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Questions that organizational psychologists often receive

Dr. Simon Moss

This article presents some questions that organizational psychologists often receive, together with some potential responses or recommendations.

Questions about the benefits of various workplace indices and measures

Why should we attempt to increase the extent to which employees engage in citizenship behaviors--discretionary acts that are intended to enhance the organization?

Many studies have examined the benefits of these citizenship behaviors--discretionary acts that are intended to enhance the organization. When employees frequently engage in these behaviors, most of which transcend their formal role, the financial performance of organizations improve. Profitability, efficiency, and productivity all increase (see Dunlop & Lee, 2004& Koys, 2001& Podsakoff & MacKenzie, 1994& Walz & Niehoff, 2000).

Why should we attempt to promote engagement in the workplace?

When individuals feel engaged--when they feel energized, committed, and absorbed while they complete their work--two main sets of benefits emerge. First, research indicates their performance improves. Workgroups, departments, or organizations in which employees feel engaged have been shown to be more profitable (e.g., Haudan & MacLean, 2002).

Second, when individuals feel engaged, their attitudes to work improve. They become more committed to the organization, which curbs the costs of turnover (Harter, Schmidt, & Hayes, 2002& see Engagement at work).

Third, engagement seems to enhance the capacity of employees to resolve problems, flexibly and appropriately. As a consequence, their customers are more likely to be satisfied (cf., Hakanen, Bakker, & Schaufeli, 2006& for a meta-analysis, see Harter, Schmidt, & Hayes, 2002)& a 1% improvement in customer satisfaction has been shown to be associated with an 11.4% increase in return on investment, a $654 million increase in market value of equity, and a $55 million increase in net operating cash flow (Anderson & Fornell, 2000& see also Subramony, Krause, Norton, & Burns, 2008).

Why should we attempt to enhance the level of teamwork and cohesion at the organization?

When individuals feel their colleagues are supportive, not only does their well-being and attitude to work improve, their performance is also enhanced. In particular, when employees operate in supportive teams, their sense of confidence is boosted, and their persistence while completing difficult tasks improves. Indeed, when individuals interact with a supportive colleague, difficult tasks do not seem as daunting. Even a hill that someone needs to climb does not seem as steep after individuals interact with supportive colleagues or friends (Schnall, Harber, Stefanucci, & Proffitt, 2008).

Furthermore, when individuals feel their colleagues are supportive, their resilience and wellbeing improves. For example, social support tends to curb the likelihood of burnout (Schaufeli, Bakker, & Van Rhenen, 2009). Similarly, social support can reduce the effect of work problems on performance. To illustrate, when employees are dissatisfied with their job, their creativity tends to decline& however, if the team is supportive, job dissatisfaction actually translates into more creativity (Zhou & George, 2001).

Why should we attempt to improve work attitudes, such as job satisfaction, commitment, and fit?

When individuals feel more committed to the organization--when they feel the values of this workplace align with their own priorities and preferences--a series of benefits arise (for a summary, see Meyer, Stanley, Herscovitch, & Topolnytsky, 2002). In particular, these employees tend to perform their job more effectively, as gauged by their supervisor. Furthermore, they are more inclined to engage in discretionary activities that enhance the organization, such as helping colleagues. Finally, the level of employee turnover diminishes& the costs of recruitment and training thus subside.

Similarly, research has also confirmed the benefits of a sense of fit--in which employees feel their values, preferences, and skills align with the needs, practices, and characteristics of their job, workgroup, or organization. When individuals experience this sense of fit, they feel their core needs have been fulfilled. As a consequence, they become more engrossed in their work, which has been shown to improve their performance at work (Greguras & Diefendorff, 2009).

Why should we attempt to reduce the turnover of employees?

Many studies have examined the decrease in costs, and thus increase in profitability, when the turnover of employees diminishes. Some studies estimate the costs of employee departures--the costs of recruitment and training, for instance--approximate or exceed 150% of the annual wage of these individuals (Ahlrichs, 2000). Johnston (2001) showed this cost can vary from 75% to 150% of the annual salary of employees, depending on the role.

Questions about the benefits of various traits

Why should we improve the emotional intelligence of employees?

Emotional intelligence reflects the extent to which individuals can appraise, monitor, discriminate, identity, utilize, and regulate emotions (Salovey & Mayer, 1990& for more information, see emotional intelligence measures). In general, individuals who have developed exemplary emotional intelligence perform more effectively in the workplace. That is, they are more likely to fulfill, or even to exceed, the goals they are assigned--especially if they are also granted autonomy (Abraham, 2000).

Emotional intelligence is also associated with better work attitudes and greater wellbeing (MacCann & Roberts, 2008). Individuals who demonstrate emotional intelligence tend to be more satisfied with their job, provided the role does involve significant social contact with clients or colleagues (Wong & Law, 2002).

Why should we improve the resilience of employees and managers?

Resilient employees and managers do not only experience elevated levels of well-being, but also tend to enhance the performance of organizations. To illustrate, when managers or employees are resilient, they more readily adapt their work style, behavior, and preferences to accommodate the needs and requirements of their environment (Baumann & Kuhl, 2005b). As a consequence, their decisions tend to be more suitable and flexible rather than insensitive to subtle, but important, features of the context.

In addition, when resilient, and as a consequence of their capacity to experience positive emotions in challenging situations, individuals can uncover a diverse range of suggestions and solutions to solve key problems and difficulties& hence, they can enhance the level of workplace innovation (see Bolte, Goschke, & Kuhl, 2003). Finally, resilience tends to enhance rapport and understanding in relationships, a key determinants of teamwork (Waugh & Fredrickson, 2006& see also The broaden and build theory). Finally, these individuals are more receptive to unexpected information& they are not as resistant to change or feedback (Estrada, Isen, & Young, 1997).

Why should we attempt to improve the creativity and innovation of employees and managers?

Research indicates that innovation often translates into improvements in financial performance. Nevertheless, innovation does not always enhance performance. Advanced knowledge in psychology or related fields is needed to understand how to convert innovation into profitability, market value, or growth.

To illustrate, when the board of directors primarily comprises members who do not work at the organization, innovative knowledge, represented by investment in research and development as well as citations of patents, can decrease firm performance, as gauged by market value (He & Wang, 2009& see Resource based perspectives of the firm). In contrast, elevated levels of contingent pay or equity ownership augments the beneficial effect of innovative knowledge on firm performance.

Questions about the benefits of various psychological tools and programs

Why should we utilize assessment centres?

Many studies have been undertaken to examine the utility of assessment centers (e.g., Arthur, Day, McNelly, & Edens, 2003& Bowler & Woehr, 2006& Gaugler, Rosenthal, Thornton, & Bentson, 1987). In one of the most comprehensive analyses, Meriac, Hoffman, Woehr, and Fleisher (2008) examined whether assessment centers are still useful if cognitive ability, or intelligence, as well as personality is already measured. These authors found that competencies measured by the assessment centers could distinguish employees who later performed well from employees who later performed inadequately--even if these individuals were equivalent on intelligence and personality. Thus, even when intelligence and personality are measured comprehensively, assessment centers still provide important information.

Specifically, this study uncovered several capabilities that should be examined in assessment centers and predict performance. These capabilities are awareness of the needs or concerns of other individuals, communication ability, persuasion skills, planning or organizing ability, motivation or drive, and stress management.

Why should we assess the culture, climate, or characteristics of the organization?

Many organizations evaluate the culture, climate, or characteristics of the organization, often by administering employee opinion surveys. Unless developed and interpreted appropriately, these surveys are often relatively futile. Nevertheless, if these surveys are not administered and interpreted, many of the initiatives and programs that organizations implement are futile.

For example, to enhance teamwork, many organizations introduce systems of pay in which bonuses depend on team, not individual, performance: All members receive a bonus if the team exceeds some target or criterion. Whether or not this system, or alternative approaches, are effective depends on the culture and climate of the organization. This system is not effective, for instance, if the team had seldom worked collaboratively in the past (Johnson, Hollenbeck, Ilgen, Humphrey, Meyer, & Jundt, 2006& see Structural adaptation theory).

Why should we improve the safety culture of organizations?

Safety incidents represents one of the major expenses of organizations. Injuries at work are rampant: In the US, during 2004 alone, 4.3 million injuries and illnesses that relate to work were reported& 1.3 million of these work injuries or illnesses culminated in lost work time (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2005).

There incidents reduce productivity as well as increase recruitment and training expenses& the indirect costs of incidents and illnesses that relate to work represent three times the costs of wage replacement and healthcare of these employees (Gallagher & Morgan, 2002). Furthermore, premiums have also soared: Health care premiums rose by 60% from 2000 to 2004 in the US, and these premiums approximate $7009 per employee (Eishen, Grossmeier, & Gold, 2005).

The incidence of injuries, and hence these health expenses, is significantly related to the safety culture. Gillen, Baltz, Gassel, Kirsch and Vaccaro's (2002), for example, showed that management concerns about safety, safety activities, such as training, and level of risk that employees would accept to attract promotions or status were related to the incidence of accidents. Similarly, Lee and Harrison (2000) demonstrated that participation in safety initiatives, acceptance of safety rules, stress at work, and safety training were related to indices of safety accidents. Thus, psychologists who understand how to cultivate a suitable safety culture can significantly reduce the costs that are incurred from safety incidents.

Questions about the skills of psychologists

Why should we employ psychologists to provide executive coaching?

Many experienced executive coaches have not studied extensively in psychology. Coaches that are not psychologists and coaches that are psychologists often seem to apply similar techniques. Nevertheless, some of the subtle differences can greatly affect the utility of coaching.

To illustrate, many coaches, regardless of whether or no they have studies psychology, encourage their clients to visualize the behaviors they would like to undertake in the future. Nevertheless, unless applied appropriately, visualization can actually diminish the likelihood that clients implement these behaviors (Petrova & Cialdini, 2005& see visualization).

For example, visualization is most effective if several conditions are fulfilled. First, the clients should engage in some physical action--and action that corresponds to the behavior they plan to undertake. Second, clients should imagine the precise context, location, or time in which they plan to implement these behaviors as well as two or three obstacles that might transpire (Adriaanse, de Ridder, & de Wit, 2009& see also a href=/psyarticle.asp?id=276>Implementation intentions). Third, clients should practice or observe this behavior for a while before they engage in this visualization process, primarily to ensure they can envisage this act is vividly as possible (Petrova & Cialdini, 2005).

Similarly, some coaches, if untrained in psychology, are unaware of how to persuade clients to change their behavior. They sometimes, for example, express words or phrases that have been shown to promote resistance, rather than receptivity, to feedback. They might utilize words like absolute terms, like "must" or "this strategy is definitely better", which provoke resistance (Quick & Stephenson, 2008& see also Psychological reactance theory).

Why should we employ psychologists to enhance teamwork?

Many consultants, with limited training in psychology, are employed to enhance team cohesion. They might, for example, organize events in which members of teams undertake activities that cultivate camaraderie. Often, these endeavors, although initially useful, do not translate to enduring improvements in teamwork.

Consultants often disregard some of the factors that promote teamwork. To illustrate, according to optimal distinctiveness theory (Hornsey & Jetten, 2004), individuals feel most committed and loyal to their team when their need to feel distinct as well as their need to belong is fulfilled--two needs that are difficult to reconcile. Experienced psychologists, for example, can introduce strategies that fulfill these conflicting needs. They might, for example, encourage the team to embrace individuality and ideosyncracies. When teams embrace diverse, creative, and ideosyncratic behavior, members feel that expressing unique opinions or perspectives fulfill the norms of their team& they feel they can be unique while feeling they belong.

Why should we employ psychologists facilitate leadership development programs?

Many experienced, and even reputable, facilitators of leadership development programs have not received training in psychology. Although these facilitators and instructors are sometimes compelling or even helpful, their limited knowledge of psychology research can evoke some key complications.

First, they are often unaware of the limitations of their theories. To illustrate, many consultants maintain the leaders should present a vivid, rousing depiction of the future and then inspire individuals to embrace and pursue this vision. Unfortunately, without the requisite training in psychology, consultants are often oblivious to the limitations of this style. They are not aware this style is ineffective if employees have yet to form a solid and trusting relationship with the leader. They are not aware this style is unsuitable if employees are bombarded with duties and obligations they must complete in the next few days (Moss, Ritossa, & Ng, 2006) or if employees like to assess all their options, carefully and comprehensively (Benjamin & Flynn, 2006& see Regulatory mode).

Similarly, many facilitators, unless they have studied psychology extensively, are not aware of the practices that increase the level of effort and exertion that individuals can mobilize. That is, in these development programs, participants are encouraged to change the behavior or style--a change that depletes effort and energy from a limited resource and thus diminishes subsequent performance. Nevertheless, psychologists have discovered practices that offset this problem: Participants who undertake a diversity of difficult tasks in the morning (Converse & DeShon, 2009) or observe photographs of nature (Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008) can maintain their effort over the day (see also ego depletion)

Why should we employ psychologists to interview job candidates?

Most people, especially experienced managers and recruiters, assume they can readily distinguish suitable applicants from unsuitable individuals. They assume they are perceptive and insightful& they feel their intuition about people is accurate (but see Ames & Kammrath, 2004, for evidence that people often overrate their own capacity to decipher the personality of other people).

Nevertheless, training in psychology enables individuals to distinguish between accurate and inaccurate hunches or instincts. To illustrate, when individuals feel stressed or worried, their intuitions tend to be inaccurate (Bolte, Goschke, & Kuhl, 2003). When individuals trust their immediate instincts about a person, rather than enable an intuition to evolve gradually over time, these hunches also tend to be inaccurate (Dijksterhuis, 2004). Many other practices or tendencies can compromise these decisions, culminating in unsuitable choices (see Unconscious thinking theory).

Alternatively, many managers and recruiters can readily characterize their candidates, but cannot readily determine the implications of these traits or qualities. To illustrate, they might, almost immediately, recognize that a candidate seems extraverted, confident, gregarious, and assertive. Nevertheless, they might not be aware that individuals with this personality are often more suited to teams in which the majority of employees are reserved and reflective (e.g., Neuman, Wagner, & Christiansen, 1999). They might not be aware individuals with this personality are not suited to more repetitive activities (Schmidt, Beauducel, Brocke, & Strobel, 2004), especially if they are not monitored closely (Campbell, Simpson, Stewart, & Manning, 2003).

Why should we employ psychologists to impart management skills, like time management

Often, organizations will seek the services of experienced consultants, with no formal training in psychology, to impart management skills. Often, these consultants utilize their own experience and insights to train participants. Although the insights of these consultants can be valuable, without suitable training in psychology, several problems can emerge.

First, consultants are often oblivious to practices and solutions that are not necessarily intuitive but nevertheless are invaluable. That is, they are seldom aware of unintuitive or counterintuitive discoveries (for examples, see Unintuitive findings).

To illustrate, one of the main problems in time management is that most individuals underestimate the time that is needed to complete most tasks& activities that seem to demand 3 hours actually might demand 4 hours, for example. Consultants who are not psychologists are often unaware of the practices that curb this bias. They are not, for example, aware that individuals are less likely to underestimate the time that is needed to complete some task after they consider three obstacles that could impede their progress. If individuals consider fewer than two obstacles or more than eight obstacles that might hinder their progress, they become even more likely to underestimate the time that is needed to complete tasks& they often feel rushed, and their goals are seldom fulfilled (see Sanna & Schwar2004).

Second, consultants who are not psychologists are not always aware of how to change individuals. They might, for example, recommend that managers should maintain composure. However, they might not be aware that merely instructing individuals to be composed can actually magnify anxiety. That is, after they complete a training program, participants often feel the need to suppress their previous inclinations. Unfortunately, these attempts tend to be unsuccessful. These attempts activate a circuit in the brain, which comprises the anterior cingulate (Wyland, Kelley, Macrae, Gordon, & Heatherton, 2003), that merely increases the sensitivity of individuals to the thoughts or emotions they want to suppress. These undesirable thoughts and emotions become more salient (Campbell-Sills, Barlow, Brown, & Hofmann, 2006). Indeed, further attempts to suppress these thoughts or emotions tends to reduce motivation as well as increase the likelihood of burnout (see ironic rebound).

Why should we employ psychologists to administer culture, climate, engagement, or opinion surveys?

Practitioners without expertise in psychology often apply practices that compromise the benefits of these employee surveys. They do not, for example, utilize techniques that override subtle problems, like acquiescence bias or common method variance. As a consequence, they generate conclusions that are misleading. They might incorrectly maintain that more resources need to be invested in some characteristic or function, squandering money and compromising productivity.

Why should we employ psychologists to ascertain our remuneration packages and workplace benefits?

Practitioners without expertise in psychology often formulate remuneration packages and offer benefits that, although seemingly appropriate, inadvertently curb motivation. To illustrate, some work tasks are relatively inspiring and enjoyable--activities that demand the skills that employees have cultivated, and also entail creativity and variety, can be relatively fulfilling. Unfortunately, when employees are rewarded to engage in these tasks more frequently, they become less likely to enjoy the activities& level of engagement and performance thus decline, called the overjustification effect (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999& see Self determination theory).

Other questions that need to be answered--to be completed

Why should we assess the leadership style of managers?

Why should we administer psychometric tests to recruit managers and employees?

Why should we administer psychometric tests to develop individuals?

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