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Six Career Lessons From Two Completely Adequate I-O Psychologists

Thomas A. Stetz and Todd L. Chmielewski

 

 

 

 

 

Six Career Lessons From Two Completely Adequate I-O Psychologists

 

 

Thomas A. Stetz

Hawaii Pacific University

 

Todd L. Chmielewski

Saint Thomas University

 

 

In nearly every issue of The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist(TIP) there are interviews and articles about the well-known and highly successful in our field. Aguinis and O’Boyle (2014) refer to them as “star performers.” These star performers offer wise career advice and amaze us with astute observations. Let’s be honest, though. What worked for them is unlikely to work for us mere mortals. TIPmay continue to focus on advice from and for the “best,” but this article offers a brief respite giving real advice for the “rest” (O’Boyle & Aguinis, 2012).

For far too long, the completely adequate have been ignored by TIP. We are the cogs in I-O industrial complex. No, we didn’t invent Donkey Kong, Mario Brothers, and Legend of Zelda like Aguinis and O’Boyle’s (2014) star performer Shigeru Miyamoto. We didn’t develop meta-analysis or the Likert scale. We are the unheralded who day in and day out do our job. But, our leaders now proclaim just doing your job isn’t good enough any longer. What we don’t understand is if we are required to do something other than our job, doesn’t it then become part of our jobs?  Regardless of that issue, this article isn’t for the stars or the superiors, it is for, well we guess, the proud posteriors of our chosen field. In this article we proudly represent those posteriors to the best of our adequate abilities. Unlike Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average, we all can’t be in the long right-side, heavy tail of performance. Rather, the vast majority of us are in the stacked up bunch on the left side.

You may ask yourself, “What makes these two unknowns qualified to represent me?” For one, we have a long track record of mediocre results in all aspects of our lives to back up our claim of adequisivity.1Just to be sure, though, we checked with our wives, both I-O psychologists, who confirmed that there is absolutely nothing special about us. With this, we feel we are up to the task at hand.

Below we humbly offer lessons based on our passable careers that may help you as well. The first lesson involves a mutual coworker we had. The next five lessons come from “ah-ha” work experiences that we individually have had. Thus, we do switch between “we” and “I” throughout this article. The use of such pronouns also serves to protect the identity of the innocent, the less than innocent, and the utterly outright guilty. Our shared wisdom comes from our combined eight college degrees, 34 years I-O work experience, and 65 years of total work experience. Amazingly, we have managed to learn only six simple lessons.

1. The most important things about being an I-O psychologist are not learned in school

We had a coworker who would give just-hired new PhDs an unusual task during their first week. He would sit them down in his office and say something along these lines. “What I am going to give you will seem like it is way below you. Here is a book that we need to order for the XYZ project. I would like you to order it for me. I recommend starting with our admin assistant ABC.” The newly minted PhD would walk away. We have no idea what was going on in his or her mind, but it was probably that it would be completed within an hour. Two weeks later the new PhD would come back to our coworker saying that the book was finally ordered and this was the most enlightening task that they had ever been given.

Although graduate school can teach you a lot of things, the really important things like how to get anything done in an organization can only be learned on the job. One must learn the particular and peculiar ins and outs of an organization: how to jump through hoops, more importantly what hoops to jump through and what hoops to go around, organizational and project billing codes, bureaucratic red tape, and individual personalities of people you need to rely on to get stuff done.

2. Graciously accept praise and awards (even if you feel like you don’t deserve it)

Every year between September 1 and December 15, the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC) shakedown occurs. This voluntary campaign, which is closely watched by agency leaders, allows federal workers to have money directly drawn from their check and donated to organizations of their choice. During my first year in the government I was the lucky selectee to represent my organization for the CFC. Even though I didn’t know what this veryspecial task involved, I had a hunch it wasn’t the great honor my supervisor presented it as. After a couple of days I asked when I would get more information. “Someone” would contact me, I was told. A week later I asked again. This time I got a name. I sent an email introducing myself saying I was anxious to get started on this exciting assignment. Another week went by and no reply, no information. Next, I called and left a voice message. This continued for several weeks, but nada, zip, zilch came back.

While my efforts were being ignored, the agency put up gigantic thermometers in the lobby showing each organization’s contributions. Every morning I would walk past those mocking thermometers. All the other organizations’ contributions were rising while my organization remained in the red bulb at the bottom. I reluctantly told my supervisor that I was still unable to get any information from the POC (point of contact). He knew exactly where the guy sat and walked me over. Empty desk. I left a hand-written note. Nothing came back.

I could go on, but I never got in contact with the POC and did nothing for the CFC. This was my first real professional job and I thought I was doomed. I was assigned this important task and did nothing. I was afraid–really afraid. That fear, however, was replaced by confusion when my supervisor walked into my cube and gave me a team award certificate for my CFC work. It even involved cash! What I learned from that experience is to graciously accept praise–especially if it involves cash–even if it is undeserved. Later I came to realize that awards serve many functions in an organization, some of them legitimate and others simply for appearance’s sake.

I am sure there’s another lesson to be learned about how well performance management works (even in an organization staffed entirely by performance experts), but that would be another lesson and I don’t what to overachieve.

3. Packaging can be just as important as content

The agency I was working at had been successfully using OPM's leadership competency model (Eyde, Gregory, Muldrow, & Mergen, 1999) for leadership development. This model contains 28 competencies. One day, as often happens, a key senior leader decided that there were “too many competencies.” Hence, a tiger team was immediately established to ferociously attack this competency crisis. This tiger team was composed of senior leaders from across the agency. Included on the team was one of the agency’s I-O psychologists (not one of the authors). After several months of meetings, the group came up with the new and improvedcompetency model. It was heralded across the agency and presented as a best practice.

The new model only had four competencies–85% fewer competencies! Hence, mission accomplished. However, each of these four competencies had seven “behaviors” listed under it. Ironically, these 28 behaviors happened to be identical to the 28 OPM leadership competencies. The imaginary problem had been brilliantly solved with an imaginary solution. I innocently mentioned that this really wasn’t an improvement or simplification as the model went from one level with 28 competencies to a model with two levels, four competencies, and 28 behaviors. The reply was, “But the new model only had four competencies.” This was the point where I understood how Rob Reiner felt while interviewing Nigel Tufnel in his guitar vault.2

I learned to come to terms with the fact that packaging can be just as important as content if you want buy-in. Whereas we think in terms of rigor, validity, and utility, many times perception is what those in charge value. If you want your great ideas to be accepted, make sure you understand what your customer wants to see and frame your work to meet those expectations.

4. No task is ever below you (and a lot of your contributions to the organization will have absolutely nothing to do with I-O psychology)

After heavy rains over numerous days, my work building flooded. There was over eight feet of water in the basement. Obviously, there were significant problems because of this, such as the electricity and HVAC systems not working, and the building was closed. However, over the course of the next few weeks, temporary office space was found for workers. As a supervisor I won the lottery and was one of two lucky people from a division of over 100 who was given authorization to enter the building throughout the closure. I spent many summer days in the heat and humidity climbing the stairs to the sixth floor in a suit to get files and computers.

One day, I got a call telling me to report to the building immediately. I asked why, but my supervisor didn’t know. It was just important that I get there as soon as possible, which was strange because if it was that important it seemed like he would know the reason. Still without knowing why, I went to the building and to the check-in point where I was greeted by the building manager. She knew me well by then. I said to her that I was told to come in, but I wasn’t told why. She informed me that there was a nasty rotten smell in our office area. I was not surprised by this, as many people had food in their desks or small refrigerators that had not been cleaned out. As I headed to the stairs, the building manager held out a pair of latex gloves for me to take. I asked what they were for. Apparently, the week before an exterminator was called in, as rats find unoccupied buildings with food lying around a pleasant place to live. The exterminator used a variety of methods including poison. The building manager then explained that my special task was to search our work area and deal with any “issues.”

I reluctantly climbed the stairs and started my search through the uninhabitable building in the stagnant sticky air. Fortunately, I didn’t find any rats. However, I learned that no task is ever below you, and sometimes you are asked to do some strange non-I-O things to help the organization.

5. Never serve on a university committee that could use your expertise

This one is for the academics, but we are sure that others will understand it as well. A while back I was serving on a university committee that was looking at the results of the well-known National Survey of Student Engagement, or NSSE as it is commonly called. The committee chair projected the survey results on the front wall. Immediately it was stated that the results were bogus because of the response rate, we cannot do anything, I’m going to take my ball and go home, you’re not the boss of me, and of course, administration is out to get us. The speaker rambled on for several minutes. This was followed by considerable discussion among the highly learned in the room. They were kind of getting some things kind of right, but there were a lot of statements like, “A 30% response rate is what you need to have for the results to be valid.”

Then there was a long and tortured discussion about the little *s and **s on the report. Then came the confidence interval discussion. Finally, the discussion peaked when someone asked what the “d” was for. It was Cohen’s dfor effect size. Ultimately there was a lot of talking, little listening, and no meaningful conclusion. In other words, it was a typical faculty meeting.

Regardless of what I did, could have done, or should have done, my expertise, and contributing that expertise, was not going to change the outcome of the meeting. Perhaps this lesson should be more along the lines of the serenity prayer. Know what you can change, have the courage to change what you can, and have the wisdom to know the difference. Or perhaps something about tilting at windmills.

6. Thank others (and don’t wait)

Several years ago, completely out of character, I published a silly, mostly useless (but reasonably adequate) little article in TIP. To my surprise, I got a decent number of emails from readers. Some were old friends wanting to catch up, but I actually got a couple of emails from I-O star performers. (Free sublesson here: Although it might not show in formal impact factors, TIPis quite impactful. EveryI-O psychologist reads it. No journal can claim that.) One of the star performers who contacted me was Paul Muchinsky. We exchanged a few emails. When the SIOP annual conference was near me I rounded up my two best students to help him with his booth. I only talked to him in person for a few minutes at SIOP. We got interrupted several times when people asked to have their picture taken with him. That was the extent of our contact.

Even though I didn’t know Paul and my interaction with him was super limited, he did have quite an impact on me. Psychology Applied to Work,I believe, is the most complete and rigorous I-O textbook I have used. I am sure Paul knew what he was doing and Dr. Culbertson will take good care of it. I admired his writing style, humor, and take on important I-O issues that others would not mention (or only mention privately). His commitment to I-O psychology and student learning was quite evident in his work, and that is something we all need to be on guard not to let slip.

The High Societywas the first thing I would read in every issue of TIP. And I know it was the same for many others. I was a little disheartened when I read in the April 2015 issue that he was retiring and would no longer write the column. Of course that turned to sadness when I read in the October 2015 issue that Dr. Muchinsky passed away.

After I read the April issue I meant to send him a quick note saying that over the years I really enjoyed his column–both the humor and the matters he discussed. I was going to let him know that his book was the best I-O book that I have used. It is rigorous and complete and, although challenging to most undergraduates, it is still accessible. However, students do hate it when I use the test questions he wrote because they truly test knowledge, unlike most publisher-provided test banks. Leave it to an I-O psychologist to actually develop an actual knowledge test.

He took the time to send me a quick note out of the blue and I appreciated that. Unfortunately, I didn’t do the same. I let the day-to-day grind of my completely adequate career and life get in the way of taking just a few minutes to send him a short email expressing my appreciation for all that he did. So our last career lesson is to thank others, express your appreciation, and don’t wait. Above all, don’t do it because the networking might advance your career beyond adequacy. Do it because it is the right thing to do.

So there you have it–six simple lessons to either propel you into or maintain your adequisivity. On an earlier version of this article, TIP’s insightful EditorMorrie Mullinspointed out to us that star performers often have top-10 lists (think of David Letterman’s top-10 list or Billboard’s Top 10). However, presumably understanding who he was dealing with, he continued that six is“more adequate than five” and that “six feels thematically appropriate” (apparently for authors like us). One of those star performers will need to write an article for you to get those other four lessons to take you even higher. Until then, you are stuck with our modest six lessons.

 

Notes

[1]See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WOxpuKXhlssfor further clarification.

2See http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/237535/This-Is-Spinal-Tap-Movie-Clip-Eleven.htmlfor more information.

 

 

References

Aguinis, H. & O'Boyle, E. (2014). Star performers in twenty‐first century organizations. Personnel Psychology67, 313–350.

Eyde, L.D., Gregory, D.J., Muldrow, T.W., & Mergen, P.K. (1999). High-performance leaders: A competency model. Washington, DC: U.S. Office of Personnel Management. 

O'Boyle, E. & Aguinis, H. (2012). The best and the rest: Revisiting the norm of normality of individual performance. Personnel Psychology65, 79–119.

 

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