What Is Stopping The Changes Coming About: The Trouble With I/O

By |2018-06-28T11:30:20+08:00February 14th, 2011|Blog|4 Comments

In response to my previous posts, people have asked what I see as the issues that are currently being faced by the I/O psychology discipline. I would say there are three interconnected issues that affect our discipline. The first two are internal and the second is external. My belief is that until we get our head fully around these issues and the impact that they are having, the discipline of I/O psychology will continue to fall short of its potential.

Issue 1: The difference between mass psychology and experienced/up-to-date practitioners

The I/O practice is now a discipline for the masses. It has moved from being the domain of a select few to one of the fastest growing disciplines in the world. With this, has come the proliferation of tools and theory (e.g. leadership) so that everyone can have an aid to making decisions on human behaviour. Practitioners of I/O psych (whether they be psychologists or HR professionals) simply do not have the time or skills to uncover unconscious drives, personal constructs, situational taxonomies, or the like. Nor do many have the inclination to continue to be well read on a discipline that is evolving quickly on the fringes. In terms of theory, getting into the unconscious and deterministic aspects of behaviour is something that people are just not ready for!

Issue 2: The academic system is not serving us well

I have commented on this many times before but never quite so bluntly. The reality is that the system itself has inherent failings. Firstly, what academics are reinforced for is often the antithesis of quality science. This is captured in the sycophantic, agreeable, and generally passive nature of most academics. Their research in the main is hardly ever ground-breaking but follows a set of agreed rules as to what constitutes ‘science’, and so the game continues.

From a teaching perspective, there is a pervasive incentive to get degrees for everyone. This is reflected in what and how it is taught and to whom.

Issue 3: The speed at which decisions must be made

Practitioners need to make decisions quickly in the current selection environment. Recruitment is a tough job: Making $150,000 decisions ($75,000*2, just counting salary not even getting into ROI) with limited information is fundamentally hard. Cognitive tools, identification of negative behavioural tendencies, etc. provide an aid to this process. The key role that personality plays for practitioners is that it provides a semantic code by which we can make decisions under difficult circumstances. Whether it is called personality or a behavioural cluster, the reality is that practitioners need tools to aid decisions and these tools need to work within the timeframe and paradigm in which practitioners work.

About the Author:

Paul Englert
Dr. Paul Englert is a co-founder of OPRA and Managing Director of OPRA in Asia Pacific. Since 1997 Paul’s professional career has had a single focus. That is to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of organisations through the appropriate application of Industrial/Organisational (I/O) Psychology.


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    Richard N. Landers February 14, 2011 at 11:26 am - Reply

    I do not see any of these as “trouble” or something we something we need to “get our heads around.” I am uneasy about this post and your previous post on the state of I/O, because both combine many unlike issues into large “problems” that I am not sure really exist.

    Issue 1: I honestly am not sure what you are saying here. You title this by stating that there is a difference between “mass psychology” and “experienced practitioners.” And then you state “Practitioners of I/O psych (whether they be psychologists or HR professionals) simply do not have the time or skills…” So I believe you are thus stating that I/O practitioners are on the mass psychology side of the “difference”? Or is it both?

    As for this: “In terms of theory, getting into the unconscious and deterministic aspects of behaviour is something that people are just not ready for!”. People have been trying to understand “why we act the way we do” for millennia, back to the Greek philosophers. This is not a new concept. I don’t know who you think is “not ready,” but we (humans) have been trying to do exactly this for a very long time, across a wide variety of domains.

    Issue 2: Any system has inherent weaknesses, as no system is perfect. Singling out academia does no good here. I could just as easily say “the practitioner system is not serving us well” because practitioners jump at fads and fashion at the drop of a hat because that’s where the money leads, which discredits the entire field. But such generalizations solve nothing (and while accurate for a few, are inaccurate for many others).

    I’ll also mention that research across domains, from the natural sciences to the humanities, is rarely ground-breaking, because research is by definition conservative. Incremental knowledge gains that we can place some trust in are seen as more valuable than leaps forward with many holes in them. Those researchers that can do both at the same time are the ones that are perceived as ground-breaking, but that requires a lot of skill/intelligence and at least a small portion of luck.

    Issues 3: Speed of decision making for practitioners is an issue that everyone is quite aware of. But there are really two options here: 1) take the time to make a well-informed decision, or 2) guess (which includes reasoned guesses using heuristics, e.g. “I hired someone like him before.”). It seems you are supporting the second approach, but that seems unwise.

    Having said that, your actual comment under this heading seems to focus on personality testing, rather than time investments related to decision-making. Administering and scoring a personality test takes as little as 15 minutes. You seem to be suggesting that testing is not fast enough, but I am honestly not sure how to make it any faster than that, or why we really need to.

    • Avatar
      Dr Paul Englert February 14, 2011 at 11:27 am - Reply

      Hi Richard

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. Your comments indicate that I may not have been as clear as I would have liked in my Blog. I will try and provide more clarity below:

      Point 1: My belief is the discipline has become less the domain of highly skilled practioners prepared to challenge conventional thinking and more a field which is populous and watered down. I find it hard to establish ‘standards’ for the discipline when almost anything passes as ‘adding to the discipline’. My idealistic view of the past is a discipline was prolific writers who dedicated themselves to the pursuit of truth. My point around determinism, the unconscious etc are more that they are in the main absent from I/O as the discipline has taken a somewhat reductionist view. Moreover, the discipline has a perverse incentive to talk about the changeable nature of human behaviour as this is the basis for almost all intervention strategies.

      Point 2: I agree whole-heartily that any system has weaknesses. However, the problem in academia is that it is upheld as the bastions for the search for knowledge and is respected as such. The reality is however that the system is now against academia and I’m wanting to make this explicit. Gone are the days for most pure research and for most academics the pragmatics of an academic career stifle quality research for all but the best universities (see Weekend Australian Financial review, Jan 29-30, 2011 ‘Academia ain’t what it used to be’ for a good treatment on the topics).

      Point 3: In hindsight this point is poorly written and I take responsibility for any misunderstandings. What I’m trying to say here is that is that the speed with which decisions need to be made result in a denial of the complexity of the human condition. This has made personality and cog testing so popular. It has less to do with its power of prediction and more to do with its speed. If can be done quick there is a market for it. Deep analysis has no sizable market, no matter the fact that will far better capture the human psyche. As a result most of I/O is reduced to quick rather than thorough solutions as that is where the market is.

      I would again like to thank you for taking the time to respond. The purpose of these Blogs is to stimulate thought and debate, all-be-it with a twinge of controversy. They are my views and not those of OPRA. I’m grateful that you took the time to engage.

      • Avatar
        Richard Landers February 15, 2011 at 11:29 am - Reply

        1: My suspicion about your view of the past is likely, as you say yourself, idealistic. There have always been both low- and high-quality contributions, and journal quality is the traditional metric by which to gauge this. The issue now, I suspect, is not that the ratio of wheat to chaff has changed, but rather than the quantity of both have increased dramatically. From a human processing perspective, this makes it much more difficult to sort out what is worth one’s attention.

        But as for the unconscious being absent from I/O, that’s probably a side-effect of this being an applied psychology. I don’t think that I/O has ever really focused on such things. If anything, we have become more theoretically driven and focused on internal processes in the past decade or so, a far cry from the dustbowl empiricism of old. The next step, perhaps, is a combination of theory and data into something more integrative, but these are definitely steps forward toward something new – not toward some golden past.

        3: I agree with most of this, but I don’t think it’s a problem. Few I/O psychologists would argue that the complexities of the human condition are not in any way relevant to the workplace. The issue is rather that these complexities are not worth the time to understand them. You say: “Deep analysis has no sizable market, no matter the fact that will far better capture the human psyche.” If there is no market for it, I’d argue that it must not really better capture the human psyche – at least not in any way meaningful to organizations. Understanding “more” doesn’t necessarily mean “better.”

        • Avatar
          Dr Paul Englert February 15, 2011 at 11:29 am - Reply

          I think your suspicion is warranted. I maybe wishing for a past that never existed. I would however never want to be tarnished with a brush that harked back to the ‘Good old days’ so let me further clarify my points.

          Applied I/O is often very predictable and cliche. Pinnacle papers note that those who are cognitively bright (high g), hard working (conscientious) and can handle stress (low n) operate well. If that is what our discipline has to offer as ground breaking than it is hard to see where we are adding real value. In terms of theory I think theorists like Hogan are heading in the right direction as they incorporate different schools of psychology and challenges cliche beliefs in their writing. However the corollary that this can be measured in self report tools indicates to me that academic robustness is second to commercial reinforcement when it comes to application.

          You wrote: If there is no market for it, I’d argue that it must not really better capture the human psyche – at least not in any way meaningful to organizations.

          I disagree and this I think is at the heart of the discussion. What is popular often out sells that which is better and our discipline is dominated by examples of that. Companies spend millions on competency models, team building, and the like independent of research or real world outcomes. Practioners in turn follow the money and so the circle continues.

          What is missing in our discipline is a Hawkings; people aiming to create unified theory, real systems thinking. As practioners we need to challenge the populous models commonly used and aim for deeper analysis that capture the complexity of the individual and situation interaction. This takes time, deep analysis and by its very nature requires highly skilled practioners. As academics we need to not be happy with another correlative study absent of real theory. We must aim for far stronger research that takes years to conduct and this can only happen if the way academic institutions and journals reinforced change. All IMO of course.

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