What is Industrial Organizational Psychology?

What is Industrial Organizational Psychology?

By Dr. Merle Riepe, PhD
President, SOLVE

Written by: David Gianos


“So… what are you doing in college?”  Cue a very confusing 20-minute conversation trying to describe just what exactly I-O psychology is and how it is applied in the workplace. The result: more confusion on their part and my part. Every time I get this question (from just about everyone) I come up with a different way of describing it. My enthusiasm for the subject is there but not the logic.  So, if I get this blog right, it will make everyone’s lives easier; which is exactly what the basic principles of I-O psychology strives to achieve. Confused? So am I. Let’s get started.


I-O psychology is the study of human behavior in the workplace, and it represents the union of two disciplines: industrial psychology and organizational psychology.. Industrial psychology can simply be referred to as personnel psychology. It specifically deals with assessing and hiring candidates, training employees, developing performance standards, and measuring job performance. Basically, everything that is directly associated with the employee, the “I” in I-O covers it. In contrast, organizational psychology focused more on broader organizational issues such as leadership, motivation, and team performance.  The “O” is a little more abstract because it focuses more on the big picture of employee behavior and motivation while the “I” is more concrete on selection training, and placement. When you combine the knowledge and expertise of both disciplines, individual performance improves while the organization benefits as a whole. This symmetry really isn’t as easy as it sounds but can be achieved by putting more focus on the key areas of I-O psychology.


The goal of I-O psychology is to improve the overall workplace. Through a variety of procedures and techniques, I-O psychologists help companies lead more effectively and enhance individual and team performance, employee satisfaction, motivation, and well-being, among other things. For example, an I-O psychologist might:

  • conduct job analyses in order to ensure that a performance management system is job-related or to ensure employees are paid fairly,
  • develop and validate a selection system to hire higher-quality employees who will stick around,
  • assess leadership potential using personality assessments, cognitive assessments, and multi-rater feedback to build a succession plan,
  • provide training or coaching to develop employees’ skills, or
  • measure employee engagement and provide recommendations for improving it.


In a nutshell, I-O psychologists help companies hire, develop, engage, and retain talent. Companies that fail to invest in these practices may end up with quite a few people problems on their hands, which can be detrimental to the on-going success of the company. I could continue to get into the weeds of further problems that may arise, but are two basic examples of problems I-O psychologist have. Remember this is an introductory course, the advanced course will be taught by someone much more qualified than me.


To really hammer the concept of I-O psychology into your head, I’ll share a story about a company that never got the chance to read this blog and missed out on all the valuable information. Put yourself in their shoes. Let’s say you have a coworker named Brad and you both work as accountants for a major firm. Every day you see Brad and think, “Wow, Brad is just really bad at his job.” But Brad is a very charismatic guy and gets along with everybody in the office. Even though you have to cover Brad’s a** when he makes mistake after mistake, Brad gets the promotion because he aced his performance review with his boss. Now Brad has some power and with power comes responsibility. Brad’s mistakes don’t just make you less productive but more people around the office are feeling it. Morale is starting to deplete, workers are staying late to fix mistakes, and overall productivity is down. Brad might get fired but it is too late, your company lost clients as well as two talented employees. This happens A LOT more than you think, and I did not just make this story up. This is all real life. An I-O psychologist could’ve stopped the madness Brad caused at multiple junctures. For one, this company’s selection system was likely flawed, allowing a worker to slip by without the right knowledge or skill to be a good accountant. In addition, there was no performance management system in place to identify gaps in knowledge/skills, and no training and development programs in place to fill those gaps. So as a result, Brad continued to slip by, not performing at the level the company needed him to, and negatively affecting the people around him. Once Brad came to power, his negative impact only increased, damaging employee morale, and ultimately costing the company business and talent. Don’t let a Brad ruin your company’s productivity, efficiency, and culture. Utilize I-O psychology, the science of the workplace, and get your people problems SOLVEd before the problems arise.