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Letters to a Young...I/O Student

first 100 days / career

Someone about to enter a Masters program in Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology recently contacted me asking for advice about what "top skills and high demand tools" he should focus on in his Masters program.

This seems straightforward but it is not an easy question for me for two reasons.

First, I/O Psychology is the broadest discipline within the field of Psychology because all the other fields of Psychology are fair game in your quest to help individuals, groups, teams and organizations improve their performance: Human Factors, Sensation and Perception, Cognitive Psychology, OD, Psychometrics, Org Behavior, Personality, Social Psychology, Behavioral Psychology, Experimental Psychology, Differential Psychology, Clinical Psychology, etc.

You can be lean towards the quantitative side and just do job analysis, measurement, and test validation for selection and placement work or you can lean towards to OD side with a focus on organization performance and large system change, or anything in between.

So while there is an answer that is right for him based on his interests, there really is no objectively right answer here. The good news is that I/O Psychologists continue to be in high demand, so he should be employable no matter what he decides.

Second, I am not sure I am the best person to give advice along these lines. After completing my dissertation I worked for six years as an OD manager and then HR Director as the company and the entire mini computer industry it was a part of augered itself into the ground. We weren't transforming the organization, unless you call downsizing year after year a transformation.

Human Resources started to make my skin crawl and I also realized I needed to learn a helluva lot more about what business really is and how it works. So I joined a management consultancy and eventually took on operational roles in larger companies later in my career for businesses I worked for.

In other words, asking me how to be a good I/O Psychologist is like asking the prodigal son for investment advice.

That said, I was asked my opinion and, surprise(!), I had a recommendation...eight of them to be exact.

1) Take as many statistics classes as you can, especially experimental design. As the saying goes, "In god we trust. All others bring data." Data influences leaders to do what you want them to do and stats/experimental design is the coin of the realm right now. Plus, it will give you options and make you employable if you get sick of HR and I/O Psych work like I did.

2) Either take a class that uses or just read for yourself Gordon Curphy’s book Leadership: Enhancing the Lessons of Experience. Read it multiple times actually...and then sleep with it under your pillow.

3) If you envision working on staff for a company that sells products or services, take some business classes that allow you to develop a theory of organizational performance.

4) Really understand what corporate culture is and how to “nudge” it. I am sure you have heard the story about the old fish saying to the two young fish swimming by, "Enjoy the water today." And them saying a few minutes later, "Hey, what's water?" Culture is the water everyone in the company is swimming in. It influences organizational behavior as invisibly and inexorably as gravity influences our movements.

If you are an OD person, you have to know that culture water exists, be able to define it and be able to nudge it to align with and support the strategy. In my opinion, most people are suffering from massive rectal-cranial inversions in their views on culture and culture change. Your professors probably are too, since more than likely they never worked in a real company. But some classes will get you starting to think about what culture is and how to move the needle on it.

5) If there are any classes or opportunities to learn about facilitating group meetings or conflict resolution or team building, take them. You will end up facilitating hundreds of planning meetings and leadership events and you have to be good with a group. It really gets challenging when there are diverse stakeholders, diverse levels, party line opinions and "minority" voices, and conflicts about priorities and direction in the room and you have to be able to stand in the fire of those disagreements.

6) If you envision yourself on staff in a large organization or consulting vs. sitting in a back room getting intimate with large data sets, sign up for any opportunity to stand on your feet and present publicly. OD people are change agents. If you want to be a change agent you have to be able to communicate effectively and influence others, which usually means you have to be great on your feet in front of a room. At the end of the day, in my opinion, influence is much more about who you are, your convictions, and your ability to communicate and much less about what you know.

7) And to that point about who you are, if there are any classes that allow you to develop more knowledge of yourself…not book learning, not typologies…real, up-close-and-personal feedback from others, real group dynamics (with you in the group!!), where you learn how others perceive you and what it is like to work with you, take them. If you don’t know how you come across and how others see you and what your blind spots are, your lack of awareness will produce resistance in the people you are trying to influence and you won't be able to lead effectively.

The title of the article is a riff on Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, where a budding author asked Rilke about writing and he responded to him. Part of Rilke's advice was to implore the young poet to ask himself if he really had to write and if he did to follow that:

You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you - no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer.
From Rilke Letters to a Young Poet

My final advice to him:

8) Trust your intuition about what classes to take and follow it.

In the comments section, please share the advice would you have given him?