What is Industrial Organizational Psychology?

The success of many organizations and businesses begins and ends with an efficient workforce. But achieving a competent, capable, and healthy workforce is often easier said than done.

Often times, businesses turn to industrial organizational psychologists (often referred to as I/O psychologists) to streamline processes, maximize productivity, improve morale, and ensure the safety employees.

Because the workplace environment and the employees working in that environment can’t exist independently of one another, they are studied together in I/O psychology. At the organizational level in particular, the methods of observation and promoting desired behaviors are synonymous with the practice of applied behavior analysis, making formal training leading to certification through the Behavior Analysis Certification Board (BACB) highly relevant.

Within the study of the relationship between the workforce and its environment is the study of learning and behavior, a hallmark of applied behavior analysis (ABA).

I/O psychology and ABA are both emerging and developing fields that use a systematic scientific approach to studying the relationship between behavior and the environment, and both fields use positive reinforcement and motivation to achieve positive behavioral results. In many ways, I/O psychology may even be viewed as a subfield of ABA. Thanks to the integration of I/O and ABA, businesses and organizations have gained unique insight into the powerful relationship between workforce behavior and environment, and how they work together to achieve organizational goals.

Organizational Behavior Management: Where Industrial Organizational Psychology and ABA Meet

At the intersection of industrial organizational psychology and applied behavior analysis (ABA) is organizational behavior management (OBM), which focuses on analyzing and making changes to the workplace environment to improve productivity, efficiency, workplace culture, and employee performance. While OBM at first appears to be consistent with human resources, this field of study places more emphasis on how behavioral changes can improve business outcomes.

As scientists-practitioners, I/O psychologists already have specialized education and training in the science of human behavior in the workplace. With the addition of ABA therapy, I/O psychologists can apply a number of innovative strategies designed to achieve meaningful behavior changes that improve business outcomes.

A good example of ABA in the field of I/O psychology would be teaching business leaders how to set clear expectations of their employees as a way to reduce costs and increase employee productivity. This type of training would also likely include ways in which the leaders can provide positive feedback and provide approaches for holding their employees accountable.

Examining the Principles, and Objectives of I/O Psychology

Industrial organizational psychology is an interesting and dynamic subdiscipline that seeks to identify inefficiencies and other problems in business, labor, academic, community, and health enterprises. More specifically, industrial organizational psychologists identify and resolve issues that are affecting the well-being, productivity, and competence of an organization’s workforce, whether big or small.

While an assembly line, factory-based operation might be the first thing that comes to mind when considering businesses that benefit from the work of industrial organizational psychologists, their work is valued in any organization or business that’s interested in gaining insight into exactly how employees perform their tasks and interact with each other and their work environment.

As the name indicates, the study and practice of industrial organizational psychology involves both industry (the relationships between the employees and their environment) and organization (how the environment either lends to or detracts from an organization’s productivity).

The History of Industrial Organizational Psychology

In the late 1700s to mid-1800s, industry in both Britain and the U.S. made a major shift with the introduction of mechanized mass production, paving the way for the Industrial Revolution. Efficient ways of producing (and exporting) goods led to massive factory systems in which people worked long hours in extreme conditions. It comes as no surprise that the rise of labor unions soon followed in an effort to protect worker health and well-being.

As early as the 1900s, a group of German psychologists (including Hugo Munsterberg and Wilhelm Wundt) began studying these new work environments and their effect on workers. But it was American industrial engineer Frederick W. Taylor who really began putting this new type of psychology into practice, thanks to his work on industrial efficiency.

The Role of Industrial Organizational Psychologists in the Modern Workplace

Today, industrial organizational psychologists address any number of issues related to the relationship between the workplace and its workforce, including:

  • Training and development
  • Recruitment
  • Selection and placement
  • Performance measurement
  • Workplace motivation/rewards
  • Quality of work life (health, safety, and well-being)

I/O psychologists are scientist-practitioners who study this relationship and apply their findings to address the roadblocks that prevent an organization from being efficient and its workforce from being productive.

Depending on the needs of an organization, the job of I/O psychologists may include:

  • Developing targeted hiring practices
  • Interviewing and recruiting employees
  • Observing employee-employee and employer-employee interactions
  • Studying the workplace environment and making recommendations to improve employee safety, health, and well-being
  • Examining and updating company policies and procedures
  • Identifying opportunities to increase productivity among employees (e.g., offering employees variety to prevent burnout, increasing employee interaction, etc.)
  • Developing team building exercises, activities, and events
  • Developing employee reward systems
  • Serving as a mediator between employees and employer
  • Developing training programs and analyzing newly implemented programs for effectiveness
  • Examining workplace performance
  • Identifying barriers to company growth and employee productivity

I/O psychologists may work as consultants, or they may be employed in-house. They may work with private companies, governmental agencies, and nonprofit agencies. They may also work with research groups and in-house product development groups to study everything from sexual harassment to new product design. They may also be employed in:

  • Consulting firms
  • I/O psychology consulting firms
  • Research and development firms
  • Colleges and universities

Just some of the titles that overlap with or incorporate I/O psychology strategies include:

  • Senior consultant
  • Workforce analyst
  • Training management consultant
  • Human resources director
  • Personnel psychologist
  • Senior psychologist
  • Senior research psychologist
  • Manager of staffing and compensation
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How to Become an Industrial Organizational Psychologist: Degree, Licensure, and Certification Requirements

There is no one path to becoming an industrial organizational psychologist, but a December 2015 career study performed by the Center for Organizational Research at the University of Akron offers a great deal of insight regarding the degrees and professional designations most often pursued by industrial organizational psychologists. All participants in the study were members of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP).

Degree Requirements

A career as an industrial organizational psychologist usually demands a degree in psychology. While most I/O psychologists earn a doctoral degree, it is possible to practice with just a master’s.

Of the more than 1,400 SIOP members who participated in the study, the majority of respondents—1,176—revealed they earned a PhD/PsyD as their highest degree, while just 250 indicated a master’s degree as their highest degree. The largest number of PhD/PsyD holders—503—were in academia.

The study also found that SIOP members focused their highest degree on a number of areas of psychology, such as:

  • Industrial/Organizational Psychology
  • General Psychology
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Counseling Psychology
  • Human Resource Management
  • Organizational Behavior
  • Industrial Relations
  • MBA in Management/Business Administration

However, in all settings, the number of degrees in industrial organizational psychology far surpassed the number of degrees in other areas. Of the approximately 1,400 SIOP members, 1,156 majored in I/O psychology, either at the master’s or doctoral level.

Master’s Degrees in I/O Psychology

Master’s degrees in organizational psychology may be structured as on-campus, online, or blended programs, and they may be designed as:

  • MA/MS in Industrial Organizational Psychology
  • Master’s in Industrial Organizational psychology
  • Master’s in Professional Studies in Industrial Organizational Psychology

The SIOP maintains a database of all graduate-level training programs in industrial organizational psychology.

State Licensure Requirements

Unlike clinical or counseling psychologists, I/O psychologists are typically not state licensed. Therefore, degree requirements are usually established by employers or the many national organizations that certify these professionals.

In some instances, I/O psychologists may need to be state licensed. Learn more about psychologist licensing requirements in your state here.

National Certification Requirements

According to the SIOP study, the majority of employers do not demand specific national certification for I/O psychologists. However, in a field that is largely unregulated by state licensure, national certification is an excellent way to set yourself apart from your colleagues in the field and display a commitment to your profession.

Some of the national designations held by SIOP members include:

Salaries for Industrial Organizational Psychologists

May 2021 statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provide a detailed look into what industrial organizational psychologists are earning at the 25th, 50th, 75th, and 90thpercentiles:

  • 25th percentile: $79,590
  • 50th percentile: $105,310
  • 75th percentile: $135,070
  • 90th percentile: $168,300

Industrial Organizational Psychologists earned the highest mean salaries in the following states:

  • California: $123,090
  • Oregon: $110,840
  • Virginia: $108,700
  • Ohio: $102,090
  • Massachusetts: $72,640

The top-paying metropolitan areas for Industrial Organizational Psychologists, according to mean salary, were:

  • Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA: $136,940
  • Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA: $115,960
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2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Industrial-Organizational Psychologists reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed January 2023.