Organizational Psychology is a subject which applies the principles of psychology into one of the most important areas of people’s life – work. Specifically, we work with the human aspects of the workplace and aim at improving people’s efficiency, and hence organizational effectiveness, through our knowledge about human functioning.
There exist a group of professionals who share a similar aim and are working closely with us, the human resource professionals. Despite the close relationship with HR professionals, Organizational Psychologists are distinctive professionals. Unfortunately, there is always some confusion among the general public that people just cannot tell who is who. More importantly, even some HR professionals do not know what we are doing and what can we offer them.
When we tell them we are Psychologists, a frequent reply is “but we don’t have any mental problems”!
As Organizational Psychologists, we work with a wide range of domains that are related to people’s everyday work life. We design work activities, schedules and workplaces; we design reward principles that are based on human motivation theories; we develop training principles and train the trainers; we develop selection procedures and tools; we formulate performance appraisal systems; and we advise on organizational development issues as well as career development decisions.
As you may recognise, our work reaches every working individual on the planet and our working field is very closely related with the work of HR professionals.
Although there are quite a few overlapping areas between Organizational Psychology and Human Resource Management (HRM), there are fundamental differences between us.
The first and perhaps the most obvious difference between us is the knowledge foundation. As psychologists, we base our work heavily on science. All work has to be backed up by scientific evidence and statistics is always in our toolbox.
In contrast, HRM is essentially a business study which emphasizes more on the practical side, with less focus on the scientific side. Moreover, in addition to working on overlapping areas, we work on different levels. Organizational Psychologists focus more on the design and development of procedures, tools and principles while HR professionals work more on the operational level, such as implementation of selection systems and applying training principles in real training scenarios.
The discrepancy between the knowledgebase of Organizational Psychologists and HR professionals has been documented in academic journals.
For example Sally Carless and colleagues pointed out that although there are important advancements in HR-related research, the everyday HR practice have benefited from it to a minimum level. They found that this is due to the lack of knowledge among HR professionals, especially when the training of the HR professionals emphasizes on general skill and knowledge in favour of science.
In contrast, the training of Organizational Psychologists is built upon the scientist-practitioner model which emphasizes on both research and practical skills and stipulates that practice must be supported by scientific evidence.
Another reason may lie in the Continuous Professional Development (CPD) requirement. As Organizational Psychologists, CPD is a statutory condition for registration and this helps them to keep updated with the latest developments in the field. However there is no such requirement for HR professionals. Carless’s study confirmed that Organizational Psychologists are experts in the field, especially in the area of selection and the authors articulated that “scientific integrity is a key differentiating feature of I/O (Organizational) psychologists.”
Having closely related working areas, our work is actually complementary to each other. Without Organizational Psychologists in the design and development work of various HR processes and tools, the HR professional would not be enjoying these scientific and highly effective products.
On the other hand, without the help of HR professionals we could never apply our work to such a broad range of people. Moreover, our relationship is much more complex and interactive than one might be aware of. Besides the above mentioned supplier-user relationship, HR professionals are also partners, advisors and sometimes suppliers for Organizational Psychologists.
HR professionals are our partners in projects where we provide them with the technical skills and knowledge while they take care of the operational part. Furthermore, HR professionals are experts of their company; therefore we work side by side during consulting jobs where we need them to assist us with internal matters as well as providing us with an insider view.
More importantly, as HR professionals are frequent users of our services and products, we rely a lot on their opinions and requests in developing our products and services. They are also providers of valuable data and participants for us to carry out scientific studies (e.g. validation of assessment tools). All in all, we are inter-dependent parties with entwined relationships rather than independent parties or competitors.
Being Organizational Psychologists, what can we offer to HR professionals? A lot. With the expertise in assessing human characteristics and knowledge about human performance, we are experts in selection.
Based on the understanding about the requirements of the job as well as the characteristics needed for any particular position, we can come up with an ideal person profile that the organization is looking for. Then we can design, or choose among proper tools that accurately measure the required characteristics, knowledge and skills.
According to research these procedures enable us to create the best selection system which predicts future performance of the employed staff. One should not be surprised that the best selection tools like psychometric tests, assessment centres, and structured interviews as well as standardized selection procedures are all designed and developed by Organizational Psychologists.
Another contribution of the organizational psychology profession to the HR field is in training. A brief look at the training market reveals that it is flooded with many training courses and providers.
Obviously their quality varies and some of them do not even know what they are talking about! Our own company has undertaken work for clients who have come to us after being dissatisfied with trainers who appear to have simply taken some information from the internet to put together a training session without any real understanding of the subject matter!
As Organizational Psychologists we are working hard to turn around this situation. We are experts in training design; some understand how people learn and how people learn the best! In designing and delivering training courses, scientific human learning theories and training principles are followed, but not just by gut feelings or experience only. Factors like transfer of learning, specific needs of the organization and maintenance of learning are all fully considered.
Besides selection and training, Organizational Psychologists also offer various consultancy and advisory services to HR professionals. The range of work can be as small as reviewing a performance appraisal check list or an assessment centre exercise to as big as designing a tailored selection system.
On top of that, we can also go into the organization to diagnose the roots of problems and solve them accordingly, using our scientific approach and advanced knowledge about mechanisms and dynamics within the workplace.
However, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, one big obstacle we face is the lack of knowledge about our profession within the HR profession (particularly in Asia), as well as the public in general.
The implication is that we often face questions like “what is organizational psychology?”, “what is the difference between Organizational Psychologists and HR consultants?” and even “why do I need to employ scientific tools and procedures?” It can be hard work explaining all this to prospective clients! Another related problem is people always think we are very expensive!
But the fact is all the products and services we offer are based on scientific research which means they have undergone lengthy and sophisticated processes of development and the cost of all these are huge. By employing our scientific tools and principles the benefit is long lasting and continuously contributing to the performance of the organization, and these are all documented in the scientific literature.
Another hidden obstacle for us in Asia is caused by the organizational hierarchy. Very often, the first contact point between our clients and ourselves are assistants of HR professionals who have minimal understanding of what we are talking about. When they do not understand they just cannot relay our message precisely to their manager.
The result is obviously that the management level does not receive our message and the name of Organizational Psychology just remains unheard no matter how hard we try!
As Organizational Psychologists, we see a real need to educate the public, and more importantly, HR professionals about the subject of Organizational Psychology so that the fruit of science can be returned to them.
There are major overlapping work areas between Organizational Psychologists and HR professionals such as selection, training, career development and performance management, but we work on different levels and perspectives thus our relationship is actually collaborative rather than competitive.
Organizational Psychologists can offer help to HR professionals in various areas such as training design, development of selection systems, supervising performance management processes and many more. Nevertheless Organizational Psychologists in Asia face obstacles as the subject is relatively unheard of among HR professionals and communication is often blocked by organizational hierarchy.
Therefore one very important task for us as Organizational Psychologist is to promote this subject so that people know what we can offer and make use of our expertise! We are sure that with the growing popularity of the subject, HR professionals, and other related professionals like career counsellors and coaches, will benefit highly from Organizational Psychology.