I-O Psychology Theories

Theories and methods of industrial and organizational psychology are those of all psychology, only slightly constrained by characteristics of employment settings and assumptions about those who populate them. All theories of human behavior in organizations are consistent with a classic model that views behavior as a function of ability, motivation, and situational opportunities (or constraints). Differences among theories within the field are primarily differences of emphasis. Some look within the individual at the causal influences of human abilities, skills, attitudes, values and other characteristics mapped into the person. Others focus on tasks, interpersonal factors, or organizational structures to explain behavior. Still others direct attention on the interaction of the two.

One fundamental assumption and one unifying goal underlie all of industrial and organizational psychology. The fundamental assumption is that the people in organizations and the goals of organizations are best served when there is a good it between the two. Although consensus on important elements of the human or the organizational/situational domain is not universal neither are the criteria of fit. With few exceptions, descriptive theories of behavior in organizations evoke one or more constructs residing in the individual and/or the situation and construct theory about their covariance. Prescriptive theories focus on improving the it, whether it be through matching people with jobs or roles, through engineering the job, role, or organizational structure/culture to better match the people (changing the situation), through training (changing the people), or through some combination of all three. Benjamin Schneider’s theory (1987) of attraction, selection, and attrition (ASA) published in Personnel Psychology focuses on the combination of all three in a dynamic, reciprocal causal fashion.

It should come as no surprise that a bifurcated field such as industrial/organizational psychology would have its roots in two somewhat different subdisciplines of psychology. These are individual differences psychology and social psychology Although the two are often intermingled, there are clearly differences in emphasis representing “industrial” and “organizational” psychology. Even the events that stimulated their development differ. World Wars I and II created enormous needs for selecting, placing, classifying, and training large numbers of individuals in short amounts of time. These needs were addressed by psychologists who developed and perfected many of the individual difference approaches known today. The attribution of unanticipated findings in the highly publicized Hawthorne studies in the late 1920s and early 1930s to social-interpersonal factors, the social impact of the Depression, and Kurt Lewin’s immigration to the United States, establishing group dynamics first at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and later at the University of Michigan, all fostered the development of the organizational branch of the field.

Theories from the Individual Differences Tradition

Concern with understanding human skills and abilities, how they change and develop over time, and how they impact behaviors in organizational settings developed from individual difference psychology. Also from that domain came a strong emphasis on measurement. What passes for theory in this domain often is little more than a taxonomy to be judged primarily on its utility for guiding practices at work than on its ability to explain human behavior. Typically the “theory” was developed for the former purpose, not the latter. Theories that do exist, are more likely to inform psychometric or measurement theory applied to industrial/organizational data. Or, they deal with specific behavioral or situational factors that are likely to produce a better fit. For example, they might address why people with particular patterns of individual differences are likely to do well on a job if hired. Given the importance of performance as a criterion for judging the quality of it, theories of performance or theories of how raters rate performance fall into the latter condition.

Theories about the nature of the human abilities domain relevant at work and those of the nature of jobs are, for the most part, taxonomies. Using the standards and procedures of classical psychometric theory and sampling across a wide variety of jobs and job incumbents, dimensions of human abilities relevant on jobs have been identified and valid measures of them constructed. The Differential Aptitude Test (DAT) and the General Aptitude Test Battery (GATB) represent two commonly used measures of these characteristics of people. Although the descriptive labels of the aptitudes do not overlap perfectly, they tap a number of similar constructs. Justifications of the set of dimensions as exhaustive and relatively independent human abilities relevant to a wide variety of jobs are, in-a-sense, theories of the ability domain.

Turning to the job domain, McCormick (1979) in his book entitled Job Analysis: Methods and Applications observed that taxonomies of jobs were either job-oriented or person-oriented. Job-oriented ones were referenced in the job with dimensions such as “uses small hand tools.” Person-oriented ones classified jobs by the human abilities they tapped (small motor dexterity, hand-eye coordination). The value of each depended on its use.

Taxonomic systems that cross both jobs and people can be extremely useful, and represent a descriptive theory of work. For example, the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, published by the U.S. Department of Labor, creates a taxonomy of jobs within which individual jobs can be located. Then, using a common taxonomy of person attributes, those attributes believed to be necessary for successful job performance are listed. This intersection of people and jobs provides a grid of the person-job interface that not only describes existing jobs but can help guide the development of new ones.

At one level, the fit between jobs and people is an empirical not a theoretical question. Measures of each are obtained and it is assessed against some criterion. Yet, theory comes into play in at least two ways. One is in terms of how it should be assessed. Essentially two theories of it have guided investigation, and industrial/organizational psychology has contributed to each. One measure of it comes from classical psychometric theory where fit is a validity coefficient. John Campbell provided an excellent review and a conceptual discussion of the theory of validity in a chapter that appeared in the 1976 version of M. D. Dunnette’s Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Lee Cronbach and Goldine Gleser, in their 1965 book, Psychological Tests and Personnel Decisions, added utility analyses to the classic validity theory by recognizing that the value of a criterion varies across units. Although, conceptually, such weighting was quickly accepted, applying utility analyses was slowed by the difficulty and the subjectivity of deciding value.

The other way that theory enters it is in the psychological explanations for the degree and nature of the fit. Many theories of this type exist, all of which are quite parochial. They are often limited to specific settings, people, or problems within the general domain. Theories of subgroup biases (e.g., race, gender), rating errors, interviewing, etc., fit this description. John Campbell’s theory of performance expressed most recently in a chapter published in Neal Schmitt’s and Walter Borman’s edited book entitled Personnel Selection in Organizations (1993) fits into this category.

Individual difference approaches described already are static. That people and jobs change is well accepted; from an individual difference perspective, training confronts change directly by proactively attempting to alter people’s knowledge, skills, even attitudes and values. The literature on training is voluminous; theory is scant, but things are improving. William McGehee and Paul Thayer, in their early book, Training in Business and Industry, provided a bridge to theories of learning. Irwin Goldstein’s model tied it better into organizational settings by means of needs assessment, and in 1997. J. Kevin Ford and his colleagues introduced stronger links to current cognitive models in Improving Training Effectiveness in Work Organizations.

Social-Organizational Theories

A number of theories exist for addressing the social organizational issues from a psychological perspective. They tend to cluster into those that address interpersonal interactions and those related to attitudes and motivation. A dominant interpersonal concern is that of leadership.

A number of theories of leadership exist, but none enjoys anything close to universal acceptance. These theories are chronicled by Gary Yukl in his chapter in volume 3 (1992) of the Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology. With few exceptions, (e.g., George Uraen’s Leader Member Exchange (LMX) model), most are descriptive and static. Graen views leadership as the development of dyadic relationships with subordinates over time and represents an integration of leadership with role theory.

Roles are social perspectives on work as jobs are to individual difference views; they are the source of behaviors expected from the person in the role/job. For roles, expectations are communicated and enforced socially in 1968, an extremely influential book, The Social Psychology of Organizing, by Daniel Katz and Robert Kahn laid out their role theory embedded in an open systems model of organizations. It undergirds all current views of roles.

Attitudes in work settings are, for the most part, equated with job satisfaction. Theories of job satisfaction evoke one or more of three psychological mechanisms: affect believed to be resulting from a comparison of perceptions of conditions experienced on-the-job with personal standards of what the job should provide: perceptions of satisfaction inferred from observing other’s satisfaction on the job (social learning theory); and stable personal dispositions to view all experiences positively or negatively.

Work motivation has long been of interest in industrial/organizational psychology, but it was Victor H. Vroom’s classic book, Work and Motivation (1965), that most significantly turned the field’s attention to motivation. His expectancy theory expressed motivation as a force toward action resulting from a function of the person’s subjective expected utility of action. The theory generated a great deal of attention directly through empirical tests of the theory and indirectly through expanded theories of behavior in organizations that incorporated expectancy theory in them, such as that of J. C. Naylor, R. D. Pritchard, and D. R. Ilgen in their 1980 book, A Theory of Behavior in Organizations.

Most recently motivation at work is viewed dynamically as self regulation. Individuals are seen as holding some kind of standards or expectations, making choices about actions to take, and then comparing the results of their actions to the standards. Future action is influenced by these comparisons. Theories making important contributions to self regulatory views are Edwin A. Locke’s and Gary Latham’s goal setting theory summarized in their 1990 book, A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance and Al Bandura’s theory (1991) of self-efficacy focused on work motivation in the journal of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. The most all-inclusive self-regulatory theory from an industrial/organizational perspective is that of Julius Kuhl expressed and critiqued in the lead article of Applied Psychology: An International Review (1992). Finally, in 1989, Ruth Kanfer and Phillip Ackerman (see “Motivation and cognitive abilities: An integrative/adaptive-treatment interaction approach to skill acquisition,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 74) developed a self-regulatory theory of motivation that views the regulation process as one of allocating personal resources of time, talent, and attention. This theory is unique in the sense that, by viewing individuals’ abilities as resources, it explicitly integrates individual differences into motivation.

With one exception, the most influential motivational theories have looked within the persons for the key motivational constructs. The exception focuses on characteristics of jobs believed to enhance job incum­bents’ motivation. In their job characteristics theory (JCT), J. Richard Hackman and Gregory R. Oldham (see “Motivation through the design of work: Test of a theory,” in Organizational Behavior and Human Performance) argue that characteristics of jobs most critical for motivation allow job incumbents to (1) feel that their work is meaningful, (2) take responsibility for their actions, and (3) feel a sense of accomplishment.

Few if any of the methods for scientific inquiry in industrial/organizational psychology are unique to the discipline. Although its theories must have relevance in a particular context, the context of inquiry is also not restricted to organizations. Constructs are studied in the laboratory as well as in the field, although field research is more common.

Correlational and Experimental Designs

The research methods of the field fall into what Lee Cronbach (1975) called the two disciplines of scientific psychology—correlational and experimental designs. The combination of advances in statistics and the computational efficiency of computers have led to the development of methods that are still fundamentally correlational but improve the logic of causal inference. Confirmatory factor analyses, structural equation modeling, and hierarchical linear modeling are examples of such methods. They have led to considerable advances in the method of inquiry in the field. Their accessibility and ease of use, however, does not come without a cost. The cost is the failure to recognize their limits.

Experimental designs have benefited not so much from statistical and quantitative advances as they have from the acceptance of the logic of quasi-experimental designs. In true experiments, random assignment to treatments provides the basis for eliminating reasons for observed effects due to factors other than the experimental conditions. While the lack of randomization opens up the set of possible alternative explanations, even without randomization some alternative explanations may be eliminated in a logical sense. Increased knowledge of the full spectrum of design alternatives, true and quasi, has been very beneficial for research employing experimental designs in industrial organizational psychology research.

Computational Modeling

Independent of correctional and experimental methods is computational modeling. Theories of behavior in organizations are used to construct computer models that generate responses which recycle and become inputs for further iterations. Computational models have been extremely valuable for advancing understanding in cognitive psychology and organizational theory; their use is just beginning in industrial/organizational psychology. There is every reason to believe computational models can be a valuable addition to methods of the field.


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