”

Joshua said finding work that fits your heart is “sometimes as simple as allowing life to take place. You know, some of that mindfulness to accept what’s given to you and to be able to utilize all the tools and knowledge that you’ve gained throughout your life and to be able to apply it to what is handed to you, instead of trying to make it fit some notion of what you think it should be.” So, for those entering the area of prosocial I-O psychology who are uncertain of the best job for them, that is his advice: Keep an open mind.

Allowing oneself to explore various jobs is indispensable, according to Joshua, because it leads to discovering one’s true values and work that allows the pursuit of them. This is the second lesson: Working toward one’s values creates endurance in the face of hardship. Obstacles that would cause a less motivated person to quit can be weathered when doing something for the passion of it. “If you don’t have a through line that’s really connecting you to the work, then it’s going to be very easy when these little clouds, if you will, come over you to be swept away in the madness of it.” Joshua said, “You won’t be able to bounce back so quickly.”

These two lessons lead into the grand overarching message from Joshua; one of the best ways to live a successful life is to live one’s inner convictions every day, and incorporate these into one’s activities, both in and out of the workplace. Finding and pursuing those values are the most important steps in one’s career. A core component of this approach is working for organizations that support one’s values.

Aligning one’s work with one’s values is a journey, though, and sometimes a struggle. However, Joshua believes that the time and effort is worth the reward of living a meaningful life. “You’re doing something that is so important for your life...and if it doesn’t happen immediately, do not lose hope.” Joshua said, “Just keep trying and eventually you will find that thing.” Joshua’s story demonstrates how when people follow their hearts and stay true to their morals, they can reach their full potential.

“We spend our entire lives trying to find something that we can align ourselves to and that we can be passionate about every single day. To find that, it’s almost like finding your significant other. It’s rare, but it happens, and it’s out there if you’re willing to find it.”

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