10 Industrial/Organizational Psychology

E. Kevin Kelloway, Saint Mary’s University


If you have ever held, or applied for, a job, you are already acquainted with the subject matter of Industrial/Organizational (I/O) psychology.  Since the beginning of the 20th Century, Industrial/Organizational psychologists have been studying, and working with, individuals and organizations on various aspects of the employment relationship.  For most of us, paid employment will be one of the defining roles of our lives – affecting both our individual health and well-being (see Kelloway & Day, 2005; Warr, 1987) as well as the quality of our experience in other roles such as spouse or parent (e.g., Barling, 1990). Every one of us who works also has an employer – some individual or organization who pays for our services and has a legitimate interest in ensuring that we work effectively and efficiently.

The Canadian Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology (CSIOP), defines I/O psychology as:

Industrial-Organizational Psychology is a field of both scientific research and professional practice that aims to further the welfare of people by: understanding the behaviour of individuals and organizations in the work place: helping individuals pursue meaningful and enriching work; and assisting organizations in the effective management of their human resources. (Kline, 1996, p. 206)


There are two critical aspects of this definition.  First, as noted above I/O psychology is focused on both individual (i.e., helping individuals pursue meaningful and enriching work) and organizational (i.e., effective management of human resources) goals. Kline (1996, p. 206) suggests that I/O psychologists might be involved in:

carrying out task analyses,

– determining the knowledge, skills, abilities and personal characteristics needed for certain jobs

– providing recommendations on how to assess potential employees or actually

conducting the assessments,

– providing guidance on how to train employees,

– assessing work performance and motivate employees,

– determining group effects on work performance,

– examining communication within and commitment to the organization,

– understanding the human-machine system and the complexities of their interactions.

– assisting in the selection and training of competent leaders,

– assisting in career assessment and career development

– assisting in changing the organization to become more effective, and

– assisting in managing relationships between employees and managers


Although the distinction is a bit arbitrary, these tasks correspond to a traditional distinction between industrial – or personnel – psychology (e.g., task analysis, employee selection, training) and organizational psychology (e.g., leadership, group dynamics, organizational change) that emerged as a result of the historical development of the field (see below).  In practice, individuals may specialize in one or more areas, but training standards adopted by both the U.S. based Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology (SIOP) and CSIOP ensure that I/O psychologists are trained in all of these areas.

Aside from this content focus, one of the most important aspects of the CSIOP definition is that it defines I/O psychology as comprising both professional practice and scientific research.  This perspective is known as the scientist-practitioner model.  As psychologists, we are trained as social scientists who draw on, and contribute to, the theories and methods of psychology.  Most I/O psychologists have extensive training in scientific research and research methodology.   At the same time, many of the questions addressed in I/O psychology (e.g., how do we hire the best employees? How do we stop workplace bullying? How can we reduce job stress?) are immensely practical.

Individuals can choose to enact their role as scientist-practitioners in a variety of ways.  For example, I/O psychologists who work as faculty in universities may emphasize “science” – focusing their efforts on research and publication.  Those who work in Human Resource departments or as consultants may be more attuned to the concerns of practice and less involved with research and publication.  Still others in the field, consciously adopt a boundary spanning role attempting to engage in professional practice while continuing to do research.  However one choses to enact the role, all I/O psychologists share a common body of knowledge that includes both science and practice.

The History and Context of I/O Psychology

Given this scientist-practitioner perspective, it is not surprising that I/O psychology developed as an outgrowth of two sets of influences.  First, the growth of industrialization (particularly in the U.S.), and the practical questions it gave birth to, shaped the direction and focus of I/O psychology.  Second, the development of psychology and the experimental method inevitably contributed to, and shaped, I/O psychology.

It is not at all coincidental that the first two books in I/O psychology were entitled Increasing Human Efficiency in Business (Scott, 1911) and Psychology and Industrial Efficiency (Münsterberg, 1913).  In the early 1900’s, economic, and social trends (Viteles, 1932) resulted in a glorification of industrialization and progress.  Any field that claimed to advance the interests and tenets of capitalism was widely accepted.  Psychology itself was undergoing a similar revolutionary change. The growth of the experimental method and a focus on individual differences paved the way for much of what would subsequently be called I/O psychology. Science was increasingly seen as the answer for all problems, and the application of the scientific method to more practical problems was only a matter of time.

One of the great early experimentalists was the German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt.  His lab was to be the starting point for most of I/O psychology. Emil Kraepelin, for example, trained under Wundt and in his own research became interested in the study of work performance and fatigue (1896). Wundt also trained Walter Dill Scott and Hugo Münsterberg, two figures who are often seen as the first I/O psychologists.

After earning his PhD in the Wundt lab in 1900, Walter Dill Scott moved back to the United States, where he became a professor at Northwestern University. He did research on a variety of practical problems including the application of psychological principles to advertising and personnel selection.  Eventually he became the first person in North America to receive the title of professor of applied psychology (Vinchur & Koppes, 2007).

Hugo Münsterberg was both a physician and a psychologist who trained in Wundt’s experimental psychology lab. As a professor at Harvard University he became the most noted promoter of applied psychology, writing more than 20 books on the topic between 1906 and 1916.  His book Psychology and Industrial Efficiency (Münsterberg, 1913) is often cited as the first text for I/O psychologists.

As Koppes and Pickren (2007) note, many other individuals at the same time were becoming interested in problems of industry. Walter Bingham (the founder of the Carnegie Tech applied psychology program), Arthur Kornhauser (a graduate of Carnegie Tech who pioneered the study of job stress and mental health), Louis Leon Thurstone (a pioneer in measurement theory and statistics but who also worked in selection and vocational guidance), and James McKeen Cattell (the founder of The Psychological Corporation, the first I/O consulting firm) were all interested in applying psychology to work.

America’s entry into World War I dramatically boosted interested in applying psychology to practical problems.  The American military needed to select an unprecedented number of applicants and to place them into jobs in the most efficient way possible.  Robert Yerkes, then president of the American Psychological Association and a professor at Harvard, worked with the military to develop a new test – Army Alpha – based on the newly developed practice of standardized intelligence testing. An alternate version of the test – Army Beta – was developed to accommodate recruits who could not read or write. In addition to being the training ground for many who would become well-known I/O psychologists, the success of the Army testing program convinced many of the value of selection tests. When military commanders hung up their uniforms and returned to industry, they continued the practice of selection testing in their civilian jobs.

After the war, research and practice in I/O psychology was focused on selection and placement – this was to change with the conduct of  a series of studies at the Hawthorne Works of the Western Electric Company (Highhouse, 2007).  The Western Electric Company wanted to demonstrate that their lamps (that produced more light than did those of their competitors) would benefit industry. They conducted a series of experiments that varied illumination levels to see if productivity would also change.  Although it is difficult to determine the exact details of the studies (Highhouse), the researchers found that productivity improved regardless of the change in the level of illumination.  If the factory was made brighter, productivity went up.  If they made the factory darker, productivity also went up!

One explanation of this puzzling set of results became known as the Hawthorne effect -i.e., do anything and it works. Simply by paying more attention to the workers, the researchers may have inadvertently produced an increase in productivity. The existence of Hawthorne effects continues to be debated (Adair, 1984) but the most important outcome of the Hawthorne studies is that researchers were led to think about other aspects of the workplace – including small group dynamics, stress and job attitudes.  These new research foci became the basis of organizational psychology and eventually would merge with industrial psychology (i.e., selection and personnel practices) to form the field of industrial/organizational psychology.

During World War II psychologists again were active in selection for the military, but they also became involved in a host of other activities. The design of training and training techniques, as well as the optimal design of workplaces and equipment, were also foci of enquiry. Samuel Stouffer (1949) summarized much of this work in his book The American Soldier, which included consideration of topics that would be familiar to any modern-day organizational psychologist—job satisfaction, motivation, perceived justice, and group cohesion.

The end of World War II again meant that many people returned to their civilian jobs with the memory of psychological techniques and interventions that had proven successful in dealing with many human resource issues. As industry flourished, so did I/O psychology. In 1945, Division 14 (Industrial and Business Psychology) of the American Psychological Association was formed, and by 1950, the field of industrial/organizational psychology was firmly established.

The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the United States was a major impetus to the further development of the field.  The Act prohibits discrimination in employment on a variety of grounds and I/O psychologists were instrumental in devising means of [a] showing that such discrimination existed and [b] developing ways to implement nondiscriminatory practices.  Around the same time, individuals began to demand more meaningful work, and psychologists such as Frederick Herzberg argued that there was an economic logic to the demand, suggesting that “happy workers were productive workers.” Although this hypothesis is still being debated today (Cropanzano & Wright, 2001), it led to an explosion of job satisfaction research. Indeed, by 1976, Locke had identified more than 5,000 empirical articles dealing with the topic of job satisfaction.

In 1965, Kornhauser published The Mental Health of Industrial Workers, one of the first major investigations into job stress.  Subsequent research verified his findings and led the U.S. Secretary of State to commission the widely influential report Work in America (1974). These key studies led to the formation of the new field of occupational health psychology (Sauter & Hurrell, 1999), in addition to leading organizational psychologists to focus on issues of job stress.

In 1973, the APA division dealing with Industrial Psychology was renamed the Division of Industrial and Organizational Psychology to reflect the growth of the field. In 1982 a new autonomous organization – the Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology (SIOP) formed.  Although the APA division continues to exist, SIOP has become the major professional association for the field with over 6000 members internationally.

I/O-eh? Canadian I/O Psychology

Although the development of I/O psychology in Canada lagged that in the United States, it followed the same general pattern.  Prior to World War II, I/O psychology in Canada consisted of a handful of professional psychologists working in isolation (Bois, 1949).  The Canadian I/O story really begins with the formation of the Canadian Psychological Association in 1938 – just prior to World War II.  In anticipation of the war, psychologists from the University of Toronto, Queen’s and McGill met with the government to discuss how psychologists could contribute to the war effort. This was the beginning of a longstanding and productive collaboration between Canadian I/O psychology and the military (MacMillan, Stevens, & Kelloway, 2009), as well as initiating the formation of the Canadian Psychological Association.

As in the U.S., these initial collaborations focused on the development of selection tests for the military including a unit focused on pilot selection for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), which operated primarily out of the University of Toronto.  A second group developed the “M” test for selection and placement of Army officers and soldiers. Psychologists were also involved in numerous other activities related to the war effort including the establishment of day care centres that allowed women to enter the workforce to replace the male workers who had been called up to active service (Wright, 1974).

I/O psychology as a distinct profession in Canada has its roots in the work of Ed Webster who joined the faculty of McGill after doing morale research during World War II (Rowe, 1990). Webster made at least three substantial contributions to the field.  First, he was one of the first to do research on the employment interview and his 1964 book Decision Making in the Employment Interview is considered a classic in industrial psychology.  Second, Webster wrote the report of the Couchiching conference which established standards for graduate training in psychology – these standards were widely adopted by graduate programs in Canada.  Finally, Webster was a professor who supervised his own graduate students.  One of these – Patricia (Pat) Rowe was to play a major role in Canadian I/O psychology.

After her graduation, Rowe accepted a position at the University of Waterloo, where she founded and singlehandedly ran what is the most long-established I/O graduate program in Canada. Rowe supervised many of the I/O psychologists practicing and teaching in Canada today. She based the Waterloo program on a scientist-practitioner model and established links with consulting firms and other major employers in Canada.

By the 1980s, several other graduate programs had developed, many of which were based on the Waterloo model. Programs at the University of Calgary, University of Western Ontario, and Queen’s University (the I/O program is now defunct) all offered graduate programs leading to a PhD in some area of I/O psychology. Saint Mary’s University and the University of Guelph both offered a terminal master’s degree, although both now offer PhD programs. Other universities offer graduate education in organizational psychology under the auspices of their programs in applied social psychology (e.g., University of Saskatchewan, University of Windsor).

Although there are as many I/O psychologists practicing in Quebec as there are in the other provinces of Canada, English and French I/O psychology continue to exist as the “two solitudes” in many respects (Forest, 2007).  For example, in contrast to the definition and competency areas of I/O psychology described earlier, the Quebec association defines I/O psychology in terms of five major areas of practice (i.e., (a) testing and evaluation, (b) organizational development and diagnosis, (c) training and coaching, (d) career management and reassignment and (e) employee assistance programs and psychological health (Forest).  There is growing recognition of the benefits of Anglophone and Francophone I/O psychologists working together, yet language remains for now a formidable challenge to collaboration (Bonaccio et al., 2013). Efforts to overcome this hurdle have been, to date, sporadic and have not resulted in substantial agreement on ways in which the two groups of Canadian I/O psychologists can work together.

The Discipline Today

I/O psychology continues to flourish, both in Canada and internationally.  It is consistently identified as an area of employment growth with graduates having little difficulty in finding employment either within the Human Resources department of major organizations, as a consultant in a consulting firm or, of course, as an academic researcher working at a university or research center.  Consistent with the scientist-practitioner model that continues to dominate the field, individuals often move back and forth between these roles.  Academics often do consulting work “on the side”.  Consultants move into HR roles or collaborate in academic research.  Many consultants and HR professionals do some teaching “on the side” and in so doing bring a practitioner perspective to the teaching of I/O psychology.

Training Requirements

Although we have been using the term “psychologist” loosely, any discussion of training requirements in I/O psychology needs to recognize some legal constraints.  In most jurisdictions of Canada, the term “psychologist” is a restricted term and refers to individuals who have registered with their provincial board or college of psychology. With few exceptions, the only people allowed to identify themselves as “psychologists” are those who have gone through the registration process. Because the title is regulated provincially, these restrictions may not apply to Federal employees and jurisdictions may make exceptions for some cases (e.g., professors of psychology at universities).

Although people who work in I/O psychology are eligible for registration, the majority opt not to register – seeing it as an expensive and burdensome process that is more oriented toward clinical practice than the work performed in I/O Psychology.  The Canadian Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology (CSIOP – the I/O section of the Canadian Psychological Association) advocates a policy of voluntary registration – suggesting that registration should not be mandatory for I/O psychologists but that they should be allowed to register if they so choose.

So why is this important?  In many jurisdictions registration requires the individual to hold a PhD in psychology and if an I/O psychologist wanted to register then he/she would have to meet that standard.  If you wanted to work in I/O and wanted to register as a psychologist, then you would be well advised to ensure that you complete your PhD and a school that is recognized by the provincial authority as providing adequate training.  The established I/O programs in Canada (as well as some that offer I/O training in other areas such as applied social) generally meet that standard but it is a question that any prospective graduate student should ask. Similarly, teaching at university typically requires PhD level training from a recognized university.

If one is not concerned with registration, then it is also possible to do a PhD in management and still stay within the content domain of I/O psychology.  Indeed, many of the best known I/O psychologists in Canada teach in business schools rather than psychology programs (for example Julian Barling at Queen’s University, Rick Hackett at McMaster University, Gary Latham at the University of Toronto) and the content of these programs overlaps significantly with programs in I/O psychology.  Graduates of business programs can teach in both business and psychology programs (just as graduates of psychology can also teach in business) although a business PhD would not typically be eligible for registration as a psychologist.

Having said that, it is quite possible and, indeed common, to work in I/O with a master’s degree.  In my program (Saint Mary’s) for example, we generally find that about 50% of our M.Sc. students will leave after completing their masters to work as a consultant or in industry.  The other 50% go on to PhD studies (some of who will also go into consulting and industry).  They work for consulting firms, research firms (e.g., market research), in human resource departments or teaching in community colleges.

Employment in the field is generally limited to those who have graduate level training.  Indeed, many universities do not offer undergraduate courses in I/O psychology and, if they do, there is often only one general course providing an introduction to the field.   Universities with graduate programs in the field are more likely to offer a range of courses related to I/O (e.g., Personnel Psychology, Organizational Psychology, Occupational Health Psychology, Organizational Development).  There is a great deal of overlap between the content of these courses and similar courses taught in a business school (e.g. Human Resource Management, Organizational Behavior) and some universities will offer a Certificate in Human Resource Management as part of an undergraduate degree.  Although the Certificate may not allow you to claim to be an industrial/organizational psychologist, it often opens the door to a career in human resource management.

Research Methods

The foundation of research and practice in I/O psychology is an interest in very practical questions. How do we hire the best employees for a job?  How do we motivate those employees? How do we manage conflict in the workplace?  How should organizational leaders behave?  To answer these questions we draw on a wide range of research methods.  Although there are certainly interesting examples of qualitative research in I/O psychology (see for example, Scales, Kelloway & Francis, 2014; Wright & Barling, 1998), consistent with our roots in experimental psychology, I/O researchers have focused on quantitative methods.  But because we focus on practical problems in real organizations, research and practice in I/O psychology can be complicated by both practical and scientific concerns.

McGrath (1981) suggested that any research design should achieve three things: [a] precision, [b] generalizability, and [c] existential realism.  Precision is achieved when we can control the variables in the study and other aspects of the research setting. Generalizability is when the findings from a study can be assumed to apply to other populations. Can, for example, the results of a study of undergraduates generalize to all Canadians?  Finally, existential realism is the extent to which the design uses “real” or “artificial” tasks. McGrath goes further to suggest that these considerations form a “three horned dilemma” for researchers.  Attempts to maximize one of the three criteria inevitably come at the cost of at least one of the other two.   Central to McGrath’s argument is the notion that it is impossible to maximize all three criteria in one study.  Therefore, researchers need to use multiple research designs to ensure that all three criteria are met.

Laboratory experiments are, in many ways, the gold standard for research in psychology.  Laboratory experiments allow considerable control over the variables and environment and allow us to identify causal processes.  Kirkpatrick and Locke (1996), for example, were interested in whether having a charismatic leader would create higher levels of performance than having a non-charismatic leader.  To do so they recruited undergraduate students to come into the lab and complete a complicated binder editing task.  Students were given a stack of binders filled with paper and pages of instructions (e.g. in each binder replace p. 23 with the new page provided; change the pages from the red section of the binder to the blue section of the binder etc.).  The researchers hired an actor to give participants the instructions following a script for either charismatic (speak positively, talk about the purpose of the task) or non-charismatic (read the instructions in a dull monotone) leadership.  The design allowed the researchers to claim with considerable confidence that charismatic leadership did result in better performance on the task.  However, one might ask whether the design had existential realism (do employees only have one “boss” who only speaks to them for 5 minutes? is the binder task a reasonable approximation to all kinds of work? Similarly, there are concerns about generalizability – student participants were not employees, and it is not clear that these results have any implications for organizations.  As Kelloway and Day (2014) note, these concerns may be overstated.  The available data suggest that study findings often do generalize beyond the lab (Locke, 1986; Mitchell, 2012) and experiments in I/O psychology tend to generalize better than experiments in other areas of psychology (Mitchell).  Practically, however, it is difficult to convince a CEO to implement an expensive leadership training program based on a study of 40 undergraduates putting binders together and, as a result, lab experiments are rarely used in I/O psychology.

Field Experiments duplicate the logic of a true experimental design but attempt to do so in a realistic setting using real employees.  For example, Barling, Weber & Kelloway (1996) conducted a field experiment in which bank managers were randomly assigned to either a leadership training program or a no-training control condition. They conducted employee surveys both prior to – and after the training and collected data on the financial performance of each branch.  They showed that the employees of the trained leaders were more committed to the bank and that three of the four financial indicators increased as a result of the training.  This design attempted to maximize precision (although one cannot possibly control for everything going on in an organization such as a large bank) while at the same time maximizing existential realism – these were real employees and managers doing real jobs.  However, the study was conducted in only one bank and whether the results would generalize to other banks or other industries (e.g., manufacturing, healthcare) could not be addressed in this study.  Field experiments are difficult to conduct in organizations and their use in I/O psychology is still limited.

Correlational methods are much more widely used in I/O psychology research.  For example, a great deal of research has been directed toward answering questions about the predictors of job performance.  Researchers collect data on some hypothesized predictor (e.g., they have employees complete standardized measures of intelligence) and then correlate these responses with an outcomes such as annual performance ratings.  This type of study is a test of the validity of the predictor.

Organizational surveys are widely used in I/O psychology.  Many companies conduct an annual or bi-annual attitude or morale survey.  The purpose of the surveys is to “take the temperature” of the organization – assessing whether employees are generally satisfied with their jobs and working conditions.  In many organizations, executive compensation will be tied to the survey results (e.g., executives will receive a bonus if 80% or more of their employees are satisfied).   I/O psychologists are frequently involved in the design and analysis of these surveys.

Correlational methods maximize generalizability (because data are collected from the actual employees of the firm) and have some degree of existential realism (because we ask employees about their working conditions. However, surveys typically lack precision.  Although we can ensure that we are measuring the right things, we have little control over the many factors that might influence employee responses to the surveys.  Indeed, Brief, Butcher, & Roberson, (1995) reported that employees who received a cookie while completing an employee attitude survey reported higher levels of job satisfaction than those who did not get a cookie!  Increasingly, I/O psychologists are trying to improve survey designs by incorporating longitudinal data analysis (Kelloway & Francis, 2013).  By examining relationships between variables over time – or how scores on the survey change over time – we can get a clearer idea of how employee attitudes influence outcomes of interest.

The Practice of I/O Psychology

It is difficult to give a meaningful overview of how I/O psychologists work in organizations because they assume so many roles.  However, some of the main areas of practice involve selection and assessment, executive coaching, job design and analysis and employee wellbeing.  In practice, I/O psychologists may either specialize in one of these areas or work in several areas.

Selection and assessment

As you will recall, an early focus in I/O psychology was how to select and assign military recruits to jobs.  Selection and assessment continue to be major areas of practice within I/O psychology with many practitioners focusing their work in this area.  Typically, for example, I/O psychologists might assess candidates for a position using a variety of psychometric instruments (e.g., tests of cognitive ability, personality etc.) and interviews.  Based on the assessment, the psychologist might make a recommendation to the company about who to hire – or might suggest how a given candidate would be likely to perform under different conditions.

This intensive level of assessment is typically limited to executive or professional positions as it is a typically a very expensive process.  I/O psychologists also design selection systems for organizations that are designed to be used for all employees.  For example, many firms use short, computer-administered tests of cognitive ability, personality and integrity as part of their hiring process.  Although I/O psychologists may not be directly involved in administering and scoring the instruments – they have typically been involved at an earlier stage in the process – making recommendations to the company as to what tests to use and how to combine results.

Executive coaching

Many I/O psychologists provide executive coaching services in which they work one-on-one with an individual to help him achieve his/her goals.  Executive coaching may begin with assessments of the individual’s abilities and preferences.  It may also include 360-degree feedback in which data are collected from the clients, superiors, peers and subordinates.  These data may then provide the focus for the individual to either attempt to correct weaknesses in performance or to build on existing strengths.  As coaches, I/O psychologists draw on their extensive knowledge of organizational and interpersonal dynamics to help individuals to achieve their goals.

Job analysis and design

Job analysis – the systematic analysis of jobs to identify job duties and requirements is fundamental to many areas of human resource management.  Typically, job analyses serve as the basis for performance assessments, training, selection criteria, and compensation structures.  I/O psychologists have expertise in conducting job analyses in both small and large organizations.  Although rarely undertaken as a stand-alone activity, job analysis is typically followed by the development of a selection system, performance appraisal instrument or some other human resource management tool.

I/O psychologists also work in the area of job design – trying to make jobs either more efficient or more engaging for employees.  Again, the process begins with a job analysis and then the psychologist makes recommendations for restructuring tasks or providing more feedback to individuals.

Employee Wellbeing

Stress and wellbeing are an increasingly large aspect of work in I/O psychology.  Indeed, a new subfield – occupational health psychology – has emerged reflecting widespread interest in this area.  Most individuals interested in occupational health psychology have some affiliation or training in the broader field of I/O psychology.  In Canada, there has been increased interest in workplace wellbeing and, more specifically, in mental health in the workplace (Kelloway, 2017).  One landmark event was publication of a National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety (CSA1003-2013).  This is a voluntary standard – although organizations are not required to follow it, an increasing number of organizations see considerable value in implementing the standard in their workplace. The standard is based on four general principles, requiring organizations to have a corporate commitment to improving psychological health and safety, to have leadership commitment to the issue, to involve employees in the identification of workplace issues and the design of workplace programs, and to ensure the confidentiality of individuals.  Assisting organizations in these areas is a task particularly well-suited to the skill sets of I/O psychologists.

Although I have highlighted four areas of practice, this is really only scratching the surface of what I/O psychologists do in practice.  I/O psychologists also help organizations in designing and improving team processes, designing training programs, and improving conflict management processes.  Given extensive training in research design, many I/O psychologists provide program evaluation services – assessing whether programs or policies in the organization are having their intended effect.  Psychologists also advise organizations on policies and procedures to prevent discrimination in hiring and promotion decisions, to manage and prevent workplace bullying and violence and to prevent sexual harassment in organizations.  Indeed, it does not go too far to claim that I/O psychologists are involved in virtually every aspect of organizational functioning.

Illustrative Findings

In this section, I present some illustrative findings from the research literature in Industrial/Organizational Psychology.  In doing so, I focus on two areas that have garnered extensive research attention and have considerable practical implications for organizations; hiring and leadership.

How do we hire the best person for the job?

Recall that one of the earliest applications of I/O psychology was the selection of soldiers during World War I.  This interest in selection – how we get the best person for a given job – has remained a large part of the practice of I/O psychology and there are decades of research focused on one or more aspects of the hiring procedure.  Hiring is a complex process and is highly regulated by labour and human rights legislation – for our purposes we will focus on the psychological aspects of the hiring process.

To an I/O psychologist, hiring somebody is a problem of prediction.  What information can we collect now that will give us an accurate prediction of how a job candidate might perform the job?  If we have multiple candidates, then our task will be to rank order the applicants in terms of their predicted performance and then hire the ones with the highest predicted performance.  This presumes that we know [a] what tasks and responsibilities are involved with the job, [b] what effective performance of those tasks looks like.  I/O psychologists use a process called job analysis to identify the major duties of a job and begin to identify the qualities and characteristics necessary for effective performance.  The end result of a job analysis is often a job description – a concise written summary of the position and its requirements (Kelloway, Catano & Day, 2011).  The job analysis will typically identify specific skills, certifications and training required for the job – during the hiring process we can assess whether candidates have those skills and certifications.

Perhaps the most common way to assess a candidate’s skills and certifications is with a resume.  Resumes typically describe both your education and your previous job history.   Unfortunately, Hunter and Hunter (1984) found that resumes were not very good predictors of performance.  The problem, as you might guess, is that people frequently lie or exaggerate on their resumes.

Resumes typically are used to select the individuals who will be invited to a screening interview.  We have all participated in such interviews – interviewers typically review your resume asking about specific jobs and often throw in vague questions (“what is your greatest weakness as an employee?”  “where do you see yourself 5 years from now?”).  Recently some companies have advocated the use of “brainteaser” questions (e.g., how would you estimate the number of fire hydrants in San Francisco?) – claiming that they identify candidates who are creative.  Google – for many years the main proponent of such questions, has recently concluded that they add little to the hiring process (Nilsen, 2015).  This conclusion is consistent with the academic literature that suggests that these unstructured screening interviews do not give a very good prediction of future job performance (Wiesener & Cronshaw, 1988).

So, what does predict performance?  One way to see if someone has the skills needed to do a job is to get them to actually do the job for you.  These are called work sample tests, or simulations – if you need to hire someone to drive a vehicle then a driving test might be in order.  If you are hiring for keyboarding skills, then a typing test might fit the bill.  If you are hiring someone to teach a university class, have them teach a class as part of the hiring process.   These work sample tests can provide a very good idea of whether or not someone can do the job (Hunter & Hunter, 1984).

The interview can also be improved by adding structure (Wiesener & Cronshaw, 1988) as well as by incorporating elements of a work sample test. Interviews are structured when every candidate is asked the same questions and there is a pre-determined scoring scheme for the answers (much like a test or an exam).  We can mimic a work sample by asking candidates about their previous performance (e.g., “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult customer”).  Asking about prior performance in similar situations in this way is the basis of behavior descriptive interviewing (Janz, 1982, 1989).  When candidates might not have the experience, we can ask about a hypothetical situation (Latham & Saari, 1984; Latham, Saari, Pursell, & Campion, 1980) – e.g., “Imagine you are dealing with a customer who is angry because the product she bought is defective What would you do?”. Both behavioral and situational interviews have been shown to be good predictors of on-the-job-performance.  Hypothetical situations can also be asked about in a paper-and-pencil test with multiple choice answers and these “situational judgment tests” are also good predictors of performance (Weekley & Ployhart, 2006).  Typically, such tests might present more than one correct answer and the candidates are asked to choose the “best” answer from the provided alternatives.

Beyond the skills required for the job, researchers have also identified personal characteristics that might predict job performance. One of the earliest and most researched predictors is general cognitive ability – across a wide variety of occupations, general cognitive ability positively predicts job performance – the more cognitive ability you have the higher your job performance is likely to be (Gottfredson, 1997; Ree & Carretta, 1998).   As Kelloway et al. (2011) note, cognitive ability tests can also result in discrimination against some groups and, therefore, their use in selection is still somewhat controversial.

Personality tests may also give useful predictors of future job performance.  The “Big Five” dimensions – conscientiousness, emotional stability (also known as neuroticism), openness to experience, agreeableness, and extroversion – have all been found to predict job performance (Barrick & Mount, 1991; Tett, Jackson & Rothstein, 1991) as well as other behaviors important in organizations (Darr & Kelloway, 2016).

What do effective leaders do?

There is no doubt that leadership is critical to organizations (Barling, Christie & Hoption, 2011).  Leaders are often tasked with ensuring that organizations achieve their goals and the way in which leaders treat employees has direct implications for attitudes and behavior  including outcomes such as job satisfaction (Judge & Piccolo, 2004), turnover (Bycio, Hackett, & Allen, 1995), health and safety (Mullen & Kelloway, 2011), as well as individual (Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1996), group (Bass, Avolio, Jung, & Berson, 2003) and the organization’s financial performance (Barling et al., 1996).  It is important, then, for us to understand what effective leadership really means.

The first approach to understanding effective leadership was based on the notion that the history of the world was shaped by “great men [sic][1]” (Carlyle, 1907). It was thought that we would learn about successful leadership by reading biographies of leaders such as Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. Biographies of successful business leaders (e.g., Welch & Byrne, 2003) are still popular ways of learning about leadership although no longer considered a research technique.  The “great man” approach did lead to a focus on leadership traits – relative enduring characteristics of individuals.  For example, both height (Judge & Cable, 2004) and intelligence (Judge, Colbert & Ilies, 2004) are related to leadership as are the traits comprising the “Big 5” model of personality (i.e., agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experience, extraversion, neuroticism, Judge et al., 2002).

One of the most influential approaches to leadership emerged just after World War II in a series of studies known as the Ohio State Studies (e.g., Kerr, Schriesheim, Murphy, & Stogdill, 1974).  These researchers identified two aspects of leaders’ behaviour – “Consideration” behaviors focused on people rather than on tasks. In contrast, “initiating structure comprised behaviours that were focused on the task – establishing clear guidelines and procedures for how the work was to be done.  Judge et al. (2004) found that there is good evidence that consideration is moderately to strongly correlated with morale and employee attitudes whereas initiating structure is associated with task and group performance.

Identifying behaviors that characterized effective leaders led to the hypothesis that leaders should change their behaviors under different circumstances. Both Fiedler (1967) and House (1971) proposed influential theories of what became known as situational leadership theory that reflected this notion.  There is fairly good evidence for the idea that different leader behaviors are more effective under different circumstances (e.g. Peters, Hartke, & Pohlmann, 1985; Wofford & Liska, 1993).

Situational theories have been supplanted by what may be termed the modern theories of leadership.  Although there are several such modern theories, the most influential and intensely researched (Barling et al., 2011; Judge & Bono, 2000) is transformational leadership theory.

Transformational leadership (Bass, 1985; Bass & Riggio, 2006) is based on four forms of behaviour sometimes referred to as the “four I’s” of transformational leadership.  Leaders demonstrate individualized consideration when they recognize individual strengths and weaknesses and pay attention to followers as individuals.  Coaching, mentoring, and supporting individuals are all characteristic of individualized consideration. Intellectual stimulation involves challenging existing beliefs and encouraging employees to think for themselves to generate solutions to long-standing problems.  Adopting a questioning stance, encouraging creativity and facilitating independent thought are all characteristics of leaders who demonstrate intellectual stimulation. Idealized influence occurs when leaders are concerned with what is best for followers and the organization (i.e., doing the “right” thing rather than taking the easiest course of action).  Leaders who act in this way create a sense of shared mission and build trust and respect among their followers because they can be counted on to go beyond self-interest to do what is right. Finally, inspirational motivation is evidenced by leaders who set high but achievable standards and who encourage followers to achieve more than they thought.  Telling stories and using symbols are integral to inspirational motivation, which is aimed at increasing employees’ sense of motivation and self-efficacy.

There is a great deal of evidence supporting the effectiveness of transformational leadership behaviours. When leaders engage in these transformational behaviors, they are seen as more productive, elicit better performance from their followers at the individual, team and organizational levels, and have followers who are more satisfied with their jobs and their leaders (Judge & Piccolo, 2004). Importantly, there is also evidence that transformational leadership can be taught to managers (see, for example, Barling, Weber & Kelloway, 1996; Kelloway, Barling & Helleur, 2000; Mullen & Kelloway, 2009) and that when leaders learn and demonstrate transformational leadership, employees demonstrate improved attitudes and performance (Barling et al., 1996; Mullen & Kelloway, 2009).


For over 100 years now I/O psychologists have been working to make organizations more efficient while, at the same time, improving the lives of working people.  Adopting a scientist-practitioner model that values both research and working in applied settings, I/O psychologists have focused on broad range of topics.  How to hire the best employees and how to be an effective leader are just two of the important questions asked by I/O psychologists.  New questions continually emerge (e.g., the effects of new technology on organizational behavior, Day, Scott & Kelloway, 2010) and this is just one of the reasons that I/O psychology is listed as one of the fastest growing professions of the decade (Shellenbarger, 2010) and the second most attractive occupation in science (U.S. News & World Report L.P.,2018).


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Please reference this chapter as:

Kelloway, E. K. (2019). Industrial/organizational psychology. In M. E. Norris (Ed.), The Canadian Handbook for Careers in Psychological Science. Kingston, ON: eCampus Ontario. Licensed under CC BY NC 4.0. Retrieved from https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/psychologycareers/chapter/industrial-organizational-psychology/

  1. Historically, a strong gender bias excluded the consideration of “great women” although a great deal of research now speaks to the leadership effectiveness of both men and women in organizations.


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