What is Industrial Organizational Psychology?

April 20, 2021

 An engaged team in a modern office working toward common goals.

Industrial/organizational psychology focuses on applying the theories of psychology to the world of work. IO psychology goals include improvements in a variety of worker-related areas, including employee selection, training and development, motivation, teamwork, and the development of future leaders.

The goals depend on where an IO psychologist works. The title may as well. Common descriptions include organizational development, talent management, human capital analytics, workforce analytics, people analytics, HR science, and human capital management.

Earning a Master’s in Industrial Organizational Psychology prepares graduates for leadership positions as consultants and working directly for government and industry. With a doctorate, many can move into academia and research positions in government agencies. An IO psychologist’s work includes organizational development, compensation, training, data analysis, and generalist human resource management.

“These are all different areas within I/O Psychology that, depending on the size of the company, can be one position, or many different ones with varying job titles that are usually not “I/O Psychology professional” or “I/O Psychologist,” which is why many people aren’t familiar at first,” said Gina Possin, Assistant Professor of Psychology and IO Psychology MS Program Director
at Marian University.

The Difference Between Industrial and Organizational Psychology

According to Richard Landers, an expert on applying psychological principles to the working world, industrial psychology once focused primarily on improving production in manufacturing and other manual labor – including the performance of battlefield soldiers.

Landers writes that in those days, many of the experiments involving industrial psychology were essentially “trying to trick the worker into working harder.” But by the 1930s, some in the field started looking outside the narrow focus of predicting and improving performance and began to consider issues involving people’s feelings. These considerations included motivation, satisfaction, and how people get along with each other.

That area became known as organizational psychology. In the decades since, the two have merged to where there is little distinction. According to Landers, the main distinctions are as follows.

  • Industrial psychology tends to focus on hiring, training and development, assessing employee performance, and legal issues associated with those issues.
  • Organizational psychology tends to focus on motivation, teamwork, and leadership.

Even so, both sides borrow from the other, creating no real distinction between the two in many settings.

IO Psychology has now expanded just helping businesses, according to the American Psychological Association. They note that IO psychologists in the 21st-century work on projects such as the post-deployment needs of combat-wounded veterans, research into potential ways of improving the lives of poverty-level workers in Asia, and other ways of applying IO Psychology research, methods and practice “for the benefit of society at large.”

Competencies for IO Psychologists

Success in IO psychology requires a combination of specific skills. They include expertise in psychology and its application to the workplace, of course. But they also include data analysis, critical thinking, research skills, psychometrics, and knowledge of test development and validation principles.

Most states do not refer to professionals with a master’s degree in IO psychology as psychologists. Psychologists requires doctoral training and licensing. However, Wisconsin is not a state that requires licensing for I/O Psychology.

The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) notes that IO psychology is a “context-centered discipline.” They write: “This focus differentiates it from fields of psychology that study basic processes (e.g., perception, memory, learning), from fields that study particular populations of individuals (e.g., children, the mentally ill), and from fields that study mechanisms of behavior (e.g., physiological psychology, brain research).”

A sample of the potential job titles in the field include:

  • Talent Management Specialist
  • Organizational Development Specialist/Manager
  • Behavior Analyst
  • Human Resource Research Specialist/Manager
  • Research Scientist
  • Training and Development
  • Personnel Psychologist
  • Psychometrician
  • Project Manager
  • Selection & Assessment Specialist (Many times working in this role is called of Human Resource Specialist in regions that are unfamiliar with I/O Psychology)

IO Psychology and the Modern Workplace

Possin said that no matter the title, those who hold a master’s degree in IO psychology are sought after in the modern workplace.

“The world of work is quickly changing over the past year, and we see I/O Psychology gaining interest,” Possin said. “Companies are finding employees are more productive working remotely, and in some cases, happier to do so. There is a growing need for more workforce analytics, more AI, and a greater understanding of organizational development needs and growth, including some difficult conversations.”

Earning a master’s degree in IO Psychology provides graduates the skills they need to lead those conversations and apply what they learn to benefit workers and businesses. As the workplace becomes more complex, those skills are needed now more than ever.