Dr. Leslie Miller I/O Practitioner in Action

Dr. Leslie Miller I/O Practitioner in Action

Sometimes I wonder if students in my graduate research courses and those students working on a dissertation really understand how critical it is to understand principles of research. I wonder this particularly for students pursuing a career in industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology.  In I-O psychology, we are practitioners. 

We work with organizational leaders to solve business problems and address business issues.  To solve or address a business problem or issue, we must understand the causes of the problem or issue. To understand the cause, we must conduct research.  Without such research, the interventions we implement may not fully address the business problem or issue. It’s not just I-O psychology practitioners who must work to solve problems—so do organizational leaders.

I’m an industrial-organizational psychology practitioner and I apply principles of research each and every day as I work with my clients to solve their business problems. For example, a colleague and I met in 2016 with Clearwater Fire & Rescue to discuss two business issues they were experiencing: (a) an “Us Vs. Them” attitude between the Union, Department Leadership, and the City Administration, and (b) highly publicized employee misconduct/unethical behaviors. To fully understand the causes of the behaviors, we conducted research (what we might call an exploratory sequential mixed method study) that involved observing behavior in the firehouses, conducting interviews with a representative sample of all levels of employees, and conducting an employee survey to confirm and quantify the interview findings.  We even had a conceptual framework, Denison’s model, to serve as a framework for the questions we asked during our interviews. Once we understood the potential causes of the problems, we made recommendations for what action the Department might take to reduce the “Us Vs. Them” attitude (so as to create a more harmonious work environment) and to reduce the incidence of misconduct.  Without understanding the principles of research, I would not be able to make the difference I strive to make with each and every one of my clients.

We just recently completed our research, and I am very pleased to see that Clearwater Fire & Rescue is taking action on our recommendations. To read more, here is a link to an April 4, 2017 Tampa Bay Times article on our research: http://www.tampabay.com/news/publicsafety/fire/psychologists-diagnose-what-ails-clearwater-fire--rescue/2318974


Michael Thompson's picture Michael Thompson | May 10, 2017 3:55 pm MST

Hi, Dr. Miller -

As a current PhD-IO student writing a dissertation proposal, and moreso, as a practitioner managing employee development for 200 individuals, I can assure you that the need for research in our field is well-understood. However, apart from those working directly in the field, I find much less intuitive understanding of the need for research in the workplace. With private consulting clients, this is not an issue, since they are the ones coming to me for help. Those clients want, and take, whatever help I give. But from executives at the organization where I am regularly employed, I get a lot of blank stares. I get comments ranging from, "Can't we just try it? We don't have time for all that," to "I don't think it's as scientific a problem as you're making it out to be." I am constantly battling executives who want to start training without understanding training needs or even knowing what employees' baseline KSA's are, or without ever even having considered that there are measurable differences in performance from one team to the next. I have won over the few I need on my side to implement strategies the right way, in the right order, by conducting research anyway and presenting findings that handily make my points, but it is still a struggle with most.

Do you have any suggestions about how I can further help those around me to understand the need to conduct research and do things in the right order with proper planning? 

I am actually a project manager for my organization, but I took over development after our, honestly, excellent HR director quit because she could not get past the resistance. I never quit anything, and like I told her before she left, we are doing it the right way regardless, but I sure understand why she left...

Eventually, my results will speak for themselves, but those results, as you know, will not come overnight.

Leslie A. Miller's picture Leslie A. Miller | May 12, 2017 5:02 am MST


Hi Michael,

Thank you for sharing! It is so great to hear that you see how understanding the principles of research is critical to being a great I-O psychology practitioner. After all, as I-O psychology practitioners we conduct research with/for our clients to better understand their business problems/issues and design/implement interventions to help address issues/solve problems. I teach many of the I-O psychology PhD research courses, and I don't get the sense everyone sees or understands how we apply the principles of research in our day-to-day work with clients. 

I too have experienced clients who don't see the need to conduct research; rather, they are more interested in implementing some intervention (e.g., such as a training). Often, this is because they believe they know the cause of the issue or problem they are experiencing and just want to move forward and "fix" it. For example, I had a client in the past who was experiencing significant first year turnover of pharmaceutical sales professionals. My client indicated that the reason for the turnover was poor management. My client wanted me to implement management training---to train managers on how to coaching and guide sales professionals.  I conducted some discovery to better understand why my client believed that poor management was the cause of the turnover. It was just a gut feeling. We chatted about how my role was to help them solve their business problem, and without really understanding the root cause of the problem, we might risk them spending significant $$ on management training, only to find that the problem persisted. 

I did get the client to allow me to conduct research to understand potential causes of the first year turnover. Know what I found? I found that the likely cause was that the organization was hiring sales professionals from big pharma companies and that those hired had a very different perception of what it would be like to work in small pharma. There was a mismatch-if you will-in expectations about what the job would be like. Big pharma is very different than small pharma. 

Management training would not have helped us solve the turnover problem.



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Leslie A. Miller
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