Industrial organization psychology in the workplace

Drake Editorial Team

Writing today about the value generated by human resource, or HR, departments that implement positive psychology measures, Alexa Thompson, makes a case for employee engagement, a policy covered by the DrakePulse blog late in 2011. The author of several pieces on psychology and what can be gleaned from psychology programs, here, Thompson expounds upon the link between healthy employee psychology and productive corporations.


The Value of Pushing HR Departments to Increase Their Psychology KnowledgeIn recent years, many top-performing corporations have seen a shift in their human resources priorities: no longer are employees valued only for the skills that they bring, but are increasingly also prized for their individual characteristics and experiences. Employee wellness is, in many cases, viewed with equal importance to such tangibles as net profits and billable hours. While the investment in human capital may seem counterintuitive in a market where money is tight and bottom lines seem ever shrinking, success stories seem plentiful. Getting to a place of improved employee satisfaction—and with it, better productivity and innovation—is never easy. It usually requires something of a permanent shift in HR thinking.


For decades, the corporate model embraced in the United States was one of utilitarian efficiency. Employees were essentially extensions of the corporation. They were valued for their objective skills, and expected to perform according to rubrics and metrics of standard achievement. The thought that workers should be treated as individuals, and that their subjective satisfaction with the work environment mattered to overall corporate success, was rarely entertained.


A psychologist by the name of Harry Levinson began challenging this structure in the late 1950s. Levinson posited that there was a direct correlation between employees’ mental and psychological well being, and the financial well being of their parent company.  He also demonstrated through extensive research how psychoanalytic methods could be used by managers and executives to motivate employees. Showing gratitude, investing time in learning about employees’ families, and noticing and publicly recognizing staff achievements were all part of Levinson’s model.


In most modern circles, Levinson’s approach comes under the wider umbrella of “positive psychology.” Positive psychology is a popular trend in businesses of all sizes—but the shift was a long time in coming.



“Many of his management theories are now practically truisms. But to the gray-flannel corporate culture of the postwar years, they were novel, compelling many managers to think beyond the traditional reward system of promotions and paychecks to motivate employees,” the New York Times wrote in an article shortly after Levinson’s death in 2012.



“Dr. Levinson was an early promoter of the idea that companies, like people, had distinct personalities, or cultures, that grew out of their history and the demographics of their work force. He developed methods to identify and isolate the elements of a company’s culture and discern their impact on workers.”

Actually implementing Levinson’s ideals of positive psychology can be harder than simply identifying their benefits, however. Most executives agree that a happy employee is a productive employee—but getting from point A to point B takes a bit of planning. Some up-front investment is usually also required, be it through trainings, seminars, or simple time off the clock. To test out the return on investment, or ROI, of putting corporate resources into individual job satisfaction, Shawn Achor, president of positive psychology training company Good Think Inc., conducted an experiment. Achor and a team of psychoanalysts worked with a group of corporate tax executives and auditors just before their April busy season began. All test subjects were managers at international tax firm KPMG.


“January to April is the most stressful time for the managers at KPMG, so in December, half of the managers in the study were provided a three-hour introduction to positive psychology research and how to apply those principles at work,” Achor explained in a Harvard Business Review blog post about the project. The introduction was the only training the employees received. They were evaluated three times: once after the training; again during the height of their busy season; and finally several months after things had slowed down. Evaluators assessed the participants’ overall satisfaction, health, and perceived well being, both at home and on the job.


The results were instructive. “Every single positive metric improved significantly for the trained group between Time 1 (before the training) and Time 2 (a week after the training,” Achor said. “Most significantly, the life satisfaction scores, which indicate personal and professional happiness, were significantly higher four months later.” The conclusion: even a small investment can make a big difference. “A brief three-hour training and a non-mandatory invitation to create a positive habit for 21 days created a high ROI not only in the short-term, but in the longer term as well,” Achor said.


Emulating these results does not usually require a lot of expertise. In nearly all cases, though, organized change begins with human resources. HR executives must tailor their approaches to the sort of work environment at play, but can almost always make a difference.


“In a competitive setting it is possible for HR to use its involvement in determining the compensation and performance evaluation structures to advocate for change,” HRBrainBank, an online human resources association, said in an article extolling the benefits of positive psychology.  “In a cooperative environment, HR is ideally positioned to use communication to positively impact employee engagement—driving greater profitability and customer satisfaction as a result.”


Investing in employee well being is not usually difficult, and is rarely as costly as it may seem upfront and, in this writer’s opinion, companies that focus on this will reap tons of non-monetary benefits. Getting started is typically the hardest part; however, it can be done simply by holding a meeting in which employees are able to freely discuss their values and what is important to them. From that point companies can begin slowly implementing these suggestions and asking for input; encouraging open communication the single most important way companies can begin promoting positive psychology. Employees who feel as though they have been heard are, typically, more satisfied with their experience because any angst and dissatisfaction was aired in a healthy manner.


Human resources executives and hiring managers who believe in positive psychology and understand how to implement it are usually the best positioned to begin changing hostile workplaces into affirmative, validating environments—though with time, the change should come naturally to employees at all ranks and levels.



Alexa Thompson is a freelance writer and researcher from the west coast who loves cycling, cook, and watching shows about cycling and cooking. She is currently looking to attend graduate school where she wants to study organizational psychology but has yet to settle on a school.  

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