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A Psychology Degree for HR Professionals

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Increased employee productivity isn’t just about better use of technology: it’s also about how we perceive work in our minds and how we communicate about work with others. Today’s blog from a guest author discusses the role of psychology in improving productivity.

The introduction and widespread implementation of human resource management is one of the business world’s most significant milestones. Since this inception, business leaders have gradually shifted their focus from company profits to employee welfare – and used positive psychology to drive productivity.

Prior to the 20th century, the concept of human resources management at the workplace was virtually non-existent. For a long time, work was performed slaves, indentured servants, prisoners of war and other forced laborers. It was not until the early 1800s, when the Industrial Revolution took hold, that men and women began earning wages in factories, plants and other centers of production. Though they chose to work, their rights were irrelevant in the eyes of employers. Instead, productivity and company profits were the chief concerns – and the collective psychological well being of the workers suffered as a result. And while many companies maintained offices that might be likened to today’s HR departments, their sole purpose was to reach out to immigrant workers and help them acclimatize to American life.

consultants discuss immigrant workers

© Flickr user ALAIN.B

In the early 1900s, a mechanical engineer named Frederick Taylor introduced the concept of ‘scientific management’ as an approach to improving industrial efficiency. Taylor, a mechanical engineer, theorized that talent, intelligence, motivation, work ethic and other variable factors among the laborers had a direct impact on the workflow. Scientific management (or ‘Taylorism’) encouraged employers to conduct empirical analyses of their workers to determine who was the best fit for each task, and then delegate accordingly. Taylor’s theory was seen as an innovative psychological approach to improving conditions for low-level production workers; he is today considered a founding father of human resource management.

Many other innovators followed Taylor’s lead throughout the 20th century. Leaders of companies like Ford Motors, B.F. Goodrich and National Cash Register introduced departments within their offices to address employee concerns, such as wage discrepancies, interpersonal grievances and unacceptable work conditions. But the most influential development of this era began in 1927, when officials at Western Electric’s Hawthorne facility in Cicero, Ill., conducted a series of studies to evaluate attitudes among groups of workers. They observed the relationship between productivity and physical surroundings, in regard to factors such as illumination and temperature. They also experimented with group psychology by monitoring workplace clusters of men and women, for years in some cases. The ‘Hawthorne Studies’ concluded that workers were more motivated by the notion of group appeasement and goal achievement than they were by wage incentives. At the time, this was considered a breakthrough of workplace psychology.

consultants discuss Frederick Taylor

© Flickr user cristianmillos_0526

In terms of human resource management, the latter half of the 20th century was considered a period of great productivity. Several initiatives, such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, showed employees that their best interests were of importance to the federal government. During this period, HR departments became commonplace in offices nationwide. These officials were expected to act as intermediaries between management and workers, not only to promote positive psychology in the workplace but also mitigate the threat of company lawsuits, a relatively new advent at the time.

In the late 1990s, two eminent HR experts – Alex Stajkovic and Fred Luthans – examined psychological workplace conditions in terms of four distinct constructs [PDF]: hope, desire coupled with expected fulfillment; confidence, one’s conviction of success given a particular task; resilience, the idea of achieving a goal regardless of negative outside forces; and optimism, a positive outlook reflected by one’s attitude toward good and bad events. Today, many HR experts consider these constructs to be the backbone of ‘psychological capital’, which is an umbrella term for personal characteristics that influence productivity.

Today, human resource management is standard corporate practice – and the link between positive psychology and productive workforce is well established. Measures taken to strengthen the employer-employee relationship have been shown to favorably impact profits and improve corporate standings. But more importantly, they have created a business culture in which the collective wellbeing of employees is considered a company’s most valuable resource.

Alexa Thompson is a professional writer and researcher for a website that discusses formal psychology education, including where to obtain psychology certifications — programs that may benefit professionals who want to increase their knowledge about psychology and implement those learnings in the workplace.

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