Why Business Psychology Matters More Than Ever Now

Why Business Psychology Matters More Than Ever Now

How did we get here anyway?

We have come a long way since that cold January 17, 1925, day when then-president Calvin Coolidge proudly announced to The American Society of Newspaper Editors that, “the chief business of the American people is business.” (Coolidge, 1925). Further on in his speech “Silent Cal” made it clear that he thought that self-interest and the accumulation of wealth were not all that should drive American society. He also focused on redeeming social values such as peace, honor and charity. Coolidge’s remarks triggered a heated debate that endures to this day, as to whether or not business has any social responsibility beyond a single-minded pursuit of profits.

The involvement of psychology with business seems to have a long and somewhat checkered history. For example, in 1930, John B. Watson, the founder of the school of Behavioral Psychology, became infamous for his controversial statement regarding the potential use of stimulus-response conditioning on human infants. He suggested that, regardless of any genetic factors, that babies, given sufficient behavioral controls, could be shaped into any roles that he chose; doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant chief or beggar-man (Watson, 1930). Watson eventually decamped psychology for a highly successful career in advertising where he focused on influencing consumer-purchasing decisions.

Arguably, as Business Psychologists, we can trace our intimate connection with business back to the 1890s to Harvard professor of psychology Hugo Munsterberg. Munsterberg is considered by many to be the “father of industrial psychology.” He was noted as a pioneer in applied psychology and for his belief that the mind had parallel physical processes in the brain.

The American Institute of Business Psychology itself, with its motto of “helping organizations to be more competitive through psychology” was a product of the intellectual and social foment of the late 1990s. As the brainchild of Dr. Francis Casteel, it grew out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo. New possibilities for contribution and growth were further articulated when the current Executive Director, Dr. Gurinder Shah, took office in 2009.

What’s Important About Now?

Our work today more closely parallels the early path tread by two of the trailblazers in organizational behavior and consulting practice, Mary Parker Follet and Lillian Gilbreth. Follet is often recognized as the “mother of modern management” (Kleiner, 1996). Gilbreth is well known for her consulting work that improved individual and organizational efficiency using psychological principles (Kelly & Kelly, 1990).

Iconoclastic Stanford University Graduate School of Business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer is a stern critic of contemporary management and organizational practices. Bluntly, Pfeffer (2018) suggests that the relationship between people and organizations is broken. His is a wakeup call to the dangers and the huge hidden human, physical and economic costs associated with today’s workplace.

It may well be that as Business Psychologists we, along with some of our organizational clients, might also have something to hide. That is, we experience semi-conscious guilt, The guilt arises from the realization that we may not actually be “walking our talk;” of not always doing what we advocate our clients do. Namely, being too busy being caught up in the details of our work to reflect on and be mindful of what we are really doing and how we are doing it. Should we be more mindfully doing our work better or, perhaps, differently to the benefit of ourselves, our clients, and our society?

On the plus side, this could also be our moment in time to find the opportunity hidden in crises. Currently, much that we consider to be important in our world is being criticized and challenged. Everything from technology, organizational structure, accreditation, core values, to the role of business in society is in flux. It may be time for us, in the sage words of psychologist Hubert Bonner (1965), to be more “mindful of man.” Or, at least, to advocate a renewed emphasis on human value as the critical element in the economic equation of business.

Who Are We?

In response to a question about the purpose of organized labor, John L. Lewis the dynamic founder of the Congress of Industrial Organizations or CIO, reputedly responded with just one word, “More.” Lewis’ response was highly representative of the confrontational “zero sum” relationship between management and labor that characterized the industrial age

As professionals in a hybrid discipline we are especially sensitive.to marching to the beat of a different drummer. Our training and experience enables us to detect and consider things that may pass unobserved or unconsidered by individuals in other fields. We also aware of the benefits that derive from the synergy of combination as well as the focus of analysis.

More recently, the British-based Association for Business Psychology defined us in terms of the study and practice of improving working life. Our own, somewhat parallel, definition relates to applying organizational psychology for the enhancement of people and business.

What Do We Bring to the Party?

Violin virtuoso and renowned music teacher Shinichi Suzuki was famous for his method of teaching the violin to young children. Suzuki believed in creating an environment for learning music that paralleled that of acquiring one’s native tongue. Although a gifted and experienced musician, Suzuki ardently believed in the concept of learning with a “beginners mind.” Reportedly, he actually went back and retook basic instruction in violin fundamentals to refresh his basic understanding.

What might we discover about ourselves if we look a “beginner’s mind” look at what we have become and examined the fundamentals of what we think and what we do? What skills, perspectives, and values that attach to Business Psychology might be useful as we move through our current transitional era?

Here are some possibilities:

  • A hybrid perspective that combines the disciplines of business and psychology
  • An openness to change.
  • A desire to learn and improve as professionals.
  • An interest in developing individuals, groups and organizations.
  • The application of the findings of neuroscience to business and organizational issues.
  • A readiness to engage with other disciplines in joint projects.
  • The capacity to examine and assess our own competence.

Where Might We Be Going?

As a young graduate student I was captivated by the story told by of one of my senior psychology professors. It seems that one day, before class, he was comfortably seated in a near empty restaurant enjoying a morning cup of coffee. He occupied a window seat fronting a busy street while his mind wandered from subject to subject. Suddenly, his attention was captured by subtle movement on the surface of his partially full cup of coffee precariously resting on the table in front of him. The residual coffee in the cup had been set shimmering by the vibrations from the passing vehicles. For several minutes he sat mesmerized by the interplay of polarized sunlight streaming through the clear window and the gentle mechanical undulations of the coffee surface. Although non-religious by choice, he had discovered the beauty and wonder to be found in an everyday common event viewed from a perspective of openness, non-judgement and acceptance. He decided to refer to his experience of finding the transcendent in the commonplace as “sacralizing.”

In a practical sense sacralizing might involve enabling ourselves and our clients to become more congruent with our inner selves, discovering the meaningful in the every-day, and helping reintegrate the physical with the mental. Peter Senge the Director of the MIT Organizational Learning Center has suggested that this might be accomplished by better aligning what we see, with what we want to see, with what we do (Sharmer, 2018).

How Do We Get There From Here?

Author Gertrude Stein (1971) once remarked about the prospects of returning home or going back there to her origins. She came to the realization that there was no longer any “there”’ there.” In the words of songwriter, and Noble Laureate Bob Dylan, from his 1964 record album by the same name, “The Times They Are A-changin.” As we find ourselves poised on the precipice between the information age and whatever new era comes next, it seems to me that a fresh look at our profession is in order.

Potentially, we can be helpful as organizations attempt to deal with the issues and opportunities associated with having five generations concurrently in the workforce. We can bring our expertise to bear as institutions struggle with displacements associated with advancing artificial intelligence moving upward into traditional middle management and professional work.

We can aid senior managers as they cope with the stress associated with sorting out the pressures and complexities of accelerating change. We can bring new insights into leadership practices associated with the latest findings in neuroscience. We can assist human resource professionals as they attempt to bring a more enlightened human perspective into business management.

And, then what?

Perhaps, we need to acknowledge that although the future may not be predictable it is shapeable. What we can do is hold high professional standards for ourselves, pay attention to what’s happening on the periphery of our discipline, continue to develop our profession, talk with likeminded others, and seek to influence the positive ground conditions to facilitate the emergence of the inchoate future.

Bonner, H. (1965). On being mindful of man: An essay toward a proactive psychology. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Coolidge, C. (1925). “Address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Washington, D.C.,” January 17, 1925. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=24180.
Kelly, R. & Kelly, V. (1990). Lillian Moller Gilbreth (1878-1972). In A. N. O’Connell & N. F. Russo (Eds.), Women in psychology: A bio-bibliographic sourcebook. New York: Greenwood Press. Pp. 118-124.
Kleiner, A, (1996). The age of heretics: Heroes, outlaws, and the forerunners of corporate change, New York: Doubleday.
Pfeffer, J. (2018). Dying for a paycheck. New York: Harper Business.
Scharmer, C. (2018). The essentials of theory u. Oakland, CA; Berrett-Koehler, p. 97.
Stein, G. (1971). Everybody’s autobiography. New York: Cooper Square, p.289.
Watson, J. (1930). Behaviorism (revised edition). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, p.

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