4 min read

5 things IO psych grads need to leave at university

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Jason McPherson

Chief Scientist, Culture Amp

One of the first things we do when people from an Industrial-Organizational (IO) psychology or science background join Culture Amp is talk to them about some ideas or habits they may have brought with them from university. We do this to help grads understand what they might find different about working in a real-world environment and to encourage them to challenge their own thinking. There are five things that we always encourage them to leave at university:

1. Turning to an off the shelf tool

In an academic environment, we’re exposed to a range of tools that have different levels of reliability and validity. These are often used like a toolkit, so it’s common for new grads to gravitate towards off the shelf tools (and the academic databases used to find them).

At work, we don’t tend to do this because those tools aren’t necessarily designed to answer the question that an organization is asking. So before you pull a tool out it’s important to first determine whether that’s the right tool for the job. The situation is often unique and requires us to create something (including refining or combining tools) rather than just using an existing tool.

For example, when we think about engagement in the workplace, academic research has commonly assessed how engaged individuals are with their job. The problem is that the questions that assess this don’t often consider whether the company is engaging or does anything specific to engage its employees, and that’s the perspective most companies are interested in. They want to know what they do that uniquely connects someone to their organization. While we may be using the same term - engagement - the off the shelf tool may not actually address the problem. That’s why we encourage our grads to look at a tool and assess whether it truly answers the question that the organization is trying to solve for.

2. Looking at the individual rather than the organizational context

The majority of IO psychology research and tools have been geared around individual assessment or personnel selection - they assess personalities and cognitive abilities for individuals. But when we go into organizations we’re often assessing broader things like cultures or how groups of people perceive or experience something. In these circumstances many of the statistical and measurement considerations are quite different. Most of the time we’re trying to identify areas for an organization to focus versus making a high-stakes decision about hiring an individual.

Individual assessment tools also tend to ask individuals how they feel in an isolated context but they are less useful in understanding how a group of people within an organization are feeling about a particular topic. When we’re assessing an organization or culture we often require people to think about their perceptions within that broader framework, so we have to design our questions for purpose. This can be quite different from designing a question for individual assessment.

3. Trying to fit one model

As IO psychologists we often have models that we love. While these are valuable, many grads believe that you have to use them in their entirety every time. It’s common for models to have five or more factors, but you may only find two of those relevant to your situation (or you can’t ask people to spend 45 minutes completing a questionnaire). So pick and choose parts of that model and step outside of it when you need to or even leave them behind when necessary. Don’t let the model dictate your approach.

A model is often just an idea (with varying degrees of support or contextual relevance to your problem) and it needs to be challenged. To do that you may need to go outside of it or take aspects of it and test them. It’s important to also mix models with other things that may also be relevant. Think of the models like a toolbox - you may not need every tool in the box every time so just take out what’s useful and test it in your own data as much as you can.

4. Quoting your professor before thinking

We'll often hear grads say something as a matter of fact when really they’re just quoting their professor. Perhaps their professor told them that regression was better than correlation. While this may be right in some situations (and horribly wrong in others), it’s problematic because it can become like a mantra you can’t go past or engage in a discussion about when one is more useful than the other.

It’s not uncommon for individual professors to distort thinking on a particular topic when, in fact, often there’s a range of competing models with similar evidence. The better approach is to take some time to understand what each of those techniques are and to challenge the thinking from first principles. Have a conversation with people, reconsider the evidence and take your understanding of the techniques further.

5. Chasing perfection

In an academic environment people are understandably focused on perfection. You have to design something correctly, complete your research, publish it and have it peer reviewed - this requires everything to be perfect. But in an organizational context, we're really after the best possible answer in the right amount of time. Businesses want to move fast and they have multiple stakeholders to look after so you have to balance time with perfection.

Often within organizations you may have the opportunity to try something again in a month’s time, so there’s also more room for experimentation. A good case in point is employee net promoter scores (ENPS). As IO psychologists, we’re often taught that you need to have multiple questions for everything of interest (again, this is more of an issue in individual assessment) but this isn’t really possible for some common measures organizations often use such as NPS. You may just have a single question, which isn’t perfect, but that doesn’t mean it won't give you some information or have some value. It’s not always possible to achieve perfection in every instance, so you have to be a little bit flexible in the real world.

There are some significant differences between studying in an academic environment and working with organizations. By keeping these things in mind, new IO grads can improve their skills and make the adjustment into the world of business.

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