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Understanding Workplace Psychology

Understanding Workplace Psychology

Even though psychology is a relatively young profession, workplace or organizational issues have been of great interest to psychologists since its foundation over one hundred years ago. This is not only because the majority of people spend about a third of their adult lives at work (although this is undoubtedly important) but because the workplace forces people to have to deal with each other in so many interesting ways. The realms of different interest to a psychologist are therefore legion but many of these should be of equal interest to today’s leader also. This is simply because anyone who managers people can benefit from a broad appreciation of the latest thinking in this field, and primarily using it as a way of gaining advantage in leading individuals to more successful results.

So what are the main areas of current industrial or organizational psychological interest? Although we cannot do it full justice in a short article such as this, there are six categories that are useful to look at in brief in considering the prevailing theory or main ideas. These are psychological theories about the job, the task, the team, the team leader, individual performance/motivation and finally the organization. Let’s therefore look at each of these in turn.

The Job

Before any individual is hired to work within an enterprise of any kind, psychologists have long advocated the use of careful job analysis. Job analysis involves the systematic collection of information about a job and can be done by either examining the tasks to be performed or by examining the knowledge, skills and abilities, or competencies required to successfully perform the work. The information obtained from a job analysis is used to create job-descriptions and the most appropriate recruitment or selection process. Modern psychology has evolved many time-saving devices and tools to assist in the hiring process including tests of ability, knowledge and personality, as well as guidelines for structured interviews (all designed to help evaluate evidence regarding the extent to which a person is a good fit or can perform well in the future). If an individual is carefully-chosen, not only will he or she do well in the selected role but is more likely to experience good job satisfaction (ensuring ongoing acceptable performance and even increasing levels of productivity and contribution).

Psychologists have strongly suggested that employee job satisfaction has been significantly linked to important job outcomes including attitudinal variables, absenteeism, employee turnover, and job performance. For instance, job satisfaction is strongly correlated with attitudinal variables such as job involvement, organizational commitment, job tension or pressure, frustration, and feelings of anxiety. Job satisfaction also affects an employee’s absentee behaviors and turnover from an organization with employees more likely to miss work or find other jobs if they are not satisfied.

The Task

Many psychologists have been interested in task design and assignment (and the issue of whether a task is best done by one person or several in combination). Also important in the mix here are issues such as skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy and feedback. There are two competing views here. One view is that tasks which appropriately fit the aptitude, knowledge and ability of an individual or group are likely to be challenging, interesting, and engaging (and people will be motivated to exert greater effort and perform better). Conversely, if tasks do not have this appropriate fit, individuals are likely to have less interest and engagement, will be consequently less motivated and may not perform the task well.

The second view is that tasks provide an opportunity for people to “stretch” and learn new skills, so we should be concerned (at least some of the time) to let people take on less familiar or even completely new tasks. Such expansions of task assignments can make individuals, teams and team leaders more effective in the longer term and require each to spend greater amounts of time discussing and planning strategies and new approaches for completing assigned tasks (allowing for more creativity and innovation to occur). This theory has driven much of the drive towards multi-skilling in recent years.

The Team

Psychologists have conducted much research into the whole realm of “the team” and what makes a team effective (or not). Team effectiveness refers to the system of getting any group of people to work together effectively. The idea behind team effectiveness, of course, is that a group of people working together can achieve much more than if the individuals on the team were working on their own (and the much quoted saying is that ultimately “a Champion team will always beat a team of champions”).

One of the reasons organizations support the use of teams is the expectation of the delivery of better/ higher quality results. To achieve these types of results, highly skilled members on the team are more effective than teams built around those with lesser skills, and teams that include a diversity of skills typically achieve higher performance. Psychologists have also found that greater average cognitive ability of team members has been shown to consistently correlate to increased work group effectiveness. Therefore, organizations should ideally seek to assign teams with members that have a mix of aptitudes, skills, knowledge and style or personality. In this last category of personality diversity, the relationship between the traits of “agreeableness” and “conscientiousness” for example, and the overall performance of the team has regularly been shown to be positive. However, it should also be remembered that the differing personalities of individuals on the team can affect the team climate in a negative way, as members may clash and reduce team performance.

The other aspect of research for psychologists in relation to teams has been in the realm of goals. Goals for individual contributors have been shown to be motivating when they contain three elements. These are difficulty, acceptance, and specificity. In the team setting, goal difficulty is related to group belief that the team can accomplish the tasks required to meet the assigned goal. This, in turn, can lead to higher levels of performance. Goal acceptance and specificity is also applicable to the team setting. Hence, when team members commit to team goals, psychologists suggest that team effectiveness is increased (as a function of increased supportive team behaviors).

The Team Leader

Psychology has had a lot to say about leaders and leadership style with many models being described by experts in this area. One over-arching debate that continues to rage in this realm is whether leaders are “born” (have innate traits that emerge when put in a leadership situation) or are “made” (have a set of clearly definable skills, competencies or approaches (which can be readily learned) that work most of the time when leading others).

Despite the clear differences of the “born” or “made” debate, it can be said that there are three categories of overall leadership theory including Inner Type and Temperament, Patterns of learned behavior and finally Culture/climate led leadership. These are all quite discrete schools of leadership thought and relatively independent of one another, tending to stress the dominance of one area of focus at the expense of the others. In others words, a purely traits-led, learned behavior-led or circumstances-led leadership approach is suggested as either as a way of defining what so-called “good” leadership looks like.

The “LV Soar” model of leadership has proved to be a useful recent theory about leadership. This model simply suggests that individuals can “soar” to higher performance (the acronym standing for Situation, Organization, Activities and Results) but all four of these factors are driven by flexible and fast-adapting leader behavior and with the benefit of a clear vision of where they are heading in the medium to long term.

Individual Performance/Motivation

Understanding what motivates the employees of a given enterprise is central to the work of many psychologists. The general view is that employee motivation involves three psychological processes: arousal, direction, and intensity. Arousal is what initiates action. Direction refers to the path employees take in accomplishing the goals or targets they set for themselves. Finally, intensity is the amount of energy employees put into this goal-directed work performance. The level of intensity is based on the importance and difficulty of the goal. These three factors ideally therefore need to be part of any goal-setting and target measurement or tacking system.

As a directly related area, industrial psychologists have also been heavily instrumental in the development of performance appraisal systems, particularly in medium to large-sized organizations. Part of the employee appraisal process, of course, is performance management, which is the process of providing performance feedback relative to expectations and then making coaching or improvement interventions as necessary. Management by objectives (MBO), quarterly or annual appraisal discussions, 360-degree feedback and performance-related-pay are all approaches that have been evolved by industrial psychologists. Although these have worked well in some circumstances, they are heavily under scrutiny in today’s more flexible and technologically-oriented working world where individuals do not always work in fixed teams and have a highly varied impact on enterprise performance.

A final interest of psychologists, in the area of motivation, is an individual’s ability to manage workplace change in flexible ways. People who can better prepare for future change and then be quickly adaptive as and when it occurs (in planned and surprising ways) are valuable to have around and can help less able individuals to make the transition. Psychologists have classified change-handling “types” into Pioneers, Early adopters, Late Adopters and Laggards. Pioneers and early adopters are often favored for their ability to help late adopters and laggards to change behavior in the medium term.

The Organization

Organizational culture can be described as a set of ideas or assumptions shared by the individuals in a given organization. There are three levels of organizational culture: artifacts, shared values, and basic beliefs/assumptions. Artifacts comprise the physical components of the organization that relay cultural meaning. Shared values are individuals’ preferences regarding certain aspects of the organization’s culture. Basic beliefs and assumptions include individuals’ impressions about how the organization tends to behave most of the time (“the way things are done around here”).

Many psychological studies have shown the significant impact of culture on desired organizational outcomes such as performance, attraction, recruitment, retention, employee satisfaction, and employee well-being. In general, the conclusion of most psychologists is that organizations with an “adaptive” culture tend to perform better than organizations which are more “set in their ways” or change-resistant.


Psychology has evolved many interesting ideas about how people behave towards one another in organizations, either individually or in groups. These ideas fall broadly into the six categories of the job, the task, the team, the team leader, individual performance/motivation and the organization. Although some very brief guidelines have been offered above in each of these, a wise leader may want to do some more substantive research in each of these.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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  1. Evren YildirimSeptember 16, 2012 at 8:55 am


    Thank you for this brief-informative work.


    • Dr. Jon WarnerNovember 29, 2012 at 8:27 pmAuthor

      You are welcome Evren.

  2. Clem MolloyNovember 3, 2016 at 1:51 am

    Excellent article Jon. Having practiced in this area for several decades and mentored many graduate students, one area you may wish to add to your list is corporate strategy.

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Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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