Psychological Scientists in the Public Sector
Dilbert Notwithstanding ...
Allan H. Church, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, LLP
First and foremost, I should state for the record that I am an organizational psychologist. Contrary to what some might believe, this does not mean I help individuals organize their lives (or their calendars, or whatever). Instead, my formal training and subsequent work experiences have been directed at working with people in organizational settings, e.g., managers, executives, leaders, staff, and of course, employees.
Yes, you read that correctly; I am an external consultant, one of those people that is routinely skewered in the cartoon Dilbert. Currently, I am employed in the Organization and Change Strategy group (which is located in the Management Consulting Services line of business), with the largest professional services firm in the world - PricewaterhouseCoopers, LLP.
Although for many people, management consultants are a dime a dozen (the same might be said for clinicians or ivory tower academics), like any other profession, when you look deeper, you can find very important differences. From my perspective - and I would argue that this is true for industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology in general our strength and unique contribution as psychologists is that we bring a strong empirical and value-based mindset to the design, review and application of various tools and techniques for helping organizations and their people.
For example, most of my work revolves around the use of data-based methods for individual and organizational change. At the individual level, this translates to using multisource feedback and personality assessments in a coaching context to help individuals learn more about their own strengths and areas for improvement (i.e., greater self-awareness). At the group and organizational levels, this translates to diagnostic surveys to help managers and executives understand the significant issues that are impacting the system as a whole.
All of it is based on the simple Lewinian assumption that it takes personalized data in some form - whether from a departmental survey, feedback from clients and co-workers, personality assessments, or direct observation of someone in a group setting - to create energy in people to change. By using applied tools that adhere, as much as possible, both to good psychometric principles and good "common sense" in the context of the existing organizational systems and strategies, you are attempting to mobilize and provide concrete direction regarding where and how individuals need to improve as leaders and managers in their organization.
Now, while the value of solid empiricism in these types of methods cannot be denied and indeed is an important contribution of psychology to the workplace, as an organization development (OD) consultant in the trenches, I feel very strongly that it is our value as humanists that set us apart from so many (and so many more) more traditional management consultants. It is the psychologist in us that asks such questions as: Is this the right way to do something? Is this effort being done for the right reasons? Is this even the right thing to do? Many other types of consultants have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which is probably one of the reasons why consultants are often perceived negatively. Although I enjoy Dilbert as much as anyone, it also saddens me to note that so many people in our society can easily empathize with the often absurd work-related situations depicted in those cartoons. From my perspective, one of the central roles of a psychologist at work is to help make a difference in peoples' lives.
OK, by this time you might be wondering how a psychologist chooses a this type of career? Well, there are many excellent masters and doctoral-level programs in I/O psychology- as well as OD-that can help prepare you for this or similar work. There was an emphasis on application in the psychology program I attended at Teachers College, Columbia University, which has been heavily influenced by several well-known and respected OD practitioners. In my case, this translated to a career consulting with and to organizations. Although programs differ significantly in their emphases on certain issues and applications (e.g., being a consultant versus being an applied researcher versus a career in academia), the best way to find out about them is to contact the Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology (www.siop.org), or the Organization Development Institute, http://members.aol.com/odinst, for more information.