Educating Industrial–Organizational Psychologists for Science, Practice, and Social Responsibility


Byrne et al. (2014) have explored ways in which the education and training of industrial–organizational (I–O) psychologists might be improved, and I believe their suggestions are responsive and germane to the problems and issues they raise. However, in the spirit of their objective “to spark conversation among SIOP members” (p. 3), I would like to point out that they fail to consider a vital component of such education—perhaps because of the perspective taken in framing the issues. It is clear throughout their essay that the motivation driving their deliberations is the guild issue of our employability and success in the marketplace (both academic and for professional practice). And a significant component of that motivation stems from concern about “increasing competition from other disciplines” (p. 2).

That is not a new concern among I–O psychologists (cf., Steiner & Yancey, 2013), and it has often led to soul-searching regarding our professional identity: for example, Gasser, Butler, Waddilove, and Tan (2004); Ryan (2003); Ryan and Ford (2010). Although it is tempting to take such existential concerns at face value, they can also be contextualized historically as merely the most recent examples in a variety of recurring identity crises that stem from the failure to include a moral dimension to the field (Lefkowitz, 2010, 2013a).

I–O psychology is generally defined in terms of its substantive content, and correspondingly the authors cited above, as well as Byrne et al., have looked to the putative uniqueness of our competencies and the adequacy of graduate curricula in reflecting those competencies as the path to improved competitiveness. For example, “given that the language of practice is competencies, graduate programs should configure their curriculum around competencies” (p. 5). But perhaps we should take a step back . . . . Reflections on professional education ought to benefit from consideration of what is a profession.

The Nature of a Profession and Professional Values

Social scientists have given considerable thought to the nature and definition of professions (Freidson, 1986; Haber, 1991; Hall, 1975; Kimball, 1992). The topic has been reviewed elsewhere more extensively than is possible here (Lefkowitz, 2003, Chapter 8; 2013a). Among the traditional attributes of professions (e.g., being organized around a theoretical body of knowledge—scientific and/or pragmatic; being accepted by society as a legitimate authority in its domain) I would like to emphasize the following: (a) Professions generally have some form of ethical code as a guide to appropriate action regarding clients, colleagues, and the public at large; (b) professions have their own culture of values, norms, and professional opinion; (c) the power and responsibility of a profession extend beyond its direct clients to its position in the society at large—in exchange for the authority, status, and prestige bestowed. This perspective is embodied in the notion of a “professional ideal” that entails both “selfless and contractual service” (Kimball, 1992, p. 303). In other words, “a profession is marked not only by its scientific and theoretical underpinnings and the effectiveness of its instrumental practice but by its moral or normative stance regarding human well-being” (Lefkowitz, 2003, p. 294; 2010). That is why the introduction to the ethics code of the American Psychological Association (APA) specifies that psychologists are committed to using the knowledge we acquire “to improve the condition of individuals, organizations, and society” (APA, 2002, p. 1062).

The professional ideal seems to fit pretty well with respect to the traditional professions—teaching, clergy, medicine, law, and politics (Kimball, 1992).1 For example, among the eight overarching goals of the curriculum of the Yale School of Medicine concerning the science and practice of medicine (e.g., mechanisms and treatment of disease; clinical reasoning; patient care) are professionalism and communication, and responsibility to society (Curricular Design Committee, 2010). Donaldson (1982) distinguished the older professions from newer “technocratic professions” that arose largely in association with the modern corporate enterprise—for example, accountancy, advertising, systems analysis, public relations, and engineering. “The standards of the new professional do not explicitly include moral standards, in part because his or her profession does not recognize an altruistic element in its overall goals . . . the new professions fail, it seems, because they do not even attempt to articulate moral standards” (Donaldson, 1982).

I believe that a substantial case can be made that I–O psychology comes uncomfortably close to sharing attributes of Donaldson's technocratic professions (cf., Lefkowitz, 2003, 2005, 2008, 2011, 2012b), and that is not surprising. Clearly, I–O developed in the same organizational context with comparable goals of contributing to organizational effectiveness. That is unlike many of the traditional professions, even when they are practiced in formal organizational settings. Medicine is not aimed primarily at improving the profitability of hospitals; teachers do not labor over how to improve the efficiency of their schools. Yet, in the process of attempting to accomplish their primary objectives of improving individual well-being and education, respectively, those institutional improvements are often also accomplished—to the extent that one defines the effectiveness of a hospital in terms of its level of success in treating patients and that of a school in terms of its success in educating students.

Educating for Science, Practice, and Social Responsibility

As noted earlier, a profession is composed of three components: its theoretical or scientific basis, its applied practice, and its normative relation to society. The first two are generally what comprise the content of graduate school curricula, and much has been written about them in I–O psychology. Byrne et al. amplify the discussion in terms of the individual competencies associated with each. This commentary focuses only on the third component because it is so rarely considered—perhaps because it is generally not taught explicitly but is acquired largely through implicit socialization processes. The remaining section is structured around three statements by Byrne et al. that are very valuable but that ought to be elaborated and extended into areas not included by them.

We Think the Whole Person Needs to Show Up for Work, Not Just an Executor of Methodology” (p. 5)

The authors quite rightly mean to emphasize that career success as an I–O psychologist depends on competencies beyond technical knowledge—such as managing oneself, collaboration, oral and written communication, and avoiding counterproductive behavior—which are not necessarily provided by graduate training. I would add that graduate training in I–O is even less likely to include explicit consideration of the humanist and social justice traditions in psychology (Kimble, 1984; Kornhauser, 1947; Vasquez, 2012); questions concerning the values that inform professional and moral obligations (Prilleltensky, 1997); and the extent to which our claims of being objective, scientific, and “value free” actually mask the prevalence and salience of a corporatist value system often at odds with humanitarian aims (Lefkowitz, 1990, 2003, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012a, 2012b, 2013a, 2013b).

Byrne et al. pay special attention to “counterproductive behaviors as a competency,” by which they mean “ill-considered or even illicit behavior (e.g., fabricating data, plagiarism)” (p. 5) on the part of the I–O psychologist. They do not consider misbehavior by the organization and the responses available to an ethical and socially conscious I–O consultant or employee/manager who may find him/herself faced with such a difficult dilemma. Apparently, even when we consider potentially unethical behavior, we view it in the neutral, objective-sounding language of “competencies” rather than as social or moral issues reflecting a subjective values position or values conflict. This segues into the Byrne et al. second statement.

Unstated Professional Expectations Are, Indeed, Meaningless” (p. 6)

The authors, here, are referring to the advisability of making explicit early in the education/training process proscriptive guidelines for “counterproductive competencies.” But those are not the only expectations that should be made explicit. We know that occupations are characterized by value systems, whether explicit or implicit (Dierdorff & Morgeson, 2013). To what extent do I–O graduate programs, individual faculty members, internship supervisors, and research mentors explicitly engage with I–O students on such topics as the underlying goals and values of the profession, how those values articulate with others, professional values in general, institutional values of the organizations we serve and how those relate to more broadly based societal concerns, or real-world dilemmas associated with potential conflicts between one's personal values and those of the organization?

As noted earlier, all professional occupations are characterized by a set of moral values concerning their societal relations. Sometimes these are articulated clearly; often, as with I–O psychology, they tend to be implicit, unspoken, and even unacknowledged. Perhaps it is more accurate to assert that although some values are conscious and provide a rational conceptual system of espoused and prescriptive beliefs, others held simultaneously are less conscious and function as more experiential “values in use” (Argyris & Schon, 1978; Epstein, 1989; Reese & Fremouw, 1984). However, even relatively overt value content is rarely included in graduate curricula: “Why is it that experts primarily teach techniques to young professionals, while ignoring the values that have sustained the quests of so many creative geniuses?” (Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi, & Damon, 2001, p. x). Indeed, although I–O psychology has paid some attention to the topic of organizational socialization (Cooper-Thomas & Anderson, 2007; Van Maanen & Schein, 1979), I have not found anything in our literature concerning occupational socialization—much less, in particular, how the process unfolds in the education and training involved in becoming an I–O psychologist.

In another article concerning curriculum reform (in medicine), Hafferty (1998) emphasized the critical importance of the informal curriculum and (especially) the hidden curriculum, as distinct from the formal curriculum. The informal curriculum refers to “an unscripted, predominantly ad hoc, and highly interpersonal form of teaching and learning that takes place among and between faculty and students,” and the hidden curriculum is “a set of influences that function at the level of organizational structure and culture” (p. 404). These are the two modes, I believe, in which many of our students are implicitly socialized into I–O's corporatist value system (Lefkowitz, 1990, 2003, 2008, 2013a).

The third statement by Byrne et al. I would like to consider is,

What Differentiates the I–O Psychologists From Fellow Non-I–O Psychologists Is the Organizational Context Itself” (p. 7)

Although there is some truth to that observation, I–O psychology also is different in ways arguably more important than the settings in which it is practiced. The professional practices of teaching, medicine, clinical, and counseling psychology are aimed at restoring/enhancing the well-being of individuals—who are the primary clients. In other words, a humanist motive is intrinsic to their professional practices. In contrast, our primary objective is to help organizations (mostly corporations) become more effective, efficient, productive, and profitable. Now, to be sure, many of us believe that individual employees and communities will thereby also be benefitted indirectly; some of us simply hope that to be the case; but some of us, perhaps, believe that that should not even be our concern.

The difference between the two models can be profound. Directly benefitting an organization may not always serve the interests of many of its employees and other stakeholders; in some cases the organization's interests run counter to those of some stakeholders. That's why the APA (2002) ethics code reminds us to work toward improving the well-being “of individuals, organizations, and society” (emphasis added). Recall, for instance, the appalling examples of senior clergymen who when presented with allegations and even evidence of predatory behavior by their colleagues behaved in ways to protect the institution at the expense of the most vulnerable of their flock. No doubt they told themselves that protecting the church would ultimately be for the “greater good.” The question naturally arises, what if advancing even the legitimate interests of the organization works to the detriment of employees and other stakeholders?

What are the appropriate actions for a moral I–O psychologist to consider? And where and when does s/he learn that? For example, the usual means of increasing the utility of employee selection procedures exacerbates the adverse consequence of many qualified job applicants being rejected inappropriately (Lefkowitz & Lowman, 2010, Chapter 27). I–O psychology doesn't seem to view that as a problem because our primary concern is for the well-being of the organization, perhaps also secondarily for its employees, certainly not for other individuals in the community who remain outside the organization.

Summary, Conclusion, and Recommendations

Byrne et al. have recommended changes to graduate training in I–O psychology, emphasizing the cognitive, affective, and interpersonal competencies that will be necessary for graduates to be successful in the competitive employment marketplace. Not considered in their deliberations are the societal norms and values, beliefs, goals, and expectations that form a vital moral component of any profession. The education and training of I–O psychologists includes being normatively socialized by means of informal and hidden curricula (Hafferty, 1998). There are (at least) three consequences of that. First, the absence of an explicitly articulated set of normative values—or even of open discussions of alternative or multiple moral conceptions—allows for proliferation of views that may not be desirable. For example, Rosenberg (1995) observed that “a social science that sought to efface the moral dimension from its descriptions and explanations would simply serve the interests of some other moral conception. It would reflect values foreign to those that animate our conception of ourselves” (p. 205). Second, it reinforces the mistaken belief that subjective, moral, values-based intentions are somehow anathema to science and professional practice. For example, we study employees's descriptive perceptions of injustice but we rarely assert a normative view of how organizations ought to actually treat their workers and other stakeholders (Greenberg, 2009; Lefkowitz, 2009). Third, it allows for considerable variation within the field and among training institutions regarding what are our normative objectives—although some will undoubtedly view that as a good thing.

Values issues should be included as an explicit part of the formal curriculum in graduate training (Lefkowitz 2006). That would allow for the discussion of alternative conceptions, the implications of each, likely values conflicts to be encountered, and so on. “The lived experience of psychologists who have been exposed to injustice as well as the teaching, modeling, and mentoring of those values to others promote the development of a social justice orientation” (Vasquez, 2012, p. 342). I would argue—and have—for the consideration of a scientist–practitioner–humanist model to supplant the scientist-practitioner one (cf., Lefkowitz, 1990, 2005, 2008, 2010, 2013a). This would represent a substantial shift in the dominant culture of I–O psychology to a more morally driven, socially conscious value set. I am cautiously optimistic that it is beginning to happen. The Global Organization for Humanitarian Work Psychology (cf., Carr, MacLachlan, & Furnhan, 2012) and a SIOP-sponsored initiative (Olson-Buchanan, Koppes Bryan, & Foster Thompson, 2013) encourage such optimism.

The extension of valuable and valued I–O professional practice to nontraditional (philanthropic and humanitarian) organizations is to be encouraged and lauded, but that should be seen as a way station on the road of cultural transformation. The standard values and objectives of efficiency, cost effectiveness, and productivity are merely being applied in the service of humanitarian organizations, which are the locus of the good. The aim should be the inclusion of a humanistic perspective integral to the values expressed in our research and professional practice wherever it occurs, regardless of the setting. That is, the good should reside in the profession's values, intentions, and meta-objectives. And I believe that this is not inherently contradictory to the maintenance of business values as well: A primary justification for the business enterprise is a moral one (cf., Lefkowitz, 2003, Chapters 10, 11; 2012a, 2013a).

Once committed to such a program, many operational and ethical questions are bound to arise. For example, how are values issues best covered in graduate programs? How do we respectfully manage conflicting values positions among faculty? Should the existing values of graduate school applicants be considered in the admissions process? These, and other questions that are bound to appear, are difficult and perhaps contentious, but the transparency of considering them openly will be more advantageous in the long run than continuing to pretend that for us values don't exist.

  1. 1

    This refers to the normative value system of the profession, not how faithfully the values are reflected in the behavior of every individual member. In addition, the reference to politics has more to do with developing a legal/political system for the ordering of society (cf., 18th century American founding fathers) than with contemporary electoral politics.