What do the government’s ‘industrial organizational psychologists’ do?

The federal government’s industrial organizational psychologists, or I-Os as they are known, aren’t exactly what people might think of when they hear the word “psychologist.”

They don’t provide traditional therapy, meaning one-on-one talk in a warmly lit room, tissue boxes at the ready, a parent figure ready to blame.

Eduardo Salas, an industrial organization psychologist, works with EMTs on a helicopter landing pad at Florida Hospital in Orlando last April. (American Psychological Association)
Eduardo Salas, an industrial organization psychologist, works with EMTs on a helicopter landing pad at Florida Hospital in Orlando last April. (American Psychological Association)

Instead they provide science-based guidance to organizations — from the federal government to universities, Fortune 500 companies and nonprofits  — on how to improve morale and employee resilience in their workforce. Think of it as the application of psychology to the world of work.

They have worked with The Department of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Personnel Management and Department of State, among others, to help them recruit and select job applicants, train and develop employees, build effective teams, measure individual, team and organizational performance and identify and develop leaders.

But in addition to helping the federal government through furlough stress agency wide, they also help employers’ ability to select and promote the best people. They do this by creating tests and by designing products such as training courses, selection procedures and surveys.

One example is when an I-O makes sure testing questions for a department’s hiring and promotions are fair and comply with employment laws and Civil Rights Acts. They also ensure that the testing questions are legally  defensible, designing ways to measure performance and understanding the implications and caveats for each performance measure.

“The work of an I-O psychologist is very different from that of a therapist with a client on the couch,” said Tammy Allen, president of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology or SIOP, which was established in 1982 and has 8,000 members dedicated to applying psychology to people in the workplace. “We are a completely different branch of psychology.”

Alyssa McGonagle, an assistant professor of Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Wayne State University in Detroit, studies worker health and safety on the job: what causes workers to be injured on the job (including safety climate, or how much managers and employees value safety over production) and what I-O’s can do about it to make workplaces safer.

“I also study some of the challenges working with a chronic illness poses to people and how companies can ease some of that burden,” she said. McGonagle recently completed a three-month coaching intervention designed to help people cope with working chronic illness.

Shawn L. Zimmerman provides services to organizations to help them develop their effectiveness.

“I-O psychologists are applying that information to business performance or government performance rather than to reduce human suffering,” he said. “One end is therapy, where suffering starts the conversation; the other end is I-O where business returns starts the conversation. When psychologists at both ends of the continuum are doing their job well, we end up with individuals and systems that are performing their best, happy and productive human beings in the middle of the continuum.”

Emily Wax-Thibodeaux is a National staff writer who covers veteran's affairs and the culture of government. She's an award-winning former foreign correspondent who covered Africa and India for nearly a decade. She also covered immigration, crime and education for the Metro staff.
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