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Psychological Perspectives in the Workplace

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It has been said the goal of psychology is to predict and influence behavior. Though very broad, this definition seems to somehow hold despite the far reaches of psychological inquiries which ranges from the diagnosing and treating various pathologies in people to training animals to perform complex tasks to improving relationships between people to seeking to facilitate the answers to life’s questions. It is in regards to these last two that the realm of organizational psychology is concerned about as its aims are to advance both people and profits through the application of psychological principles.

Organizations as People

The methods of applying the principles of psychology to organizations are, in large measure, the same as applications involving individuals. The reasoning for this is two-fold: firstly, an organization is comprised of and achieves results through people; secondly, in many respects, an organization is a person. By that, it is not meant to say that there is a heart or brain but that the body politique is recognized by law as a separate bodily, aka “corporate”, entity that is culpable for its actions and to some extent, possesses the cumulative psyche and will of the people that employed by its objectives. This being the case, many of the same rules as apply to individuals should be considered for en masse application to the firm as one is merely contending with a group of individuals.

Though the case may be well made for the appropriateness of a psychological perspective in the workplace, as a field of study, psychology is not without its competing factions, each of which asserts either “truth” or some portion of it. Three such perspectives that figuratively represent the three corners of an equilateral triangle are cognitive, behavioral and humanist (Purcell 1967, p. 231). Each of these, in its pure form, offers a distinct approach, sometimes to the extent to which other approaches are ignored. Despite this, each makes a significant contribution to issues and actors in the workplace. It is with this idea in mind that each will be sequentially examined for the specific contributions and applications while seeking for reconciliation in reality.

The Cognitive Approach

The cognitive approach is currently a clinically dominant perspective for good reason. It is logical and rational and has many applications. This perspective is grounded on the idea that man is a very clever creature and will seek to make sense of the world around them. As the world presents an vast, literally incalculable amount of information, people are at least somewhat constrained by the concept of bounded rationality which simply acknowledges this state of affairs and the fact that we fail to process (or process correctly) all of this information. As a result, people employ active and passive strategies to reduce the amount of information that they feel needs to be processed by adopting such courses of action as forming pre-conceived notions, assigning stereotypes or labels to people or actions, and adopting patterns of reasoning that are based only on some self-selected information. These simplified constructs or beliefs are then employed as actions to achieve some relief from this processing burden (Hodgkinson 2003, p. 3).

This approach is perhaps especially relevant as today’s workplace is widely characterized by information processing and analysis. The information that is captured in the workplace easily exceeds the capacity of the brain so additional tools are utilized such as computers and information management systems. Even so, given the nature of the work and its scale and scope, people often experience anxiety and difficulty at work due to the failure of the person to adapt or implement cognitive information-reducing strategies successfully. Consider the example of the following workplace scenario:

Your supervisor assigns a project in which you must demonstrate your ability to manage others efforts against a timeline. One employee is carrying their load. You brief your supervisor on this and, as a result, the employee works late and completes the assignment (Daniels, Harris & Briner, 2004, p. 344).

In this situation, you likely weighed the potential signal of an inability to manage others by consulting your supervisor against the possibility of failure and the fact that failure would give assurance that you did not have this ability. This example is one in which there is partial information in a situation in which full information would be highly advantageous. It is the cognitive interpretations which lead one conclude the potential of unpleasant personal outcomes that trigger an “unpleasant affect of work” often manifested as some degree of anxiety (Daniels, Harris, & Briner 2004, p. 345).

The Behavioral Perspective

Prior to elaboration of the behaviorist perspective, it merits noting that psychology, as an endeavor, while interesting, compelling and even useful at times, has perennially been dogged by the issue that it is not a verifiable, quantifiable subject of inquiry (Kimble 2000, p. 208). This is likely due to an overexposure to Freud’s answer to all issues, sexual conflict, as well as simply to the fact psychology is not something that always lends itself to a classical scientific laboratory. This bias against psychology has been overcome by two key factors: statistical rigor and behaviorism.

In short, behaviorism posits that all behavior is the consequence of an observable stimulus for which an organism is predisposed to or conditioned to respond. These stimuli can be used to shape and mold behavior and belong to one of four categories below:

  1. Reward - the application of a positive stimulus to increase response rates
  2. Punishment – the application of a negative stimulus to decrease response rates
  3. Time Out – the removal of a positive stimulus to decrease response rates
  4. Other Reinforcer – the removal of a negative stimulus to increase response rates (Bolles 1979, pp. 121-122).

In this paradigm, behaviorism assert that people are rational animals that, for the most part, seek pleasure and avoid pain though, in doing so, frequently consider time horizons in the case that short term pleasures are forsaken. Additionally, beyond the simplified “stimulus-response” (S-R) paradigm, there exists a scheme of behaviorism labeled “response-response” (R-R) learning in which the anticipated response is predicted from an early response to a different stimulus (Kimble 2000, p. 208).

To illustrate an example of behaviorism in the workplace, consider the following example:

You have been with a new department or company for a few months with your previous two positions with a supervisor whose chosen method of performance coaching to belittle someone in department-wide meetings by yelling and other demeaning actions. A department meeting is coming up and you are behind on a project. As the staff meeting approaches you begin to dread it and get a headache and have feelings of worthlessness and incompetence despite being knowing that you can meet or exceeds the projects specifications (Daniels, Harris & Briner 2004, p. 344).

In this example, it would seem as though you have been conditioned to feel this way. In much that same way that Pavlov’s dogs came to salivate at just the dinner bell as a consequence of learning by the pairing of stimulus and response, your feelings, symptoms and eventual behavior is a result of the anticipation of a punishment-type reinforcer (Bolles 1979, pp. 24-26).

The Humanist Paradigm

In the way that humanism accepts individual differences, it resembles cognitive theory; in the way that if focuses almost solely on subjective experiences, it is the arch-enemy of behaviorism (Kimble 2000, p. 9).

Within the realm of what might be labeled a “humanist” approach are those perspectives advocated by Freud, Erikson, Adler, Maslow, Frankl and others. Each of these theorists focuses on either the resolution of conflict or the achievement of meaning. Going so far as be labeled “industrial theology” with regards to the application of this perspective to the work environment, they seek to understand how a person perceives themselves within the situations that work presents. These conflicts often center on values or self-actualization and meaning.

As there are several distinct approaches within the broader notion of a humanistic approach, reviewing at least a few major angles is likely to be useful. One such theorist, Erikson, a student of Freud, postulated that individuals develop and progress through various lifestages, each one ideally characterized by the successful resolution of inner conflict of that age. Examples would be the middle-age conflict of “growth vs. stagnation” and a key childhood stage of “trust vs. mistrust” (Kets de Vries 1995, p. 9; Gleitman 1986, p. 562). In the same way that a parent is an authority figure, so to is the “corporation” or its representative and it is reasonable to assume that some of these conflict issues will be need to be reworked as they resurface in the work family.

Adler is another theorist in the humanist vein whose work emphasizes the social context of the human condition. In a manner analogous to Erikson’s lifestages, Adler proposed eight levels of social interest ranging from the “mother-child” relationship to “God” with the levels of one’s “community” and “society” in the middle (Hale 1999, pp. 68-76). By using this methodology, Adler seeks to emphasize that one cannot emphasize the self at the expense of the world and vice-versa, that acceptance and success in life is a achieved by a balance of ego and society and a reconciliation of one’s strength’s and one’s weaknesses (Page 2003, pp. 88, 92).

As an example of this, consider the study, though somewhat dated, that a majority of people find their work meaningless (Purcell 1967, p. 232). If it is indeed the cases that what they do is meaningless then, perhaps one can find redeeming value in why they do it: to provide for their family, to “get ahead” or some other deferment of pleasure or perhaps the acceptance of an imposed position in life.

As a segue way from the meaningless of work is the perspective of the humanism are the ideas of theorists such as Maslow and Frankl which both seek to address the issue of values and meaningfulness in work and life. Maslow’s ubiquitous hierarchy of needs positions self-actualization as the highest type of need to be satisfied, being given attention only after lower needs such as food and security are considered (Coles 2001; Hansen 2000, p. 22). In similar vein, Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, indicates that people seek meaning through hardship and that purpose validates the self and your activities (Frankl 1946). Also related to this is Herzberg’s theory of motivation in which he postulate many choices are comprised of two-factors. One category of factor is labeled as “satisfiers” and are factors that drive positive feelings and beliefs while the other category is labeled “hygiene” factors in that they are necessary but not sufficient (Purcell 1967, p. 238). As an example, consider that salary is a satisfier yet “travel less than 25%” may be a hygiene factor for a certain individual. By this, it is meant that virtually any reasonable sum of money would not be enough to motivate this individual if they must travel approximately 50% of the time. Similarly, by not traveling at all, this person could be not “dissatisfied” but their low wage prevents real satisfaction also. All together, these provide a rich view of the aims of the humanist perspective and are very salient to understanding behavior and motive in the workplace as in life.

Corporate Therapy and Organizational Interventions

One of the initial metaphors utilized earlier is that in some ways, an organization is a person. Complimentary if not a substitute line of reasoning is that organizations are of people. If at first psychology was not relevant, it is now.

In consideration of the application of each of these approaches, there are number of areas such as selection and hiring practices and performance consulting in which each approach is distinct and unique yet still appropriate.

Selection Processes

  • Cognitive – Cognitive ability and intelligence is among the most reliable and validated predictors of job performance (Hodgkinson 2003, p. 10; Dreher & Dougherty 2002, pp. 109-110).
  • Behavioral – One method that takes advantage of the R-R learning method the use of behavioral interview techniques that focus on achievement or the ability to do the current job based on the belief of a correlation of past demonstrated ability to the task at hand. This type of interview can be an oral interview, work samples or practices in order to stimulate a response (Dreher & Dougherty 2002, pp. 105-107).
  • Humanistic – The use of personality profiles to help assess the fit of the person to the team or company is a frequently utilized humanistic technique (Wasylyshyn 2001, pp. 12, 14-15).

Performance Management

  • Cognitive – The distribution, through training, of successful heuristics for handling certain complex tasks can be a means by which new employees are oriented to “best” methods (Hodgkinson 2003, p. 11). In addition, the use of the Expectancy Theory approach understanding and influencing motivation can be very applicable to creating systems that incentivize performance while Equity theory concerns the rationalization of worker inputs and corresponding outputs. (Dreher & Dougherty 2002, pp. 34-35, 42).
  • Behavioral – Behavioral theory, if anything, is straightforward with regards to motivation stating only that one need find the correct reinforcement schedule to achieve the desired results.
  • Humanistic – Programs such as job coaching and consulting as well as job enrichment can both motivate and address performance concerns (Page 2003; Noe, Hollenbeck, Gerhart, & Wright 2000, p. 367).

Three into One: Towards an Integrated Approach

In consideration of each of these approaches, one approach may clearly be the best paradigm to utilize in any specific situation. Despite this, the diversity of experiences to be found in the workplace in conjunction with the diversity of the individuals calls for an approach with a “back-up” plan if not an outright approach in which all three schools are actively utilized. As an example of a complex workplace situation in which many elements are present in such quantities so as to be readily observable, consider the following adapted and condensed version of real-life organizational drama at B.F. Goodrich (Vandivier 1972):

When presented with the opportunity to get the bid on a project to build a aircraft brake assemblies as part of a government contract for a company for which Goodrich has utterly failed with a decade earlier, Goodrich bid to win, hoping to restore trust and capture the profits ‘on the back end’ through subsequent orders and miscellaneous complimentary parts. After winning the bid, the job was assigned to Warren, an experienced brake assembly engineer and graduate of a top engineering program who was notably difficult to approach with anything remotely resembling criticism. Under Warren was Lawson, a young engineer with much less of a pedigree and only one year of work experience. Despite this, he quickly saw the design for this particular project possessed critical flaws that would not only fail to function but in doing so could potentially or perhaps even likely be considered a threat to those in the plane and on the ground.

Knowing a flaw to be present and seeking to save the company time and money later though unwilling to approach Warren without more data, Lawson began testing the components at the earliest possible opportunity. These tests confirmed his suspicions and, though Warren began to become aware of the issues, he insisted that the problem lay in the material selection rather that the design.

Finding Warrne unwilling to consider the root cause, Lawson took his case to Sink, “a short, chubby, bald man”, who had worked his was up to a position supervising all engineers from a “lowly” draftsman position. As such, he was not an engineer yet supervised engineers and despite not being formally so trained, as Lawson presented his case, the truth was likely quite obvious. Also obvious was that if Lawson was correct, then by default, Warren was wrong. If this were the case, then this meant that Sink made an error in trusting Warren and allowing this to occur. Sink’s response was to “keep testing… it’ll work just fine”.

With less than seventy days to flight testing, the mandatory certification of the assembly began to loom. Vandivier, a instrumentation engineer, analyst and technical writer, was called to perform final qualification testing and then to issue the recommendation for certification. Upon noting many “irregularities” Vanivier consulted Gretzinger, the lab supervisor, who indicated that he had been directed to miscalibrate testing instruments by Lawson who reported that Sink had directed him to do so.

Vandivier soon spoke with Lawson who informed him that he would “soon figure it out” that it went even higher than Sink who had been directed by his supervisor, Van Horn, Manager of Design Engineering. Van Horn had indicated, “regardless… it will be qualified”. Eventually, it was “qualified” and failed miserably in flight tests. This began the chain of events that could be termed the “beginning of the end” in which the final outcome was a major loss of corporate reputation, the redesign of the assembly, a formal inquiry, court proceedings and other predictable consequences.

As one considers this tale, though we may not all design aircraft brake assemblies, be engineers or employees of a huge corporation or have millions of dollars or lives riding on our decisions, most of the elements are likely quite familiar. This familiarity comes from the fact that, even though we may not even be employed, the chords that were struck in this tale echo in our lives. Issues such as trust vs. mistrust, conditioned responses and fear of reprisals (aka punishment) and the questioning of what is the meaning of life and what ethics and values are represented in your head, heart and behaviors. The issues that play in our private lives go with us to work… the problem is us, work and home are merely the contexts in which the drama unfolds.

In tale of B.F. Goodrich, the issues and conflicts named by each of the three distinct approaches are evident.

  • Cognitive – Sink had the opportunity to stop the issue cold by simply going to Warren and directing him to redesign to the part. A frequent initial intervention in cognitive therapy is to being to question one’s assumptions (Henry 2002, p. 39). Key to this are Sink’s assumptions in which he felt that his discovery and action would reflect poorly on him. Objectively, this is faulty reasoning yet such as strategy was adopted by Sink in an effort to reduce the cognitive demands placed on him.
  • Behavioral – Consider the actions of Gretzinger to miscalibrate the testing instruments in which he is faced with the lesser of two punishments: one certain and immediate, the other deferred and potentially avoidable. Perhaps he had witnessed such a “test” on others and learned by association. In doing so, Gretzinger’s survival instincts were likely triggered and he simply behaved accordingly.
  • Humanistic – This case is ripe with issues of subjective values and ethics interpretations. In addition, from a psychodynamic perspective, it is certainly implied that Sink perhaps had a bit of an inferiority complex which was reinforced by the overall situation and he had adopted the anecdotal strategy of “one must go along to get along”.

While it seems clear, consider the insight achieved by integrated model that adds richness and understanding as to the how and why events occurred as they did. For example, in the Gretzinger’s instinctual survival behavior, it is quite likely that he also had psychodynamic issues such as inferiority complex in which he felt irrational guilt were he to disobey his corporate “parent’s” (Gleitman 1986, p. 420-421). Also, consider Sink’s cognitive assumptions and that his behavior could also be understood in the context of behaviorism’s “learned helplessness” or social learning theory’s deferment of responsibility, aptly illustrated by Milgram’s classis experiments in which “ordinary” people carried out what they thought were hurtful experiments on another human under the direction of external authority figure (Gleitman 1986, pp. 114-115, 398-401).

By the simultaneous consideration of each theoretical perspective, events can be understood with greater clarity but, most importantly, future behavior can be shaped for the benefit of all involved. In this way, processes and policies can be enacted that reduce the psychological conflict in the choices that people feel compelled to make. For example, as the case clearly involved ethical issues, one system that is common is today’s post-Enron society is the establishment of reprisal-free ethics violations hotlines (Behr 2002). Additionally, from a behaviorist perspective, increasing the severity of punishment for ethical violations likely forces the cognitive questioning of one’s “payoff matrix”. The implementation of modern business process methods ranging from zero-based budgeting to activity-based costing and six-sigma methodology creates a forum in which assumptions are questioned and possible outcomes quantified. Such efforts get at the some of the fruits of cognitive theory intervention strategies as more information is actively considered, roles and processes are clarified and desired outcomes explicitly stated.

Thus, the workplace occurs as a factory, an office, a car, a crowded city of a wide open field. People occur in all varieties, each shaped by both unique and common elements. With the merger of these diversities, psychological perspectives cannot be applied in isolation. Rather, each must be considered and weighed in light of the situational and temporal context of the moment. Thus, in reality, it is not truly unified theory that is desired but an integrated or multidimensional perspective. Without this, the situation is akin the slightly exaggerated anecdote of the person who went to a psychiatrist only to find out that he has mental issues, a visit to a chiropractor to be informed that therapy was recommended and finally a visit to the dentist only to find that he has dental issues as well. The point is that one often is compelled to find what one is looking for and that unless a multidimensional approach is utilized, the potential outcomes are at least partially mitigated by the failure to consider life in situ.

Works Consulted

Behr, P. and A. Witt. (2002, July 28). [Enron]. Accessed online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/business/specials/energy/enron/.

Bolles, R. (1979). Learning Theory, 2nd edition. Harcout Brace Jovanovich College Publishers: Fort Worth, TX.

Coles, S. ( 2001, October). “Satisfying Basic Needs”. Employee Benefits, 4p.

Daniels, K., C. Harris, and R. Briner. (2004). “Linking Work Conditions to Unpleasant Affect: Cognition, Categorization, and Goals”. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology (77), pp. 343-363.

Dreher, G. and T. Dougherty. (2002). Human Resource Strategy: A Behavioral Reference for the General Manager. McGraw-Hill Irwin: New York, New York.

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Kets de Vries, M. (1995). Organizational Paradoxes: Clinical Approaches to Management, 2nd edition. Routledge: London, UK.

Kimble, G. (2000, November - December). “Behaviorism and Unity in Psychology”. Current Directions in Psychological Science (9), 6, pp. 208-212.

Noe, R., J. Hollenbeck, B. Gerhart, and P. Wright. (2000). Human Resource Management: Gaining a Competitive Advantage, 3rd edition. McGraw-Hill Irwin: Boston, Massachusetts.

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Purcell, T. (1967). “Work Psychology and Business Values: A Triad Theory of Work Motivation”. Personnel Psychology (20), 3, , pp. 231-257.

Vandivier, K. (1972). “Why Should My Conscience Bother Me?” in Moss Kanter, R. & B. Stein, eds. (1978). Life in Organizations: Workplaces as People Experience Them. Basic Publishers: New York, NY.

Wasylyshyn, K. (2001). “On the Full Actualization of Psychology in Business”. Consulting Psychology: Practice and Research (53), 1, pp. 10-21.


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