occupational psychology

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occupational psychology

the branch of psychology concerned with the study of individual and group attributes and behaviour in work settings. Its potential benefit to managers is that understanding these can facilitate prediction and modification of future behaviour. Occupational psychology is therefore highly relevant to all aspects of organizational activities where individual performance and interaction are relevant to overall organizational performance, i.e. RECRUITMENT AND SELECTION, PERFORMANCE APPRAISAL.

Occupational psychology developed out of what came to be known as human factor psychology. This area of psychology is concerned with the relationship between the worker and the working environment. Specifically, it is concerned with the impact of environmental factors, such as the level of illumination on work performance, and how the environment can be changed to improve both job performance and JOB SATISFACTION. It is thus closely related to ERGONOMICS AND HUMAN ENGINEERING. Human factor psychology developed out of a concern to identify the causes of fatigue at work.

Initially fatigue was considered solely as a physiological phenomenon, i.e. adverse physical effects would be experienced as work pace reached a certain level. As time went on, however, it was realized that fatigue was at least in part a psychological occurrence and might arise from boredom which in turn could be traced to the character of JOB DESIGN AND REDESIGN.

Although human factor psychology continues to be an important element of occupational psychology, it is fair to say that the central concerns of the discipline relate to the central issues in psychology generally: motivation, learning and personality. Two basic approaches can be discerned in the study of MOTIVATION. One rests on the belief that people have certain basic needs which govern their behaviour (content or needs theory); the other, known as expectancy theory, suggests that individuals are motivated not by some inner need but the strength of their expectation that their actions will achieve a desired result, whatever that is.

The second main concern of occupational psychology is organizational learning. How do individuals learn (or how can they be taught) desirable modes of work behaviour? Once again there are two main approaches:

  1. Behavioural psychology suggests that there is a direct relationship between stimulus and response. A certain stimulus will cause a certain behavioural response. Psychologist B F Skinner (1904-90) is especially associated with this approach, which is notable for excluding mental processes themselves from analysis. He argued that behaviour could be conditioned or reinforced by using stimuli. In Skinner's view two forms of condition can be discerned:
    1. respondent conditioning, where there is a simple direct and temporal relationship between a certain stimulus and a certain response;
    2. operant conditioning, where a range of environmental factors serves to shape behaviour over time, without there being a simple relationship between one stimulus and one response.

    For example, a positive approach to performance appraisal by a boss can over time lead to good work performance by a subordinate. Recurrent praise by the boss will lead to better performance at some point in the future;

  2. The alternative approach to behavioural psychology is cognitive psychology This emphasizes individual interpretation and understanding, and the active role of individuals in establishing their own objectives. A managerial strategy based on this approach would therefore attempt to influence individual goals and thought processes so as to make them complementary to the objectives of the organization.

The third main area of study and analysis is that of personality. Psychologists attempt to pinpoint the dimensions of personality (for example aggression, confidence etc.) and to determine which aspects are shaped by which experiences and whether some in fact are inherited (‘nature-nurture debate’). The concern of occupational psychologists is to determine which aspects of personality are especially relevant to work performance, and whether certain traits are associated with effectiveness. It is widely believed, by managers if not by psychologists themselves, that certain traits, for example assertiveness, are LEADERSHIP qualities; hence an attempt to determine whether individuals possess these is often an important part of the recruitment and selection process. (See PSYCHOLOGICAL TESTS, BEHAVIOURALLY ANCHORED RATING SCALE, BEHAVIOURAL OBSERVATION SCALE, PERSONALITY INVENTORY.)

Besides these three core areas of occupational psychology, practitioners also deal with individual problems at work, such as stress. The method normally employed here is counselling. In face-to-face interviews the psychologist will encourage the individual to explore and understand the nature of the problem and to devise appropriate ways of dealing with it. The counsellor has a dual function: he or she listens (which can be highly important to the client) and also attempts to direct the way the client thinks about the problem.

Collins Dictionary of Business, 3rd ed. © 2002, 2005 C Pass, B Lowes, A Pendleton, L Chadwick, D O’Reilly and M Afferson
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