Industrial and Organizational Psychology’s Identity Crisis and How to Fix It

[NOTE: This post was updated March 2017]

Recently, I’ve been struck by how stuck people and even organizations are in defining who they are and determining where they’re going. In particular, I have been very interested in following the struggles of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP), to define and distinguish itself in an ever-crowded space.

I examined four I-O psychology textbooks hoping to find a simple, clear definition of what exactly industrial and organizational psychology is:

Industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology is “the branch of psychology that is concerned with the study of behavior in work settings and the application of psychology principles to change work behavior” (Riggio, 2013, p. 2).

Industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology is “the application of psychological principles, theory, and research to the work setting” (Landy & Conte, 2013, p. 7).

Industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology is “the application of psychological principles and theories to the workplace” (Levy, 2010, p. 2).

Industrial/organizational psychology is “a branch of psychology that applies the principles of psychology to the workplace” (Aamodt, 2013, p. 2).

On its website, SIOP originally said (as of July 2013), “Industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology is the scientific study of the workplace.” This is a very poor definition, one that does not align well with the definitions from the I-O psychology textbooks I shared above.

Admittedly, I do not claim to know or understanding everything about SIOP or I-O psychology so I’ll stick to sharing my perspective about how SIOP’s lack of a sense of identity has negatively impacted its present and future course of action.

In discussions and conversations on various industrial and organizational psychology LinkedIn groups, it is clear that many people, within I-O and many more outside of it, cannot define or explain, succinctly, what it is. I am amazed that a group of highly educated people have struggled for so long, and continues to struggle, to define to themselves and explain to others about their profession.

In my opinion, this is one of the biggest challenges facing the field of industrial and organizational (I-O) psychology. In fact, very early on in its history, I-O psychology was actually referred to by other names, such as economic psychology, business psychology, and employment psychology (Koppes & Pickren, 2007).

According to Koppes and Pickren (2007), the term industrial psychology was rarely used before World War I. As a matter of fact, APA’s Division 14 was called Industrial and Business Psychology when it was formed in 1945. The word business was dropped from the division name, and Industrial and Business Psychology became Industrial Psychology in 1962. In 1973, the division added organizational to the name and became known as Industrial and Organizational Psychology (Koppes & Pickren, 2007). With all these identities and changes, it’s no wonder I-O psychologists and everyone else are confused.

According to Highhouse (2007), the I-O label survived a name change vote in 2004 (but the initiative started in 2002). More recently, in late 2009, there was yet another push for a name change. But SIOP’s membership chose to keep “Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology” (SIOP) by a very narrow margin (515 ballots against the name change to 500 ballots for changing the name to The Society for Organizational Psychology). Fifteen votes difference!

Come on folks, just pick a name and stick with it! THREE name changes and TWO attempts at name changes within a 68 year span would make anyone’s head spin.

SIOP “hired a professional marketing agency to aid them in developing SIOP’s brand and making that brand known to the public” (Latham, 2009). Sadly, its history of numerous name changes and the latest, closely contested fight to again change its name are indicative of an organization and profession struggling to find itself, its brand, and its overall sense of identity.

It appears that efforts to develop SIOP’s brand have yielded dismal results, as two recent surveys [one sent to business professionals (in March 2012) and the other to HR professionals (in July 2012) asking them to indicate their familiarity with professional organizations] suggested that among the professional organizations (e.g., Academy of Management [AOM], American Society for Training and Development [ASTD], Society of Human Resources Management [SHRM], etc.), Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) ranked dead last among business professionals!

I contend that when APA Division 14 renamed itself in 1962, rather than dropping the word business, it should have instead dropped the word industrial. Thus, the field of industrial and organizational (I-O) psychology (in the United States) might be widely known today as business psychology. I believe that had this been done the field of I-O psychology would have been much better defined, to those in and those outside of the field (e.g., the general public and business community). Unfortunately, that was not the case and 68 years after it was first established as Division 14, SIOP and the larger field of I-O psychology continue to struggle with its identity.

To make my case, I point the reader to Hugo Münsterberg, one of the fathers of industrial and organizational (I-O) psychology. In his book Business Psychology, Hugo Münsterberg (1918) talked about business psychology — what it means and its relevance to the world of business. He said business psychology is about “bring[ing] together those results of modern psychological thinking which are significant for the work of the business man” (p. v).

“Business psychology means a psychology in which the chief emphasis is laid on those mental functions which are significant for business life and in which so far as possible the other aspects of psychology are omitted. If anyone were to try to present business psychology without going into the study of the foundations, principles, and laws of psychology in general, he would offer useless and misleading material. . . . Business psychology is psychology, or it is nothing at all” (Münsterberg, 1918, p. 8).

Wheeler (2013) said, “The right name is timeless, tireless, easy to say and remember; it stands for something, and facilitates brand extensions. Its sound has rhythm. It looks great in the text of an email and in the logo. A well-chosen name is an essential brand asset . . . . The wrong name for a company, product, or service can hinder marketing efforts . . . because people cannot pronounce it or remember it” (p. 22).

In my opinion, the group(s) of individuals who collectively decided to adopt an increasingly more convoluted and difficult-to-remember name* for the field of I-O psychology ensured one thing — that the overall profession (and the legions of business psychologists who make up the profession) would struggle with its sense of identity.

*From Industrial and Business Psychology in 1945 Industrial Psychology in 1962 Industrial and Organizational Psychology in 1973.

I’m certainly not advocating another push for a name change. However, I think it is critical to understand FOUR things:

(1) how the name has changed since its inception (i.e., understand the history),
(2) why there continues to be discontent about the name and the push to change it (i.e., study the current situation),
(3) the importance of defining the overall profession within this context (i.e., use history and context to dictate course of action), and
(4) where to go from here (i.e., set achievable, realistic, agreed-upon goals and objectives).

“The right name captures the imagination and connects with the people you want to reach” -Danny Altman (as quoted on p. 22 in Designing brand identity [4th ed.])

Constantly bickering over what to call yourself (or your organization), being indecisive and falling into the trap of analysis paralysis, failing to unite the SIOP membership, and not setting and acting on a strategic course of action have all negatively contributed to the stagnation of SIOP.

Philip Durbrow, Chairman and CEO of Marshall Strategy said this (on p. 142 in Designing brand identity [4th ed.]): “If you wish to make a meaningful statement, a name change is not enough. The name should represent a unique, beneficial, and sustainable story that resonates with customers, investors, and employees.”

What unique and sustainable story can business psychologists (I-O psychologists) share that will resonate within the field as well as outside with others? Find or create that story, own it, and then passionately share it with others.

[Added 03/2017]: SIOP featured a great and spot-on article (Spring 2017) titled, “Has Industrial-Organizational Psychology Lost Its Way?” on its website. In the article, Ones, Kaiser, Chamorro-Premuzic, and Svensson (2017) stated that the field of industrial and organizational (I-O) psychology, while “more relevant than ever” is at risk of being marginalized.

“We see the field losing its way, in danger of becoming less relevant and giving up ground to other professions with less expertise about people at work—but perhaps better marketing savvy and business acumen.” -Ones, Kaiser, Chamorro-Premuzic, and Svensson (2017)

The troubling trends that the authors see I-O psychology heading includes: overemphasizing theory; being fixated on trivial methodological minutiae; and emphasizing academic publication but ignoring practical applications. The result is that the field of I-O psychology is “losing real-world influence to other fields.”

The authors wrote that fields such as marketing, behavioral economics, and neuroscience are gaining more attention and respect because they’re able to sell themselves and their products and services better.

“The insular, academic thinking that dominates the [I-O psychology] discipline creates hostility and antipathy toward practice and the applied world that keeps it on the periphery—when it could be center stage in a leadership role.”

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Consultant

References

Aamodt, M. G. (2013). Industrial/organizational psychology: An applied approach (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Highhouse, S. (2007). Where Did This Name Come From Anyway? A Brief History of the I-O Label. Retrieved from http://www.siop.org/tip/july07/sheridan%20pdfs/451_053to056.pdf

Koppes, L L. (n.d.). A Brief History of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Inc. – A Division of the APA. Retrieved from http://www.siop.org/History/historynew.aspx

Koppes. L. L., & Pickren, W. (2007). Industrial and organizational psychology: An evolving science and practice. In L. L. Koppes (Ed)., Historical perspectives in industrial and organizational psychology (pp. 3-35). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Landy, F. J. & Conte, J. M. (2013). Work in the 21st century: An introduction to industrial and organizational psychology (4th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Latham, G. (2009). A Message From Your President: Bridging the Scientist–Practitioner Gap. Retrieved from http://www.siop.org/tip/jan09/01latham.aspx

Levy, P. E. (2010). Industrial/organizational psychology: Understanding the workplace (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Münsterberg, H. (1918). Business psychology. Chicago: LaSalle Extension University.

Ones, D. S., Kaiser, R. B., Chamorro-Premuzic, T., & Svensson, C. (2017). Has Industrial-Organizational Psychology Lost Its Way? Retrieved from http://www.siop.org/tip/april17/lostio.aspx

Riggio, R. E. (2013). Introduction to industrial/organizational psychology (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Wheeler, A. (2013). Designing brand identity: An essential guide for the whole branding team (4th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.