What is I-O Psychology?
By Carrie Anne Zapka, SIOP Blogger
"‘Industrial-organizational psychologist.’ What the heck is that? Whatever it is, its growth rate beats that of every other occupation”
It is wonderful to get this positive press for I-O, but that is the kind of comment I would expect from an aunt, not from ABC (see the 20 fastest growing jobs). They tried to talk about how much the field of I-O totally rocks, but with a quote like that, we hardly sound like an important field, even if we did win #1 this year.
The misinformation and misconceptions are everywhere. While reading the recent SIOP article, No, I-O Psychologists are Not Therapists, though, is when I realized that I am part of the problem. Chances are that many of you are also part of the problem. Since I first discovered and committed to an education in this “unknown” field (the topic my first blog, How I Stumbled Upon I-O from a Totally Different Career), I have struggled to explain what it is, even to my friends and family.
The purpose of this post is to inspire those of you who have mastered the art of the impossible I-O elevator speech to share your wisdom and for the rest of us to commit to mastering it ourselves.
What are you studying? Industrial-Organizational Psychology. What’s that? It’s about using psychology to help people and the organizations they belong to improve… This is how I might begin the inevitable conversation when someone first learns that I am in school. Within seconds their crinkled nose and squinted eyes display incomprehension. Unfortunately, the look usually doesn’t go away, even when I have the time to yammer on and on about the value of I-O and all of the interesting classes I’ve taken.
Like the Ground Hog Day movie, I get a little better each time, but I am frustrated that I have to have this reoccurring conversation in the first place. If I answered MBA, there’d be no more questions. Wouldn’t it be nice if a degree in I-O was as recognized by the general public as an MBA is today?
Occasionally, I’m surprised that someone appears to understand my answer. Even then, I am skeptical. Further conversation often reveals a faulty mental model. Sometimes they are stuck in the myth that all psychologists are clinical (like what happened in the recent Washington Post article) or, if I make the mistake of mentioning a relationship with HR, they conjure up images of Scott Adam’s evil Catbert.
I know I am failing to master the art of the “What is I-O Psychology? Elevator speech” because usually the next time the topic of school comes up again, they ask, “So what was it that you are studying again?” As I try to hide a deep breath and my frustration from a lost teachable moment, I usually decide to protect myself from a repeat poor performance and play it safe the second time with, “psychology and business stuff” <deep breath, pause, sigh>.
Of course there are official definitions, such as the one on the SIOP website: “Industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology is the scientific study of the workplace. Rigor and methods of psychology are applied to issues of critical relevance to business, including talent management, coaching, assessment, selection, training, organizational development, performance, and work-life balance.” That’s fine if you are talking to someone who works in management or psychology, but it is hardly the words I can use in casual conversation with a friend over dinner.
If each one of us doesn’t take responsibility to make sure those around us understand what I-O is and is not, if we don’t all take the time to master the art of the “What is I-O Psychology? Elevator speech”, then how can we expect the general public to “get it”?
Please comment and share your experiences explaining what I-O is to your friends and family. If you are already a master, definitely share your elevator speech with the rest of us!