Organisational psychology

Psychology: an introduction (Oxford Southern Africa) - Leslie Swartz 2011

Organisational psychology

Loraine Townsend

This part consists of one chapter that deals with the large topic of organisational psychology. This has historically been conceptualised as a sub-discipline of psychology that focuses on individuals and groups at work within an organisational context. This chapter charts the history of the discipline and demonstrates how its origins are intricately linked to the history of work and the emergence of factories and organisations, as well as the evolution of work in the era of industrialisation that followed the industrial revolution. Industrial psychology has traditionally focused almost exclusively on research intended to improve the efficiency, effectiveness and productivity of organisations. However, this chapter endeavours to make a case for a more enlarged conception of the discipline’s purpose, research and interventions.

Dean Isaacs, Shaida Bobat & Jill Bradbury


After studying this chapter you should be able to:

•understand the history of organisational psychology

•explain the various influences on the discipline of organisational psychology

•present an account of some debates and challenges in the field

•explain what organisational psychologists can do.


Melinda loved her job at the local bookshop. As long as she could remember, her mother had read stories to her before going to sleep at night. She knew that that was why she loved reading so much, and consequently why she had managed to get to university when so many of her friends had not been so lucky. Even as a young child she remembered that she often preferred to have her nose in a good book to watching television with her brothers and sisters.

At the bookshop she often dipped into the new books before packing them on the shelves. She knew that this was taking time from her job, but when customers sought her out (rather than any of the other staff or even her manager) to ask about the new arrivals, she was delighted. She worked really hard and diligently because she really loved what she did, and she was sure that she contributed to sales by being so informed about the many books in the shop.

She was really hurt and angry when her manager told her that she would have to work overtime to, as he said, ’make up for the time wasted reading the new books’. She began to notice that the manager employed similar strategies with the other staff, trying to squeeze extra effort out of them, and manipulating them to work even harder. One day she was packing out a new book on how to make employees work harder without paying them more, and she couldn’t help wondering if her manager had read it already.

When Melinda saw that her psychology course had a section on organisational psychology, she was less than enthusiastic about studying it as she thought it would be about how to manipulate workers. She was really pleased to find out that as a field it could be quite critical of such management approaches, and she was tempted to suggest to her manager that he read the chapter.


The discipline of psychology may be generally defined as the study of people’s behaviour and mental processes, and the theories of organisational psychology are specifically focused on understanding these psychological phenomena in a particular context: the world of work. Therefore, organisational psychology has historically been conceptualised as a sub-discipline of psychology that focuses on individuals and groups at work within an organisational context. While work can take many different forms, the capacity to work or actively transform our world through our labour is a distinctive human trait, which separates us from other kinds of animals. Work is thus a central feature of human existence.

The industrialisation of work provided the impetus for the scientific study of human behaviour in the workplace. As a result of the subsequent relationship between industry and psychology, the discipline was initially called industrial psychology. Although the discipline is often still referred to in this way, a broadening of the scope of the discipline in the last few decades, and the changing nature of work in contemporary times, have seen a shift to the now preferred term of organisational psychology. However, as many of the older texts still refer to industrial psychology, the terms organisational psychology and industrial psychology are used interchangeably in this chapter.

Since its inception in the early 1900s in parts of Europe and the US, organisational psychology has engaged with the world of work in two interrelated ways: theory and practice. In the development of theoretical explanations for the behaviour of people at work, the questions that interest us are often of interest to ordinary people too. For example, which kinds of people are best suited to which kinds of job? What motivates people to work hard? Why are some people more vulnerable to stress? What kinds of people make good leaders? What factors make for a comfortable working environment? Is a person’s personality type a determinant of how good they are at their job? Is the job interview as a selection device a valid predictor of future performance in a job?

However, as with psychology in general, organisational psychology makes use of scientific methods to investigate these issues and to generate theoretical explanations. Using methods such as tests, questionnaires and interviews, or even naturalistic observation or experimentation, organisational psychologists collect information. Analysing the data then enables the psychologists to make general claims that can be applied to explain the behaviour of other people in similar contexts. Very often the development of these theoretical accounts is linked with other psychological theories or perspectives (e.g. evolutionary explanations of competition and cooperation, theories of personality types, psychometric measures of intelligence, and social psychology’s accounts of group behaviour).

Because organisational psychology is interested in a particular context, theories often have a very direct application and practical use (e.g. to improve organisational structure and design, motivate employees, select and train leaders and managers, improve communication, or increase job satisfaction). Organisational psychologists often work with other professionals in the workplace, addressing these applied problems and, in the process, may contribute further to our theoretical knowledge.

The practice of organisational psychology may sometimes seem to be no more than a tool to make organisations more efficient. Some critics of the discipline have argued that, historically, organisational psychology has tended to ignore the welfare of the individual doing the work, and focused more explicitly on managerial issues such as productivity and effectiveness, leadership, selection and training (Parker, 2002). However, the interests and needs of individual workers should also be advanced and met through the applications of psychological theories, particularly if one considers that part of the project of psychology, and contained within the ethical codes of the various bodies that regulate the professional component of the discipline, is the expressed intention of improving the welfare of human beings.

A history of work

The idea that there is a special environment reserved only for work activities, separate from other aspects of our life, is a fairly recent historical development. A brief history of the emergence of factories and industrial organisations provides some understanding of how the relationship between people and work has evolved. This is important as it also provides a context within which organisational psychology emerged and gained credence as a scientific discipline able to study human beings, organisations and work, and able to provide solutions to the problems associated with industry and organisations.

There are identifiable phases in the history of work with the most significant development being the rise of industrialisation in the late 1700s (see next section). This view of historical phases associated with different forms of work is consistent with a Marxist analysis of the structure of society. Karl Marx (1818—1881) spent the latter part of his life in England, writing at a time when industrialisation was spreading rapidly throughout Europe. Marx argued that societies pass through stages, each stage characterised by a different mode of production (or different forms of work) by which people maintain and reproduce themselves. Marx identified five main modes of production, each associated with a different historical era. According to Reiss (1997), these are as follows:

•primitive communism (associated with hunter-gatherer tribes and simple agriculture)

•Graeco-Roman slave states




According to Marx’s analysis, every mode of production includes specific forces of production, which are all the things that are necessary for production to occur. The mode of production, or the ways in which the forces of production are organised, will necessarily have a direct and determinant effect on the ways in which people relate to each other, or the relations of production (Craib, 1997). According to Marx, the modes of production largely determine the way in which society’s laws and institutions are organised; thus, when patterns of work change, then society and the relationships between people change too.

Economic phases, such as those suggested by Marx, describe the forms of work and social relationships that pertained in Europe during different historical periods, but of course these phases are not completely distinct from one another and do not occur at the same speed across the whole world. At present, work takes multiple forms around the globe. Although economic systems throughout the world are now interconnected, subsistence farming, mass-production factories and information technology co-exist in the same time frame. Nevertheless, it is from the West’s history of industrialisation that the practice of organisational psychology emerged.

The roots of industrialisation

The antecedents of industrialisation lie in the harnessing of natural resources during medieval times (AD 1000—1750). During this era, wood was the main material used for any construction, as well as being the main fuel source. Although wind and water were the main power sources, animal power was also harnessed during this period. However, the most significant feature of this era was the emergence of towns as centres of commercial endeavour. This occurred for a number of reasons. In the early stages of this phase, Europe was emerging from the period now commonly called the Dark Ages (for its perceived lack of culture and technological progress). During the Dark Ages, the characteristic form of community was the village, dominated and protected by the castle of the feudal lord. A feudal lord was a landowner who allowed people without land to live on his land in return for their service.

Around AD 1000 a new class of people emerged, bringing about an economic revolution. These people were merchants who set up trading centres and locales of commercial endeavour. These locales evolved into towns, where the authority of feudal lords was not a factor. Peasants, who previously worked in the service of the feudal lord, were attracted to work in these emerging towns. By AD 1300, almost half of the peasants had been freed from the feudal system and had migrated to these centres of commerce and industry. The foundations of the modern city were being put in place. Thus it was in the medieval phase that human beings began to sell their labour to others in exchange for payment.


Figure 27.1 During the medieval period, people identified strongly with their work

The industrial revolution: transforming work and society

Resultant changes in social patterns and relationships together with new technological developments, particularly the invention of steam power, provided the impetus for industrialisation and the emergence of the factory system. This entailed the concentration of capital (machines, goods, land, money and services used to produce commodities) and labour in central locations under the ownership and control of powerful individuals.

There had been few factories prior to this period, although there were some, such as the print works at Nurnberg in Germany where approximately 120 people were employed. However, from the early 1800s onwards, the use of steam power and other subsequent technological inventions meant that the factory system became increasingly dominant across Europe and the size of these industrial units began to grow steadily. Individual owners found it increasingly difficult to secure sufficient finances to set up and maintain these large industrial units, leading to the emergence of corporations (groups of owners), who pooled their resources for joint ownership. Simultaneously, workers, who previously had been isolated in smaller units, began to work together in larger numbers and began to formalise relationships among themselves, unionising in order to protect themselves against the worst forms of exploitation.

These new developments in the relations between people in the context of work can be broadly understood using the Marxist concept of class. The industrial mode of production produces two primary classes: capitalists or bourgeoisie (who own the means of production — land, factories, raw materials and machinery) and the working class or proletariat (who own nothing but their labour power). The working class must, therefore, sell their labour power to the capitalists.

Marx argued that in the industrial era, labour became a commodity just like any other good or service. Thus, not only were the products of human labour turned into commodities that were bought and sold for profit in an emerging market, but human labour itself became a commodity, and labour power was bought and sold for a wage. At the same time the products of human labour became the property of capitalists who sold these for a profit, in contrast to previous times when the products of human labour remained the property of those who made the items.

As a result, according to Marx’s analysis, the capitalist mode of production creates its own distinctive class structure, resulting in a system where, according to Reiss (1997), the wealth-creating enterprises are privately owned by the few, and most people have to sell their labour power and work for the capitalist class.


Source: Craib (1997) and McLellan (1975)

According to Marx, the commodification of labour has dire consequences for the working classes, resulting in what he referred to as ’alienation’. The concept of alienation suggests that workers in a capitalist society become impoverished and dehumanised. This alienation has four aspects to it:

•Workers become alienated from the products of their labour. They lose control over what they produce as it is owned by the capitalist who buys their labour power. Thus, workers relate to the product of their labour as to an alien object.

•Workers experience alienation from the process of production and the labour process, as labour as a creative process falls under the control of the factory owners or capitalists who control every aspect of production.

•Workers experience alienation from themselves, as they become increasingly separated from their creative ability.

•Workers become alienated from each other as the productive process separates them and turns work into an increasingly individual endeavour.


Figure 27.2 Karl Marx


Adam Smith’s theories about the economy, society and human beings popularised the notion of laissez faire (which means ’let be’ in French). This is the belief that the economy and the market operate most efficiently when there is no interference by government or anyone else. The laissez-faire approach is based on the following assumptions about human beings:

•People are rational, and make rational choices to maximise their welfare and satisfy their needs.

•People are naturally competitive, basically self-interested, and concerned with their own individual survival.

•People’s selfish pursuit of their own interests is the engine that energises the market economy.

•People are naturally lazy, find work distasteful, and will only work enough to sustain themselves — and therefore need an incentive to work even harder.

A modern industrial world

The industrial revolution transformed work and society, creating the modern world of the 20th century. The industrialisation of work was extended in two important ways during the last century: the emergence of mass-production techniques and the application of scientific methods to the organisation of work.

Mass production, also called Fordism owing to its popularisation by Henry Ford in the car manufacturing industry, became the modus operandi of most factories, as employers sought to specialise and organise workers for a common task. The emergence of such large-scale enterprises resulted in the application of new bureaucratic principles in the organisation of these large organisations.

One of the scientific theories that were influential during the later part of the industrial world was Darwin’s theory of evolution. The key tenets of the theory are that, in a context of competition, natural differences between members of a species will give some an advantage over others and only the fittest will survive. This theory was distorted into a form termed ’Social Darwinism’, which was used to explain and justify why some people were relatively wealthy and why others were indigent. Many industrialists, economists and social theorists of this time embraced both Social Darwinism and a laissez-faire approach to economics.

An emerging post-industrial world

At the start of the 21st century, the global dynamics of market forces are currently evident as governments around the world embrace macroeconomic policies that encourage free markets and free competition between individuals and countries. In addition, further technological developments, particularly computerisation and the internet, have had an enormous impact on contemporary patterns of work, shifting the emphasis from large-scale industrial manufacturing to information technology and service-based economies. These developments in the world of work have once again had repercussions for people and the relations of power between them, producing new opportunities for some while further disadvantaging others. These changing macroeconomic realities have given rise to the notion of an emerging post-industrial world.

In 1974, Daniel Bell posited the notion of a post-industrial society that would radically alter work, organisations, the organisation of work, and the relationship between employer and employees. Bell suggested that society would move away from a focus on manufacturing (where the economy is based on the production of goods in factories), towards a focus on the provision of services (such as financial services, transport services, communication, entertainment, and so on). Bell’s prediction has largely been realised in many developed countries. In the US, manufacturing jobs are disappearing fast, as more and more people become employed in the so-called services sector.

The emergence of service-based economies in post-industrial societies has had widespread implications for the way in which work gets done, the way organisations are structured, and how people live:

•A reduction in the size and number of factories where goods are produced is resulting in many jobs being lost in the manufacturing sector.

•New classes of workers are emerging (e.g. a service class of professionals and managers who are employed purely in activities that are service based).

•The powers of governments in the arena of economic policy are being reduced as businesses and multinational corporations begin to determine the economic policies of the countries in which they are located.

•The globalisation of markets is occurring as capitalism becomes entrenched in the developing world.

The meaning of work has also changed significantly in the post-industrial world (Schreuder & Coetzee, 2006). There is an increased emphasis on flexibility, self-employment and entrepreneurship. As a result of the challenges of workplace transitions, more people are seeking a sense of purpose in their work (Schreuder & Coetzee, 2006) along with a desire to do ’good work’ (Landy & Conte, 2010). This is work that requires expertise but which is mindful of the implications for the wider world.

The theories and practices of organisational psychology have had to adapt and change to accommodate and reflect the changing nature of work and organisations.


•Work as a separate aspect of life is relatively recent. There have been phases in the history of work; the most significant was the industrial revolution.

•Marx identified five modes of production, each associated with a different historical era. Mode of production influences relations of production in society and between people.

•Industrialisation grew out the harnessing of natural resources during medieval times (AD 1000—1750). Towns emerged as centres of commerce where merchants set up trading centres. In the early mediaeval phase, many peasants left the fuedal system and began to sell their labour to others in exchange for payment.

•From around 1800, technological developments led to industrialisation and the emergence of the factory system. Labour fell under the control of corporations of powerful individuals. Workers also began to unionise to protect themselves from exploitation.

•According to Marx, these developments led to the two primary classes, still in existence today: capitalists or bourgeoisie (who own the means of production) and the working class or proletariat (who own nothing but their labour power). Labour thus became a commodity just like any other good or service. This led to alienation on the part of workers.

•The industrial revolution led to the emergence of mass-production techniques and the application of scientific methods to the organisation of work. Social Darwinism was used to justify why some people were relatively wealthy and others poor.

•The 21st century has seen major changes in the world of work. These include free market policies and further technological developments.

•Thus the emerging post-industrial world has moved away from a focus on manufacturing towards a focus on the provision of services.

•These changes have led to shifts in the meaning of work.

•Organisational psychology has had to adapt to accommodate the changing nature of work and organisations.

A history of organisational psychology

The early years: scientific management

Psychology began to make its presence felt in industry in the early part of the 20th century. A study by W. L. Bryan (1904) focusing on the manner in which professional telegraphers developed the skills to send and receive. Morse code is an early example of these efforts to apply the knowledge and methods of psychology to the domain of work.

Also in the early 1900s, Frank Gilbreth, a bricklayer who became a building contractor, improved the methodology of construction by streamlining the routing of materials and eliminating needless movements (Moore & Hartmann, 1931). In 1915 Frank was joined by Lillian Gilbreth and they used experimental methods to do time-and-motion studies in the workplace to find out the most efficient ways to complete tasks. These time-and-motion studies involved a close examination of a particular job in order to eliminate any unnecessary movements so as to minimise inefficiency and time wasting.

The next major contribution to the field of industrial and organisational studies was by Frederick Winslow Taylor, who was an engineer. Taylor was largely responsible for many of the practices that became standard within most big factories throughout the 1900s. He was a senior engineer in the Midvale Iron Works factory in the US and occupied his time trying to discover more efficient ways of completing tasks. Taylor was all too aware that inefficiency meant money lost and he applied his mind to removing all inefficiency from the workplace. The specific target of his endeavours was the manual labourer employed in the factory (Moorehead & Griffin, 1995).

Taylor knew that if he could develop a way of establishing the maximum amount of work a person could reasonably complete in a given time, he could find a standard for everyone. Workers could then be assessed according to this standard, which would enable employers and managers to determine their efficiency and output. Taylor also knew that if the work was optimally organised, the output of each worker could be increased without any increased expenditure of energy or effort. Optimally organised work is based on an analysis of a particular task for the purposes of finding the single best and most efficient way to do it. Every labourer is then trained to do the job in this way, thereby maximising efficiency, and increasing the worker’s wages (Muchinsky, 2006).

Taylor formulated the following basic principles of scientific management, which are still upheld in many of today’s factories and places of work:

•Select the best people for the job.

•Instruct (train) them in the most efficient methods and the most economical movements to employ in their work.

•Give incentives in the form of higher wages to the best workers.

The success that Taylor had in demonstrating to managers the importance of the human element in productivity led to the entry of psychologists into the human dimension of work. Psychologists thus also believed that through this emphasis, they could assist in raising productivity and increasing efficiency. In this way, the profession of industrial psychology was born (Beder, 2000).

Despite Taylor’s contributions, Hugo Munsterberg is commonly regarded as the founder of industrial psychology. He was the first trained psychologist to apply traditional psychological methods to practical industrial problems, and he shared many of Taylor’s views. Munsterberg’s work provided insights from psychology for three aspects of workplace practice: selecting workers, designing work situations and using psychology in sales.

Munsterberg started a long tradition of psychologists offering their services as business efficiency consultants. In 1913 he published Psychology and industrial efficiency, which was regarded by many as the first book on industrial psychology and which influenced all future industrial psychology. The book was a result of his services as a consultant to the Boston Elevated Railway Company, where he engaged in studies on trolley-car operators and ways of reducing accidents, selecting employees and improving performance (Moore & Hartmann, 1931).

Adopting the principles of scientific management, factories around the world began:

•employing scientifically developed, standardised methods for performing each job

•installing a piece-rate pay system in which each worker was paid for the amount of work completed in a day, not for the time spent on the job

•paying bonuses to those workers who exceeded the daily standard.

Scientific management rapidly emerged as standard workplace practice and paved the way for an era of job specialisation and mass production, greatly increasing productivity and efficiency.

Although, in some senses, the results of scientific management practices were impressive, from the beginning the approach was beset by many problems. Most important of these was the resistance of workers who resented attempts to get more out of them (Muchinsky, 2006). Workers opposed Taylor’s methods on the grounds that scientific management’s explicit goal was to extract the maximum output from workers, and some argued that Taylor’s incentive scheme dehumanised workers, reducing them to machines and further alienating them from the production process. One of the ways workers resisted his methods was by ’soldiering’ (Moorehead & Griffin, 1995). Workers would agree that they would all work at a rate considerably slower than they were capable of. People who worked faster than this rate were called ’rate busters’ and they were placed under considerable pressure by other workers, or faced being ostracised (Moorehead & Griffin, 1995).

Although many of the principles Taylor advocated are still found operating in factories around the world, subsequent theorists and practitioners (e.g. Douglas McGregor and Abraham Maslow) recognised that Taylor’s views of employee motivation were inadequate and narrow. The assumptions that people are lazy, selfish and naturally competitive have, therefore, been challenged, and management practices today increasingly recognise that efficiency will only be enhanced by responding to workers’ motives and engaging their cooperative tendencies as much as any natural competitiveness. Newer approaches to management (e.g. organic structures, team-based organisations and clan-based organisations) have embraced non-competitive values to further facilitate cooperation and have used this for enhancing efficiency.

The professionalisation of organisational psychology

During World War I, many American psychologists believed that psychology had an important role to play in the war effort. The main foci were screening recruits for mental deficiency and assigning selected recruits to appropriate jobs in the army. Psychologists also investigated different aspects of military life, namely morale, psychological problems of physical incapacity, and discipline.


Figure 27.3 Placement of soldiers was based on their test results

Robert Yerkes and other psychologists reviewed a series of general intelligence tests and subsequently developed a test called the Army Alpha, which tested general intelligence and literacy. The Army Beta test was then developed to accommodate the 30 per cent of all recruits who were found to be illiterate after doing the Army Alpha test. At the same time that Yerkes was developing these tests, Walter Scott was doing research into the best placement methods for classifying and placing enlisted soldiers into various areas of the army. He conducted performance ratings of officers, and developed and prepared job duties and qualifications for over 500 jobs (Muchinsky, Kriek & Schreuder, 1998).

The actual impact that the psychologists had on the war effort may have been marginal, but the profession attained important recognition and increased authority. Psychologists were regarded as capable of making valuable contributions to society and of adding to a company’s (and in war, a nation’s) prosperity (Muchinsky et al., 1998). This established the recognisable expertise of the discipline and resulted in further applications to other contexts after the war.

In 1915, Walter Bingham established the Bureau of Salesmanship Research. Under Bingham’s leadership, a group of psychologists established the Carnegie Institute of Technology, the first division of applied psychology in an American university (Moore & Hartmann, 1931). The Institute was unique in that it cooperated with 27 companies, each contributing $500 annually to fund applied psychological research (Muchinsky, 2006). The earliest result was the book Aids in selecting salesmen (1920). The area of focus of the bureau was ’the selection, classification and development of clerical and executive personnel as well as salespeople’ (Muchinsky, 2006, p. 11).


•Psychology began to make its presence felt in industry in the early part of the 20th century; one aspect was the development of time-and-motion studies.

•The early focus was on reducing inefficiency. F.W. Taylor developed optimally organised work to maximise efficiency. Taylor also formulated the principles of scientific management.

•Hugo Munsterberg is commonly regarded as the founder of industrial psychology. His work provided insights from psychology for three aspects of workplace practice: selecting workers, designing work situations and using psychology in sales.

•In this period, scientific management became standard workplace practice. However, workers felt resentful and dehumanised.

•Later theorists argued that Taylor’s views of people were too narrow. They felt that efficiency would only be enhanced by responding to workers’ motives and engaging their cooperative tendencies.

•The roles of psychologists expanded as a result of World War 1. Tests (Army Alpha and Army Beta) were developed to assist with placement of enlisted men.

•Through these efforts, industrial psychology became established as a discipline with recognisable expertise.

•In 1915, Walter Bingham established the Bureau of Salesmanship Research; Bingham was also instrumental in setting up the Carnegie Institute of Technology which conducted applied psychological research.


Employee assistance programmes are provided by an employer in order to assist with and remedy workplace problems (Attridge et al., 2010). They can be applied to a variety of problems, including HIV, career choices, substance abuse, financial counselling and retirement counselling, among others (James, Braam Rust & Kingma, 2012). Interventions include screening, assessment and brief interventions (Attridge et al., 2010). Workers may also be referred to other services (e.g. for substance abuse) or for longer-term psychotherapy. EAP services are provided by many different professionals including social workers, psychologists and counsellors, and occupational nurses or medical officers (Attridge et al., 2010).

There are a number of EAP models, with the two most commonly used being 1) the in-house model, and 2) the off-site model (James et al., 2012). In the in-house model, ’the programme is staffed by personnel who are employees of the organisation they serve’ (James et al., 2012, p. 1555). Sometimes these are administered by a staff union. In the off-site model, contractual arrangements are made between the organisation or staff union and a self-employed EAP practitioner or an agency offering EAP services. One of the greatest challenges for EAP practitioners is to ensure the confidentiality of their clients (Attridge et al., 2010); this may be especially the case with an in-house EAP model.

EAP practitioners are themselves not immune from the risks of the burnout that commonly affects ’people workers’ (see later in this chapter). Jacobson (2006) notes that staff offering assistance to employees in crisis or traumatic stress situations are themselves at risk for mental health issues, including ’compassion fatigue’. Jacobson (2006, p. 133) obtained questionnaire responses from 325 members of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association in the US and found that ’EA professionals who provide clinical services and/or crisis intervention services in the workplace are at low risk for burnout, moderate risk for compassion fatigue, and have high potential for compassion satisfaction’.

The emergence of alternatives to scientific management

In the late 1920s, a shift in emphasis within the field of industrial psychology began to occur. There was a switch from testing in a laboratory setting to the more naturalistic approach of testing and studying workers in their actual workplaces. One of the first studies conducted in an industrial or factory setting was a joint venture between Western Electric and researchers from Harvard University. This series of studies, named the Hawthorne studies, were conducted between 1924 and 1932 and led to some of the first discoveries regarding the importance of human behaviour in organisations.

The experiments began at a factory in Hawthorne, Illinois, called the Western Electric Factory. The main studies were conducted by Roethlisberger and Dickinson (Muchinsky, 2006). The aim of the original study was to demonstrate a relationship between lighting and efficiency. Different types and levels of lighting were installed with the expectation that increased illumination would lead to an increase in workers’ efficiency.

On the contrary, however, the results indicated that there was no relationship at all between productivity and the level of illumination. The workers’ levels of productivity increased or remained at a satisfactory level whether the illumination was decreased, increased or held constant. The researcher who conducted follow-up interviews at the conclusion of the study found that the increases in productivity were not due to the lighting, but due to workers feeling more valued after being singled out by researchers for special attention. (This positive effect of participating in a research project is now known as the Hawthorne effect.)


Figure 27.4 Researchers started conducting studies in more natural settings, like factories

In the decades following these studies, a number of theorists have criticised them, both on methodological grounds and in terms of the conclusions drawn (Kompier, 2006; Levitt & List, 2009). However, these surprising results, which suggested that individual and social processes in the workplace are too important to ignore, led to a new era in organizational psychology with the emergence of the human relations school (Kompier, 2006). This approach emphasises harmony between workers and management, as well as worker morale.

In reaction to the reductionist scientific management approach to organising people in business, the human relations approach proposed a more humane approach to people, work and organisations. This approach was based on the principle that employee satisfaction is a major determinant of performance. Building on its ideas, Douglas McGregor and Abraham Maslow pioneered the humanist approach to the management of people at work.

McGregor (1960) published The human side of the enterprise in which he developed the concepts of Theory X and Theory Y. Theory X takes a negative and pessimistic view of human nature and employee behaviour, consistent with the tenets of Taylor’s scientific management. Theory Y advocates a more positive approach consistent with the human relations movement. Douglas argued that this approach would actually be more effective in achieving organisational goals. The ideas and theories of these people, alongside the actions of resistance by ordinary workers, contributed to more humane treatment of people in the workplace.

The human relations movement, along with the emerging humanist ideas, thus became an important strategy in the quest for efficiency. This approach emphasised:

•participation of employees and industrial democracy

•the belief that participation would motivate workers through increased morale, and a decreased resistance to corporate authority

•fostering a greater sense of involvement and belonging for workers

•providing workers with opportunities to grow and develop, in keeping with Maslow’s ideas about higher-order needs such as self-actualisation.

Many critics (e.g. Rose, 1990 and Beder, 2000) argue that the social scientists responsible for the spread of these ideas did not necessarily replace scientific management, but rather improved it. They regard the human relations and humanist approaches as a grand deception of workers that did not significantly improve their welfare, but instead found more deceptive ways of manipulating them. In this regard, Rose (1990, p. 55) states that ’no amount of re-jigging of the details of work, the organisation of the enterprise, the conditions of the labour process could transform the basic alienation that lies at the heart of work’.

The effect of World War II

The advent of World War II found industrial psychologists, particularly in the US, already well recognised and therefore this time afforded them an even greater professional role in relation to the efforts of people management in war. They had studied the problems of employee selection and placement, and had refined their techniques.

Walter Bingham chaired the advisory committee on classification of military personnel in the US. One of the earliest tests the psychologists had to develop involved sorting new recruits into five categories. This test was called the Army General Classification Test (AGCT), a benchmark in the history of group testing (Muchinsky, 2006)

Rose (1990) argues that the events of World War II provided conditions for the emergence of theories, rationales and technologies aimed at greater control over individuals. Rose suggests that the demands that war placed on industry created the impetus for the development of techniques to regulate the behaviour of workers.


•In the late 1920s, there was a shift in emphasis within industrial psychology. Testing moved from the laboratory setting to more naturalistic settings.

•The Hawthorne studies showed that productivity could be increased simply by paying more attention to workers (the ’Hawthorne effect’). Thus, individual and social processes in the workplace needed to be considered.

•In place of scientific management, the human relations approach proposed a more humane approach to people, work and organisations. This was the basis for the humanist approach to the management of people at work.

•McGregor (1960) developed the concepts of Theory X and Theory Y:

”Theory X is pessimistic about human nature and employee behaviour.

”Theory Y is a more positive approach consistent with the human relations movement. This approach is thought to be more effective.

•The human relations movement emphasised employee participation and growth opportunities. However, some critics argued that this approach still deceived workers, who continued to experience the basic alienation that lay at the heart of work.

•World War II enabled industrial psychologists, particularly in the US, to expand their professional role in relation to the efforts of people management in war.

•The Army General Classification Test (AGCT) was developed to sort recruits.

•Rose (1990) suggests that the demands that war placed on industry created the impetus for the development of techniques to regulate the behaviour of workers.

Contemporary organisational psychology

According to Muchinsky (2006), the contemporary focus of industrial psychology remains simple — to increase the fit between the workforce and the workplace. However, in recent times this apparently simple task has become increasingly difficult as the composition of both the workforce and the workplace has been changing rapidly since the 1970s.

The changing nature of the workforce

The nature of the workforce is changing both in terms of the kind of people who are participating in the industrialised economy and in terms of the kinds of skills and educational background they bring to the world of work. There are greater numbers of people seeking employment, and they have much more advanced levels of education. There is also greater diversity in people seeking employment as more women enter the workforce and affirmative action policies have an effect on the composition of management structures, in particular. Similarly, on a global level, people from different nations are competing (and cooperating) in both real and virtual global workplaces.

The changing nature of work

The nature of work is changing as well. Environmental pressures such as globalisation and increased competition and change have forced organisations to reassess traditional practices such as mass production and centralised or bureaucratic decision making. The global economy is also moving from a manufacturing-based economy toward a service-based economy. The resultant knowledge-based society relies more on people who provide knowledge services as opposed to technical skills. The volatile nature of the environment means that organisations have to become more flexible to adapt to changes in the environment. This means workers have to be more flexible as well, hence the changing nature of work.

The evolving roles of organisational psychologists

These realities are placing a greater emphasis on the role that psychologists play in the organisational context and in this regard they face the highly complex task of balancing the organisational requirements of economic efficiency with the increasing demands for personal satisfaction in work. Consequently, organisational psychologists have to acknowledge that people’s work lives and personal lives are intimately connected, and this requires a more holistic approach.

As a result, organisational psychologists now study and acknowledge the importance of things such as leisure, emotional support, job stress, and the impact of job stress on home life and coping skills. There is also an increasing emphasis on developing knowledge about the nature of work organisations and how they function within the wider social and economic context that extends beyond the earlier narrow concerns with industrial efficiency. The field is now increasingly identified as organisational psychology rather than industrial psychology, reflecting a more holistic and systemic approach to both people and organisations although Nelson (2014, in Barkhuizen, Jorgensen & Brink, p. 2104) argues that psychologists specialising in ’the psychology of work and human behaviour in organisations are referred to as I-O psychologists’.

As we have established, organisational psychology is not a single psychological perspective but is, instead, defined by a range of content interests and the use of various methods focused on a common context: people at work (Muchinsky, 2006). This means that the contemporary practice of the discipline is extremely wide and deals with multiple subjects, such as psychological assessment, occupational health, counselling, ergonomics, organisational change and organisational transformation.

Psychological assessment

Psychological assessment is one of the oldest and most traditional focus areas of organisational psychology. Extending and applying the psychometric approach in the work context, it focuses on individual differences in behaviour and job performance, and develops methods of measuring and predicting such performance. Psychologists employ psychometrics and other psychological assessment tools to carry out effectively these essential organisational activities of selecting people for jobs, assessing their potential, developing people’s skills, and so on.


Figure 27.5 Organisational psychologists are trained to design and implement programmes such as team-building exercises

Psychological assessments are widely used in organisations. Psychologists are trained and equipped with an understanding of the statistical and technical properties of psychological tests and knowledge about the behavioural domains that the tests assess.

Over time, organisational psychologists in South Africa have shifted their focus from a traditional approach to testing to competency-based assessments and the assessment of potential in response to scientific requirements, international best practices and legal requirements (in particular employment equity legislation) (Foxcroft & Roodt, 2005). With respect to the latter, the Employment Equity Act (1998) states that ’psychological testing of an employee is prohibited unless the test or assessment being used is valid and reliable; applied fairly; and is not biased against any employee or group’.

Traditional psychometric techniques of measurement are a highly disputed and controversial field (Anastasi, 1997; Foxcroft & Roodt, 2005) and certainly contravene these provisions. Tests have been shown to slot people into categories and have attached labels to people, for example ’retarded’ or ’risk-taker’. The total person is therefore classified in a particular way and responded to accordingly. Decisions about suitability for jobs, promotions, and training and development have been made in accordance with these labels and categories. In so doing, the traditional approaches have ignored various environmental and situational variables that have a significant and adverse effect on test performance (e.g. quality of schooling, socio-economic class and different work habits).

In recent years, researchers and organisational psychologists have denounced these approaches in the South African context, rather endorsing the use of techniques and instruments to assess competencies and to evaluate learning potential (Saunders, 2000; Taylor, 1992). Responding to people’s potential entails providing them with a learning opportunity through a developmental programme. In other words, these tools assess people in terms of their potential and competencies and provide an analysis of their strengths and development areas so that interventions can be designed accordingly. Given the past disadvantages faced by the majority of people in this country, Saunders (2000) suggests that in the South African workplace the focus of psychological assessment should be a person’s potential to be modified by learning. Foxcroft and Roodt (2005) also note that assessment results are only one source of information and that they need to be integrated with information from other sources to be fully meaningful.


Barkhuizen et al. (2014) note that organisational psychology is essentially general psychology applied in the workplace. As such, it is essential that organisational psychologists are well trained in counselling methodology. To assist in incorporating this in the training curriculum, Barkhuizen et al. (2014) argue that counselling should be included in the scope of practice for organisational psychologists. Only in this way can organisational psychologists contribute effectively to what is at the core of their profession: the well-being of employees in the workplace. McLeod (2010) notes many organisations are now offering counselling services to their employees. McLeod (2010) reviewed the effectiveness of these interventions and found that overall, ’counselling is generally effective in alleviating psychological problems, has a significant impact on sickness absence, and has a moderate effect on attitudes to work’.

Workers bring a wide variety of past and current experiences into the workplace; thus, counselling interventions/programmes in the workplace focus on a wide range of issues. These include career choices, traumatic experiences, adjustment problems, HIV/AIDS, stress and work—family conflict. Several of these application areas are discussed to illustrate the role that organisational psychologists may assume at the level of intervention.


South Africa has an extremely high incidence of HIV/AIDS capitals of the African continent and recent figures show that one in four adults between 25 and 49 years are living with AIDS (Shisana, Rehle, Simbayi et al., 2014). The direct and indirect costs to organisations have been widely documented. These include the strain on employee benefit packages, recruitment of new employees, loss of productivity, poor morale, loss of skills, and high levels of absenteeism (ILO in UNAIDS/WHO, 2002).

Despite these costs, organisations in South Africa have under-invested in employee assistance programmes (EAPs). In relation to HIV/AIDS, these programmes include voluntary testing, counselling, treatment and support to workers. As a health care practitioner, the organisational psychologist is equipped to help organisations manage the HIV/AIDS pandemic through designing and implementing EAPs, and through offering counselling services. (See Chapter 23 for a broader discussion of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.)


The 21st-century organisation is characterised by responsibility, autonomy, risk and uncertainty. This scenario has implications for career choice and career management. The challenge for individuals is to remain flexible and also to be engaged in continuous learning and skills development.

Vocational counselling in this context is mainly concerned with the issues that affect individuals in their initial choice and subsequent development of their careers, as well as the changes in organisations that affect individual careers (e.g. technological developments, market forces and management styles). In recent years, psychologists writing in the field of career psychology in South Africa have critiqued traditional approaches to career development for both its emphasis on individualism, and for assuming that career choice is a given. This traditional perspective does not view the individual in dynamic interaction with the sociopolitical, economic and cultural context and the constraints inherent in this context.

Alternative ways of approaching the field have been proposed, for example using a hermeneutic-dialogical approach to career development (Mkhize & Frizelle, 2000; Watson & Stead, 2002). This approach emphasises the exploration of lived experience. It involves exploring the various contextual factors that constrain and inform career choices and development. For example, in the South African context, many school-leavers complete matric but have limited skills and opportunities.

The organisational psychologist is trained to provide career assessments, career counselling and career education. In practice, the call for a more meaningful approach to the field needs to be heeded so that people are treated justly in their work contexts (Watson & Stead, 2002). Stead and Watson (2006) caution against the wholesale application of Euro-American perspectives and they argue for indigenisation of career psychology in South Africa, including an effort to identify psychological universals. They also note that people from one culture may hold multiple perspectives, including diverse attitudes, beliefs and behaviours.

Stress and burnout

Not all stress is detrimental or harmful to the individual. However, psychological stress is an individual’s response to a stressor that they find taxing because the available resources to cope with a situation have been exceeded. This is thought to have a detrimental effect on a person’s psychological, social and physical well-being, and consequently results in direct and indirect costs for organisations.

Organisational psychologists are trained to design and implement stress management programmes, to provide individual counselling where necessary, and to identify individual, group and organisational factors that impact on an employee’s psychological well-being.


•The aim of contemporary industrial psychology remains to increase the fit between the workforce and the workplace. However, both the workforce and the workplace have changed significantly in recent decades.

•The workforce is more diverse; the workplace is more global, and service and knowledge based. These changes require more flexibility from workers and organisations.

•These changes have also shifted and expanded the roles of organisational psychologists. The connection between people’s work lives and personal lives is increasingly recognised with the discipline taking a more holistic and systemic approach to both people and organisations.

•One significant role is conducting psychological assessments for predicting performance, selection and skills development. In South Africa, the focus has shifted to competency-based assessments.

•South African legislation requires tests to be reliable and valid, fairly applied and unbiased. There is increasing awareness of some of the problems with testing (e.g. labelling; ignoring contextual variables).

•Organisational psychologist are also involved in counselling on a wide range of issues (e.g. HIV/AIDS; career choice; stress/burnout management) and performance counselling.

Burnout is a special form of stress that applies particularly to workers who work with other people; this includes teachers, police personnel, nurses — and psychologists. Schaufeli, Leiter and Maslach (2009, p. 205) note that the term is a metaphor which ’describes the exhaustion of employee’s capacity to maintain an intense involvement that has a meaningful impact at work’. In the 21st century, workers continue to be vulnerable to burnout and there are two main contributors to this (Schaufeli et al., 2009):

•a persistent imbalance between work demands and a person’s resources

•differing values and motivation which can lead to conflict (workers are increasingly sceptical about organisational missions and visions).

In both of these instances, organisational psychologists can be helpful. In the first, there could be research into why this imbalance persists, followed by an intervention with management. In the second, the organisational psychologist could counsel the worker to clarify their motivation and values. Other interventions may include preventative workshops and wider organisational consultancy (Schaufeli et al., 2009).

Performance counselling

In performance counselling, workers are given feedback on how they are performing at work as well as information and advice about how to improve their performance within the organisation. Performance counselling may be part of a regular performance management system, may follow probation or may be used to assess staff training needs. Performance counselling is an important part of employee assistance programmes (EAPs) (Attridge et al., 2010).

Organisational transformation and corporate culture

Organisational dynamics are fundamentally about the impact of group membership on individual behaviour and, conversely, how individuals contribute to the functioning of groups. Most people work within some organisational context and even people who work on their own have to interact with others at some point. Although groups may seem to be simply a collection of individuals, an appraisal of the dynamics or processes that occur within groups, and between people as members of a group, reveals that groups are often more than the sum of their parts. Understanding these dynamics is crucial to achieving both productivity as well as personal job satisfaction.

The dynamics within a particular group will be influenced by the organisational culture or the ways in which things are done within a particular organisation. Culture has been defined in many ways in the literature. It is viewed as a set of shared core beliefs, basic assumptions, in terms of ideologies, or as a set of beliefs (Bagraim, 2001). Organisational psychologists have applied these definitions and thus conceptualise organisational culture as involving the shared beliefs and values which may be created by the managers of an organisation and communicated to the employees (Landy & Conte, 2010). Therefore, employees are socialised into how to behave in relation to communication, teamwork, loyalty, commitment, and so on. This is discussed and decided on by top management.

As people become part of an organisation and part of working groups within it, they are expected to share this framework and be guided by it in the way they work. People have to learn these ways in order to survive and succeed in the organisation. The relationship between organisational culture and individual people is dialectical as people create the culture of the organisation, developing shared ways of problem solving and working together, and these shared ways of doing things affect and constrain the behaviour of people within the organisation. The development of shared norms, values, attitudes, belief systems and accepted patterns of behaviour are communicated to other people who internalise them. Thus, the organisational culture is created by people, and it in turn creates people in its own image. Individuals who have differing views often repress their differences for the ’common good’. This is most often a pragmatic choice for the purpose of preserving jobs as well as securing rewards and promotions.

One of the interests of organisational psychologists is to assess how individuals become part of such an organisational culture through playing out particular roles (e.g. worker or manager) according to the expected and accepted behaviours associated with these roles. They are also interested in how these roles are interpreted by individuals and incorporated into their identity. (The vital contribution of work to our sense of identity is evident from how frequently people define themselves and others in terms of what they do. One’s profession or work is very often second only to one’s name in introductions.)

Because of this focus on the cultural and social dimensions of our working lives, in some sense organisational psychologists are social psychologists who specifically restrict their interest to the social context of work. For example, while social psychologists may be interested in group dynamics in a variety of contexts, organisational psychologists would be interested in these group dynamics only in so far as they affect individuals at work, and would be particularly interested in the kinds of groups that operate in the workplace.

A range of different methods or tools may be employed in order to investigate group dynamics, for example attitude surveys or an analysis of structural dynamics by observing groups at work. Another important area that is common to both social and organisational psychology is understanding the process of attitude acquisition and retention, because attitudes are thought to be one of the major antecedents of human behaviour in organisations and in life in general. According to Robbins (2001), attitudes are evaluative statements towards objects, people or events. They reflect how we feel about things and influence our cognition, emotion and ultimately our behaviour.

An attitude survey allows organisational psychologists to discover how organisational and group pressures impact on human attitudes and behaviour and, conversely, how people’s attitudes may affect the organisation’s effectiveness. A culture climate survey is a particular tool that provides information about employees’ feelings regarding, for example, the organisation’s approach to management, decision making or authority. Surveys may also be used to ascertain people’s attitudes towards various issues such as sexual harassment or affirmative action. The aim is to use the data obtained to change attitudes and behaviour in order to make organisations more effective, especially with respect to communication structures and individual commitment to the organisation.

The interventions of organisational psychologists are often sought when organisations are undergoing transformation or a restructuring process. Organisational transformation is the most commonly used concept of change of our time, but, according to Doyle (2002), most change theories and practices are ’aligned behind a set of unchallenged assumptions about the nature of organisational change’ and therefore tend to be superficial (cited in Van Tonder, 2004, p. 53).

Various planned change models have been implemented in the South African context and their failure rate varies from 65 per cent to 75 per cent (Van Tonder, 2004). These models assert that all employees experience and react to change in a similar manner and therefore decontextualise individual experience and organisational dynamics.

Fortunately, Van Tonder (2004) notes that there is a shift away from these traditional models to considering organisational transformation in a given context as being ’multi-dimensional, multi-level, qualitative, discontinuous, radical organisational change involving a paradigmatic shift’ (Levy & Merry, in Van Tonder, 2004, p. 55). This paradigmatic shift involves a fundamental change in the organisation’s worldview and therefore requires a cognitive change. For example, it encourages and harnesses variations in individual perceptions, diversity of ideas, and views and different responses to change.

Coping with change is a continuous challenge that people and organisations face. This is especially the case when organisations want to eliminate attitudes and behaviours that have been learned in the organisation, but which are unproductive, or even counterproductive. Organisational psychology aims to facilitate employee adjustment to change and to achieve organisational efficiency. A contemporary example of these kinds of interventions is the move towards creating learning organisations (Landy & Conte, 2010).


According to Bagraim (2001), corporate culture interventions, in the main, serve to advance the interests of management. Values, norms, beliefs and ideals are imposed onto employees so that agreement is reached on issues that concern management. Therefore, corporate culture initiatives strengthen the influence and control of management. A single culture is endorsed in these initiatives and thereby the existence of other subcultures is ignored. Instead, change initiatives tend to impose unitary norms, values, beliefs and ideals so that organisations appear to be harmonious social entities (Bagraim, 2001). So, the organisation is assumed to be uniform in terms of people’s ideas, perceptions and views — spaces where diversity in all its forms does not really find expression. Bagraim (2001) rightly calls for research to challenge the assumptions of corporate culture initiatives.

Traditional, bureaucratic organisations disempowered people by concentrating all authority and decision-making powers at the top of the organisation. People lower down were thus marginalised by being excluded from problem-solving, planning or other intellectual activities. Such marginalised elements of the workforce have thus learned attitudes and behaviours that fit in with this approach. Because workers are the ones who must actually get the job done, they may well be aware of more effective ways of doing things, but are often expected simply (and passively) to carry out instructions from the top.

One of the aims of the learning organisation is to empower previously marginalised employees by involving them in all aspects of the organisation. This obviously requires people to learn new attitudes and behaviours about responsibility and cooperation. Not only do workers have to learn attitudes associated with their new roles, but managers also have to learn new attitudes and behaviours for this approach to work. Thus, the aim of creating a learning organisation is getting everyone to engage in identifying and solving problems, enabling the organisation to continuously experiment, improve and increase its capability (Landy & Conte, 2010).

Organisational psychologists are therefore centrally involved in the development of organisations, facilitating improvement or restructuring in response to environmental changes. This restructuring may involve not only changes in people’s attitudes and behaviour, but also structural changes in all aspects of the organisation: human resources, work procedures, and/or technological change.

Occupational health and ergonomics

Ergonomics was originally concerned mainly with the design of work and workstations to suit the physiological characteristics of the employees and had very little to do with psychology. However, this focus has evolved into a much broader area concerned generally with issues of work and health. Ergonomics as an applied science aims at enhancing the well-being, safety and health of the worker. It draws on understandings, principles and information from engineering, physiology and psychology. Therefore, ergonomics is interdisciplinary in nature.

Essentially, the purpose of ergonomics is to adapt work conditions to the physical and psychological nature of people. Thus, the focus of ergonomics is on the design and structure of equipment and the work process so as to maximise efficiency and minimise physical and mental stress on the worker. This includes an understanding of the relationship between machine or tool design, production, and both the physical actions and psychology of people.


Figure 27.6 Organisations are increasingly aware of hazards in the workplace that expose the human body to unacceptable levels of risk

Ergonomics operates on the principle that environments are more flexible than people. Therefore the work environment has to be adapted to the limitations and the physiological and psychological qualities of human beings. The broad objectives of ergonomics are as follows:


Source: Cancer Valley pays a high price for South Africa’s oil needs (Mail & Guardian, June 6, 2014)

Communities in the South Durban area are experiencing high rates of respiratory illnesses which they attribute to the petrochemical refineries in the area. Some 100 000 people live in this area where ’gases from industry are funnelled between two ridges that run from north to south’ (Kings, 2014). In addition to respiratory disease (about 50 per cent of the children in the area suffer from asthma), the area is known as ’cancer valley’ and ’research by the University of KwaZulu-Natal shows that leukaemia is 24 times higher here than anywhere else in the country’ (Kings, 2014). In the early days of apartheid, this area was rezoned from farmland to mixed industrial use, as well as for black residential use. The two largest refineries have been in the area for 60 and 50 years, respectively. In 2014, some 70 per cent of Durban’s factories were situated in this area. Some of these are also responsible for emissions of toxic chemicals like sulphur dioxide and benzene. However, ’the refineries have said the high level of illness in the area is a coincidence and none has been convicted of causing illness there’ (Kings, 2014).

•to fit the demands of work to the efficiency of people and to reduce physical and psychological stressors

•to design machines, equipment and installations so that they can be operated with maximum efficiency, accuracy and safety

•to work out proportions and conditions of the workplace to ensure correct body posture

•to adapt lighting, air conditioning, noise levels and so on to suit people’s physical requirements.

Stakeholders in organisations are becoming increasingly aware of the need to prevent accidents and illness at work, not only for employee safety, but also to preclude the possibility of employee lawsuits in instances where employees are injured, or become ill because of work. Organisations are increasingly aware of the hazards that expose the human body to unacceptable physical risks. These risks include muscle fatigue, back problems, occupational asthma and hearing difficulties. Equally important, however, are the environmental hazards that organisations are less aware of and these include the effects of noise, temperature, illumination and toxic substances.

The impact of toxic substances on employee health and well-being is well documented in South Africa (McCulloch, 2002; Kelly, 1990). Asbestos-related illnesses, mercury poisoning and byosinosis are a few occupational diseases that have achieved widespread coverage in the media. In understanding these diseases holistically, it is clear that sociopolitical and economic factors have intersected with biological processes to produce these diseases. For example, Oosthuizen, John and Somerset (2010) found that people exposed to mercury in the course of small-scale informal mining operations were at risk for mercury poisoning. It is no accident that it was primarily black African workers who were exposed to mercury poisoning. It is also not an accident that a large percentage of Indian, African, and coloured children who live near the refineries and paper mill in the Durban South Basin have asthma (Rajen Naidoo, personal communication, 2005) (see Box 27.5). Apartheid town planning has meant that many black communities are located in townships that are close to industry.

Labour relations

The subject of labour relations concerns the relationship between employers and employees. Employers and employees often have divergent views, values, goals and needs and this means that their relationship is very seldom without conflict. The interest in increased efficiency, productivity and profits that is pre-eminent for employers may well not accord with the interests of workers for fair pay, safe working conditions and job satisfaction.

Despite the increasing recognition that the interests of the organisation may be best served by creating conditions for a happy and satisfied workforce, the relationship between management and workers is complex. Various South African writers have emphasised that the field of labour relations requires a multidisciplinary approach for understanding this complex relationship (Finnemore, 2002). This has largely resulted in the adoption of the systems perspective to the study of labour relations (Finnemore, 2002).


American economist Susan Anderson wrote an article condemning labour laws as unwanted government interference in the economy, an interference that she claims harms those it is designed to help. Below is an extract from the article as it appeared in the Sunday Tribune on 2 October 2005:

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) report on South Africa has again included criticism of the country’s strict labour legislation, claiming that these laws exacerbate unemployment and impede overall economic growth … Strong economies are built on the free choices of individuals. Each person makes decisions based on what they like and dislike, what is most important to them, what they hope to accomplish in the future, and how they prefer to spend their time. Based on these preferences, each person is best able to determine for him- or herself where to work and for how long, what to buy and how much, whether to save, borrow money, invest in education or training, stay in one place, or move to another. The aggregation of all these different individual choices is what makes up the economy — it explains why resources of time and money are allocated the way they are.

Based on these individual choices, business owners and managers decide things like: whether they will make cheaper or higher quality goods, specialise in one thing or many things, pay employees to create their products and run the business, or buy capital — that is, machines, computers, and such things to do the job.

The freedom of individuals to choose becomes constrained when governments try to arrive at a different outcome. This could be because politicians agree that people cannot decide what is best for themselves and therefore force people through laws to ’choose’ what the politicians think is best for them. Or, alternatively, because certain groups with political power do not like the aggregate outcome of the choices people are making, and exert pressure on legislators to enact laws that limit the choices of businesses and individuals to something that will provide more benefit to themselves.

In the case of labour laws, minimum wages, government mandated benefits, and restrictions on working hours all take away the freedom of individuals to make employment decisions for themselves. When government steps in and doesn’t allow the wage to go below a certain price, companies are unlikely to continue to employ as many workers at a higher wage.

Some workers will be better off because the government mandate will provide them with higher wages. But many more individuals will be worse off because they will be denied the choice to work at all. Even if they would have been prepared to work to accept a wage that is lower than the imposed minimum wage, they are prohibited from doing so. Someone else has decided for them that they are better off unemployed, or working in the informal sector, than they are taking a lower than minimum wage. The problem is that the aggregation of individual choices, when they are constrained by laws, is no longer based on what each individual wants — it is a distortion. When businesses decide between labour and capital in order to make their products, they base the decision on the cost of each. When the companies start capitalising, that is, replacing labour with capital, it is usually an indication that labour has become very expensive … When labour becomes too expensive, capitalisation is a good thing — it reduces costs and frees up labour to be more productive elsewhere. But if hiring employees has become very expensive because of laws that raise the price of labour, the consequence is to make people artificially unemployed … People must be given the choice to decide for themselves what wages and conditions of work are acceptable to them if the large numbers of currently unemployed South Africans are to get jobs.

Labour relations is an intensely legislated area, especially in South Africa. Bendix (2010, p. 24) sees the employment relationship as three-cornered, with the ’corners being occupied by employers, the employees and the State’. Organisational psychologists who work in this field need to be familiar with legislation such as the Labour Relations Act 66 of 1995, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, the Skills Development Act, the Skills Development Levies Act and the Employment Equity Act. They also have to be familiar with the institutions that act as watchdogs to ensure that employee rights are not being abused. These include the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), the Labour Court and the Department of Labour.

Present-day labour relations in South Africa has developed out of a context of social engineering in the form of apartheid policy and legislation (Venter et al., 2011). Matters began to shift after the Soweto riots in 1976 with the appointment of the Wiehahn Commission in 1979. This Commission recommended ’radical changes to the government’s labour policies’ (Venter et al., 2011, p. 55). Black workers only gained the vote after democratisation in 1994 and this was followed by the series of Acts referred to above. However, strikes and protests continue to disrupt the South African economy.


As predicted by Crafford et al. (2006), South Africa has seen some major labour relations conflicts but none has been as extreme, destructive and far-reaching as the long-lasting strike at Lonmin platinum mine which resulted in the deaths of 34 people. According to Alexander (2013), the miners went on strike on 10 August 2012, demanding R12 000 per month in wages. This was up to three times their net salaries. The strike was ’unprotected’; this meant that the workers had not followed the procedures of the Labour Relations Act for industrial action and thus they could be dismissed. Nevertheless, most of the 28 000 workers were on strike by the following day (Alexander, 2013). Apart from issues over pay, the workers raised other grievances, including the danger of the work, hazards to physical and mental health from the work environment, and disrespectful management (Alexander, 2013).

Some of the longer-term precipitants of the miners’ grievances included:

•poor and divisive treatment of workers by the mining industry

•the government’s failure to implement the Mining Charter, aimed at sustainable transformation and development

•labour movement ineffectiveness due to internal and inter-union conflict and division

•government and police ineffectiveness in addressing national labour unrest (Twala, 2012).

In the days following the initial strike, several workers were killed. The reports are conflicting in terms of which parties were responsible. On the 16th August, police using automatic weapons opened fire on strikers, killing 34 and injuring at least 78 others. This was the most lethal police action against South African civilians since Sharpeville in 1960.

The events at Marikana have ’had a significant impact on the labour relations landscape in South Africa’ (Twala, 2012, p. 66). For example, Alexander (2013) suggests there has been a shift in the attitudes of workers, in terms of labour demands and frequency of strikes. In addition, the new labour union which emerged in this period was opposed to political alignment and this contributed to divisions within COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions), which is aligned with the ANC government (Alexander, 2013). Marikana also had political consequences in that it spurred the rise of a new political party aimed at disaffected youth, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) (Alexander, 2013).

Organisational psychologists who specialise in labour relations are interested in issues such as cooperation and conflict between parties, resolution of disputes in the workplace, and bargaining and negotiation of agreements between various interest groups in the organisation. They concern themselves with such matters as employee rights, collective bargaining, and conflict management and dispute settlement (Muchinsky, 2006).

An understanding of conflict is a cardinal issue in the study of labour relations and, given the political history in South Africa, it is highly likely that there will be major labour relations conflicts (Crafford et al., 2006). To date, however, theoretical approaches to conflict arising in labour management relations seldom adopt a meaningful psychological analysis that is embedded in a sociopolitical and economic context. The various social psychology theories of conflict from intergroup research are primarily individualistic in nature. They include: social identity theory (Tajfel, 1981; Hutnik, 1991); realistic group conflict theory (Sherif et al., 1988); and cognitive psychological approaches (Gillespie, 1992; Harre & Gillet, 1994). However, these theories on their own cannot explain conflict, since ’when cultural differences coincide with economic and political differences between groups, this can cause deep resentment that may lead to violent struggles’ (Stewart & Brown, 2007, p. 222).


•Organisational dynamics involve the impacts the organisation has on workers and vice versa. This is a dialectical relationship.

•Organisational culture refers to the ways things are done within a particular organisation. Employees are socialised into how to behave in relation to communication, teamwork, loyalty, commitment, etc.

•Organisational psychologists are interested in how individuals become part of such an organisational culture and how the related roles become incorporated into individuals’ identity. To study this, psychologists use attitude surveys or culture climate surveys.

•Transformations in organisations may also require interventions by organisational psychologists. Coping with change is a continuous challenge that people and organisations face.

•Traditional, bureaucratic organisations tend to be hierarchical and disempowering for workers. Learning organisations aim to engage all workers in identifying and solving problems, thereby empowering previously marginalised employees.

•Organisational psychologists are also involved in organisational health and ergonomics. The latter refers to adapting work conditions for the physical and psychological well-being, safety and health of the worker. This is important not only for worker safety but also to prevent litigation.

•Labour relations concerns the relationship between employers and employees. This is often a conflicted relationship as the views, values, goals and needs of the parties concerned frequently differ.

•In South Africa, there is extensive labour relations legislation which organisational psychologists who work in this field must know and understand.

•South Africa’s history has had specific influences on past and present-day labour relations. These are currently characterised by major conflicts. Traditional individualistic, social psychological theories are not very helpful in understanding these conflicts — more attention needs to be paid to contextual factors like inequality between groups.


The nature of work has undergone a number of significant changes throughout history. The industrialisation of work that gave birth to the discipline of industrial or organisational psychology does not represent an end to these changes. Modes of production continue to undergo substantial shifts with the development of new technologies and this, in turn, creates considerable changes in people’s work and the relations that pertain between people in the workplace. Thus, the solutions that organisational psychology produces for problems in one context become obsolete when the contextual parameters change; new developments create new problems requiring new solutions.

Assumptions about the nature of human beings and their roles in the workplace have also changed. In addition to people being accorded wider protections from exploitation and unfair treatment (in some countries), more and more organisations are attempting to empower people, to engage and use not only their physical capacity for labour, but also their intellectual capacities. Thus, people lower down in the organisation are being invited and encouraged to participate in decision making and strategic planning. Also, organisations are moving away from individualised work towards more team-based operations. Organisational psychology, therefore, evolves along with the technology and practice of industry and society, as new solutions are required for novel problems and dynamic contexts.

However, critics of the discipline (notably Beder, 2000 and Rose, 1990) caution against this optimism. They suggest that most organisational renewal initiatives, for example attempts at teamwork and endeavours to empower workers, are nothing short of manipulations designed to deceive workers, and in so doing maintain the structural inequalities that characterise capitalist societies.

If organisational psychology wants to make a concerted effort to vindicate its value to society and prove these critics wrong, it needs to transcend its traditional, reductionist approach and show that it is not historically and socially dislocated.


Imagealienation: a concept proposed by Karl Marx that suggests that workers in a capitalist society become impoverished and dehumanised

ImageArmy Alpha: a test developed by Robert Yerkes and other psychologists that tested general intelligence and literacy among soldiers during World War I

ImageArmy General Classification Test (AGCT): a test developed by psychologists during World War II that involved sorting new army recruits into five categories

Imageattitude survey: a survey that allows organisational psychologists to discover how organisational and group pressures impact on human attitudes and behaviour and, conversely, how people’s attitudes may affect the organisation’s effectiveness

Imagebourgeoisie: the capitalist class

Imagecapital: machines, goods, land, money and services that can be used to produce commodities

Imagecapitalists: people who own the means of production

Imagecorporations: groups of people who pooled their resources for joint ownership of large industrial units

Imageculture climate survey: a particular tool used by psychologists that provides information about employees’ feelings regarding, for example, the organisation’s approach to management, decision making or authority

ImageDark Ages: the medieval period in European history, now often perceived as lacking in culture and technological progress

Imageemployee assistance programmes (EAPs): arrangement between an organisation and its workers whereby the organisation provides a variety of support programmes which may also help employees with problems originating outside of the workplace where these impact on work performance

Imageergonomics: an applied science that aims at enhancing the well-being, safety and health of the worker

Imageforces of production: all the things that are necessary for production to occur

ImageHawthorne studies: a series of studies conducted between 1924 and 1932 that led to some of the first discoveries regarding the importance of human behaviour in organisations

Imagehermeneutic-dialogical approach: an approach to career development that emphasises various contextual factors that constrain and inform career choices and development

Imagelaissez-faire: an economic theory that suggests that the economy and the market operates most efficiently when there is no interference by government or anyone else

Imagemass production: a mode of production where employers sought to specialise and organise large numbers of workers for a common task

Imagemodes of production: different forms of work by which people maintain and reproduce themselves

Imageoptimally organised work: a mode of work that is based on an analysis of a particular task for the purposes of finding the single most efficient way to do it

Imageorganisational culture: the ways in which things are done within a particular organisation

Imageorganisational psychology (industrial psychology): a sub-discipline of psychology that focuses on individuals and groups at work within an organisational context

Imageproletariat: a class of people created by the industrial mode of production who owned nothing but their own labour

Imagerelations of production: the ways in which people relate to each other that are determined by the mode of production or the forces of production

Imagescientific management: a workplace practice that proposes selecting the best people for a job, instructing them in the most efficient methods to employ in their work, and giving incentives in the form of higher wages to the best workers

ImageTheory X: a theory distilled by McGregor (1960) that takes a negative and pessimistic view of human nature and employee behaviour, consistent with the tenets of Taylor’s scientific management

ImageTheory Y: a theory distilled by McGregor (1960) that advocates a more positive and humane approach to people, work and organisations

Imagetime-and-motion studies: close studies of a particular job in order to eliminate any unnecessary movements so as to minimise inefficiency and time wasting

Imageworking class: the class of people who do not own capital


Multiple choice questions

1.World War I (1914—1918) was significant in the history of industrial psychology because:

a)tests were developed to screen recruits

b)methods of placing soldiers in the most suitable jobs were developed

c)psychology was recognised as a profession that could make a contribution to society

d)all of the above are correct.

2.During the Medieval period (1000—1750 AD), the most important development/s was/were:

a)the Black Death of 1349

b)humans beginning to sell their labour in exchange for payment

c)the emergence of towns or centres of commerce

d)b and c.

3.During which era were trade unions first formed?

a)the pre-modern era

b)the industrial era

c)the post-modern era

d)the Medieval era.

4.The first person to make a concerted attempt to move the study of human work behaviour into the realm of experimental methods was:

a)W. L. Bryan

b)Wilhelm Wundt

c)F. W. Taylor

d)Z. C. Bergh.

5.What is the central principle of scientific management?

a)achieving maximum efficiency from manual labour

b)the rational (optimal) or scientific organisation of work

c)high wages creating high productivity

d)high incentives creating high productivity.

6.Which of the following assumptions about human beings is reflected in the classical notion of laissez-faire?

a)Human beings are rational and competitive.

b)Human beings will always work hard.

c)Only fit individuals survive.

d)All of the above are correct.

7.What was the main finding of the Hawthorne studies conducted by researchers from Harvard University?

a)Individual and social processes are not important in the workplace.

b)Incentives increase productivity.

c)Lighting has no influence on productivity.

d)Human beings are reflexive.

8.The Hawthorne studies led to the emergence of:

a)post-industrial society

b)Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

c)McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y

d)the hermeneutic-dialogical approach.

9.According to the Employment Equity Act (1998) an employer is prohibited from testing an employee if the psychological test being used is:

a)applied unfairly

b)valid and reliable

c)not biased

d)all of the above are correct.

10.What is the focus of ergonomics?

a)designing equipment

b)enhancing the safety of workers

c)maximising efficiency

d)all of the above are correct.

Short-answer questions

1.Describe the economic theory of laissez-faire and its assumptions about human nature.

2.What is meant by a post-industrial society?

3.Explain the central ideas of scientific management.

4.What is ergonomics and what are its broad objectives?


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